Professor’s landmark book on John Leland launches tomorrow in England

Described as a landmark in the history of medieval, Renaissance and Reformation scholarship, York English Professor James Carley’s new book, John Leland: De uiris illustribus – On Famous Men, will launch at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford.

Assisted by Caroline Brett, Carley has edited and translated Leland’s original work De uiris illustribus, a kind of proto-Dictionary of National Biography, and has provided a lengthy introduction showing the importance of Leland’s work in the history of the English Reformation. Including the introduction, text and translation, John Leland: De uiris illustribus – On Famous Men, is over 1,000 pages long.

It was 1533, just after the coronation of Anne Boleyn, when Leland, equipped with an official letter from King Henry VIII, began his examinations of the English monastic libraries. He discovered a multitude of rare manuscripts and otherwise unattested texts in those crucial years before the monasteries were dissolved and their treasures scattered to the four winds, says Carley.

Leland kept lists of what he saw and continued his bio-bibliographical work until his fall into insanity in 1547, a matter of months after the death of his beloved king. He worked consistently on his De uiris illustribus, but the work was never completed and the manuscript was left in a chaotic state. Although there was a partial edition in the 18th century, it does not accurately reflect the information Leland was trying to convey, says Carley.

In his new edition, co-published by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and the Bodleian Library, Carley has unravelled all the layers and has presented the text as Leland would have wished it to be.

As Professor David Wallace of the University of Pennsylvania, himself an expert on Leland, has written: “Leland has found the editor he deserves.”

Richard Ovenden, keeper of special collections and associate director of the Bodleian Libraries, says, “The manuscript of the de viris illustribus is an important source text for our understanding about British literary culture in the middle ages, but is also a major example of Renaissance scholarship.”

John Leland’s papers were first studied seriously in the 17th century and their survival in the Bodleian has allowed generations of scholars to consider his role in the preservation of information about Britain’s medieval past. “James Carley’s edition and translation makes this important text available for modern scholars through a work of great erudition and meticulous research. The Bodleian has been delighted to work with him and with the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in what we hope will be the first of many fruitful collaborations,” says Ovenden.

“Leland’s book lists were compiled as the primary resources for the comprehensive dictionary of British writers in four books, De uiris illustribus,” says Carley. “This remarkable testament to medieval and early modern habits of book collecting, but also to history and national identity, lay incomplete at Leland’s death. My study shows just how richly illuminating the manuscript is, how complex its formation, and how significant the deletions and gaps. Leland was a survivor and knew how to manipulate his information to reflect the king’s evolving religious policies.”

Left: James Carley

A Distinguished Research Professor, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and an Associate Fellow of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Carley is a specialist in Old and Middle English, the history of manuscripts, bibliography and the early Tudor period. He is considered the foremost authority on the libraries of King Henry VIII.

Carley’s previous works include: King Henry VIII’s Prayer Book: Facsimile and Commentary (2009), The Books of King Henry VIII and his Wives (2004), The Libraries of King Henry VIII (2000), Glastonbury Abbey: History and Legends (1988; revised ed. 1996) and The Chronicle of Glastonbury (1985). He is co-editor of “Triumphs of English”: Henry Parker, Lord Morley, Translator to the Tudor Court (2000), Books and Collectors 1200-1700 (1997) and Culture and the King: The Social Implications of the Arthurian Legend (1993).

The launch will take place Wednesday, Sept. 29, from 5:30 to 7pm, at the Divinity School, Old Schools Quadrangle, Bodleian Library, Oxford, hosted by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and the Bodleian Libraries.

Author of A History of Christianity, Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the British Academy, will speak at the reception. An accompanying exhibition, Armed with the King’s letter: John Leland and the Monastic Libraries of England, will run until Oct. 9 in the Bodleian Library Proscholium.