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Vergil, Polydore (c. 1470–1555) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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Polydore Vergil, Italian humanist and English historiographer, was born in Urbino around 1470 into a family with established ties to erudition and to the court of Urbino, patron of his father, Giorgio Virgilio. Although the details of Vergil’s early life are few, we know that he was educated at Padua, possibly at Bologna. By the end of 1496 he had been ordained a priest, and soon after he entered the service of Pope Alexander VI. There his budding scholarly achievements— his edition of Perotti’s Cornucopiae latinae linguae (1496), his Proverbiorum libellus (1498), and his De inventoribus rerum (1499)—likely drew the attention of Adriano Castellesi, for whom Vergil first traveled to England in 1502 as the subcollector of papal revenues. In England, Vergil was recognized at Henry VII’s court, where he joined other learned Italians. Vergil mostly prospered in England, although he ran afoul of the exchange laws in 1504 and also had difficulties retaining his position as subcollector. He was rewarded with several preferments, receiving the living of Church Langston in 1503, prebends in Lincoln Cathedral, Hereford, and Oxgate in St. Paul’s, and the archdeaconry of Wells in 1508. During these years he began researching the English past and, sometime before 1513, completed the first version of his Anglica historia . In 1515, however, he incurred Wolsey’s ire and landed in the Tower, an act for which Wolsey would pay dearly in the historical portrait that Vergil handed down to generations of historians. Vergil was soon released, but he appears to have learned enough about the dangers of political involvement to avoid controversy, a lesson that enabled him to live in relative peace through the reigns of Henry VIII and his son and, most significantly, to weather the turbulence of the Reformation. Although he visited Italy several times in his life, he remained in England, unobtrusively bending with the political and religious winds, until his return to Urbino in 1553, where Vergil, scion of the Italian Renaissance and the “Father of English History,” as he has been called, died two years later.

MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

While Vergil’s role in Tudor historiography has now overshadowed his other accomplishments, his contemporary reputation was solidly grounded on two popular and largely original early works: Proverbiorum libellus , or Adagia , first published in 1498, which appeared in some twenty subsequent editions before 1550, and De inventoribus rerum , published in 1499, with an additional five books added in 1521 and over thirty editions printed by 1555. The Proverbiorum libellus was a didactic (literary and moral) collection of proverbs drawn from classical sources with commentary in good, sententious Latin. The book and the idea were immediately popular: Vergil engaged in a brief epistolary debate with Erasmus,* whose own Adagia appeared in 1500, over who originated the idea for such a collection. The De inventoribus rerum , described as one of the most popular books in the sixteenth century and used by Rabelais and Cervantes, offered scholars, writers, and the curious an encyclopedic, eclectic compilation of the origins of cultural productions drawn from an extensive body of medieval, contemporary, but chiefly classical sources. In it one might find the inventors of plays, books, magic, music, writing, mirrors, religious practices, and hair dying, which he attributes to Medea.

Vergil’s most influential work in England, however, was his Anglica historia , a Latin narrative history begun at the instigation of Henry VII that recounted England’s past from its origins, still wrapped in the myths handed down by Geoffrey of Monmouth, to the turbulent events of the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, which heralded the ascendance of the Tudor dynasty. First published in 1534 and wisely terminating with the events of Henry VII’s reign, an edition expanded to include the years of Henry VIII’s rule appeared in 1555. Vergil combined the perspective of an outsider with a humanist’s critical awareness of sources, concern with causation, and emphasis on political biography to mold a wide range of sometimes conflicting sources into a national history of England. He is best remembered for daring to question the stories of Brutus and Arthur, cherished myths of the Tudors; yet he also laid the foundation for a dynastic view of history that often justifies, as much as describes, the rise of the Tudors. Although loosely ordered around the reigns of individual kings and eclectic in its treatment of causation, Vergil’s history offered patterns of explanation and an argument to his more famous successors, Hall* and Holinshed,* who, like Vergil, sometimes used providence to explain the course of history. Vergil’s moralizing resonates in the Mirror for Magistrates and in Tudor drama. While clearly breaking new ground in English historiography, in certain respects the Anglica historia advances historiography little beyond his De inventoribus , in which the origins of institutions and cultural practices are to be found in human, often mythological inventors. Vergil’s classicism led him to focus primarily on the res gestae , the actions of influential men and their consequences, both practical and moral; but in so doing he created a history that was largely static: history always reflects the recurrent patterns of human behavior. Although Vergil’s influence can be felt in the more sophisticated political histories of Hayward* and Bacon,* who eschewed his providentialism, the road to a modern English history begins in the work of antiquarians such as Camden and Selden and their successors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

In De inventoribus rerum , Vergil argues that “the first office of an historiographer is to write no lye” and that the second is that “he shall conceal no truth for favour, displeasure or fear” (III.x), both difficult tasks for a historiographer subject to the pressures of the Tudor court. Although lately Vergil’s reputation for being a “party hack” has been challenged, he did much to promote a Tudor view of history, vilifying Richard III and feeding Henry VIII’s imperial dreams. Yet his sixteenth-century successors faulted him not for his bending slavishly to authority, but rather for his audacity in questioning England’s national myths; as a papist and Italian, he was held in suspicion by patriots and Protestants such as Leland, Bale, and Foxe, who even accused him of covering his attack on Geoffrey by destroying historical evidence. But if he was criticized, his “most hostile detractors,” Denys Hay argues, “found the Anglica historia indispensable.” Hall and Holinshed often followed Vergil closely, and in Shakespeare’s* intricate historical tapestries, one finds patterns originating with Vergil. His work continued to be viewed with suspicion by English historians until the nineteenth century, when he finally began to rise above the opprobrium of his critics and assume his proper role in the history of English historiography.

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