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translation sandford’s agrippa epistle

Because the reputation of James Sandford (Sanford, Sanforde) of Somerset is based almost entirely on his diligent translations—especially of Agrippa’s* De vanitate —his biography comes down to us as a list of other writers’ titles. This may be an appropriately Borgesian paradox for an age preoccupied with self-fashioning through imitation and eloquence, but there are also hints in his dedicatory epistles that Sandford had a more eventful life than he hoped for, as I will soon suggest.

Like many of his colleagues, Sandford occasionally translated translations (as did Sir Thomas North in his classic English translation of Amyot’s French translation of Plutarch’s Lives ), but he also directly tackled substantial Latin (and less Greek) as well as Italian and French texts. He was probably tutor to William Herbert, third earl of Pembroke, nephew to Sir Philip Sidney* and a leading candidate in the modern hunt for “Mr. W. H.” of Shakespeare’s* Sonnets . As is often the case in Tudor translations, Sandford’s dedicatory epistles are addressed to the great and near great—Queen Elizabeth,* Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, Sir Hugh Paulet, Sir Christopher Hatton, and Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk—and reflect the Tudor view of translation as a patriotic act, making available classical and Continental wisdom to rulers and ruled. Indeed, while the epistles indulge some of the usual flattery of the former, that is subordinate to a didactic emphasis.

The epistles contain clues, however, of a tumultuous world beyond the reach of his instruction. In 1569 Sandford published his translation of Agrippa with an epistle reminding the duke of Norfolk that it is easier to shun overt evil than to choose between alternative goods, under which evil sometimes lurks. Norfolk was, in fact, receiving love letters from Mary, Queen of Scots,* and was a nervous and ambivalent partner in the plans to have Mary succeed Elizabeth. Norfolk did not heed Sandford’s oblique warning: in 1571 the duke was part of the Ridolfi plot that involved a Spanish invasion of England, the arrest of Elizabeth, and the installation of Mary as queen of England. The plot was uncovered, and in 1572 he was beheaded for treason. The following year Sandford published an entertaining collection, The Garden of Pleasure , but with an urgent epistle to Leicester pleading for support, darkly lamenting some unstated adversity, and cherishing books as his consolation. Three years later this collection was enlarged and retitled, with an epistle to Hatton praising the cult of Elizabeth, comparing her to the Muses, classical poets, and the Virgin Mary. However closely Sandford may have brushed up against the dangerous events of the late 1560s and early 1570s—the marriage schemes, the Northern Rebellion, the Ridolfi plot—the deletion of the epistle to Norfolk in the second edition of De incertitudine et vanitate (1575) is mute testimony to the scholar’s discretion within historical uncertainty.


The title page of one of Sandford’s “Englished” volumes ( Houres of Recreation ) declares its contents to be “no lesse delectable, than profitable.” Between the poles of the Horatian dictum revolves the world of Tudor tastes and preoccupations. Sandford’s texts and dedications are, by turns, pedantic, sensational, witty, pious, patriotic, defensive, and apocalyptic. His first two books appeared in 1567, both from the London printer Henry Bynneman. First was his translation of the Stoic wisdom of Epictetus, dedicated to the queen, but the second is more suggestive of Sandford’s range: The Amorous and Tragicall Tales of Plutarch, whereunto is annexed the Hystorie of Cariclea and Theagines and the sayings of the Greeke Philosophers . It begins with a severe, moral epistle approving Draco’s death sentence on idleness because idleness is the origin of mischief, engendering “the lothsome luste of Carnall concupiscence.” Its few, brief narratives, ostensibly negative exempla , are tales of rape, mayhem, and suicide, the first of a maid torn to pieces by rival lovers, the second of a young boy torn to pieces by his father and his abductors, and so on. Ascham’s complaint (in The Scholemaster , 1570) about immoral translations (referring perhaps to Painter’s and Fenton’s novelle , both also published in 1567, Painter’s also by Bynneman) might apply here, but Sandford blithely combines these sketches with an anthology of biographical introductions to, and sage maxims from, Solon, Socrates, Antisthenes, Bias, and others and with a partial translation of Heliodorus (soon displaced by Underdowne’s). The year 1568 saw the publication of his poem praising George Turberville in the latter’s own translation, Plaine Path to Perfect Virtue . Sandford’s is an undistinguished poem notable for a historical irony: it praises scholars who follow Minerva even as its author was probably hard at work on his translation of Agrippa’s De vanitate (1569), a massive assault on the vices of human learning. The Agrippa translation, by far Sandford’s most enduring work, includes a characteristic caution “To the Reader,” claiming that De vanitate attacks abuses only, that knowledge ought to be perfected, and that Agrippa intends the work to display “the excellencie of his wit.” Anything troubling is attributed to Agrippa’s human error and the corrupting influence of his Catholic and magical affiliations. (Sandford repeats the famed canine anecdote.) Sandford’s other projects include Houres of Recreation or Afterdinners (the expansion of his Garden of Pleasure ), with a new epistle that praises Elizabeth and all learned women, including Lady Ann Bacon,* and also provides a numerological explanation of why, if the world is not destroyed in 1588, at least the wicked will feel God’s wrath (many English writers gloating over the fate of the Armada were to agree with him that year); Mirror of Madnes (1576), a minor but adroit mock encomium translated from French, sometimes compared to Erasmus’* Praise of Folly , and probably attractive to Sandford because of the success of his Agrippa translation; and The Revelation S. Ihon, reueled, or a paraphrase written in Latine by Jame Brocard (1582), a dense, lengthy commentary for those who find the Revelation of St. John too “darke & difficult.” Sandford also earns some notice in Thomas More* studies by being the first to translate two of More’s Latin epigrams—about an obtuse, cuckolded astrologer—which are conflated and quoted by Agrippa.


Sandford has received little direct notice beyond his translation of Agrippa, which after 400 years is still the standard English version. He was proud of the work, informing the reader that he had consulted an Italian version as well as the Latin and discerned a pattern of censorship deleting attacks on “the Popes folowers,” which he restored. Sandford himself, however, deleted a bitter passage about the inevitable corruption of all religions. This passage has been restored by the modern editor of Sandford’s work, who has also noted and corrected a suggestive slip in the conclusion; Sandford’s rendering had all knowledge “reueled” rather than concealed by the Fall.

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