Milton’s Holinshed.

PhysOrg reports on a literary-historical discovery:

John Milton’s handwritten annotations have been identified in a copy of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), a vital source of inspiration for the Paradise Lost poet. The discovery, made in the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix, Arizona, makes this one of only three known books to preserve Milton’s handwritten reading notes, and one of only nine books to have survived from his library.

As interesting as the find is, I confess that what grabbed my attention was this:

The findings, detailed by three researchers in the Times Literary Supplement, include Milton censoring Holinshed by crossing out a lewd anecdote about the mother of William the Conqueror, Arlete. Spotted while dancing by Robert I of Normandy, and summoned to his bed, Arlete refused to let him lift up her smock and instead tore it herself from top to bottom, explaining that it would be immodest for her ‘dependant’ garments to be ‘mountant’ to her sovereign’s mouth.

In the margin, Milton dismisses this anecdote as inappropriate and told in the style of a pedlar hawking wares on the streets. In Milton’s exact words, it was: “an unbecom[ing] / tale for a hist[ory] / and as pedlerl[y] / expresst.” “The adverb ‘pedlerly’ was quite rare in writing at the time so we are seeing Milton really stretching language to express his contempt,” said co-author Prof. Jason Scott-Warren, from Cambridge University’s English Faculty, who was consulted to confirm that the handwriting was Milton’s.

And of course I appreciated this observation:

“Milton is renowned as an enemy of press censorship,” Scott-Warren said, “but here we see he was not immune to prudishness.”

There’s more about Milton’s use of source material and other finds from his library; it ends:

The researchers point out that public libraries like Phoenix’s are “are off the beaten path for academics who work with early modern books and manuscripts.” This discovery, barely five years after the Shakespeare Folio was found in another US public library, suggests that more of Milton’s books may be out there, including in less well-known collections.

Thanks, Trevor!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I read in the introduction to an edition of Milton’s works once: ‘”None of the great [literary] gifts was denied him: except humour.”

  2. Stu Clayton says

    According to Pound, [Landor ?] was “poisoned in the cradle by the abominable dogbiscuit of Milton’s rhetoric.”

    Sparky makes the point that there is nothing problematic about dogbiscuit in general. It should merely be used sparingly in the preparation of epic poetry.

  3. No, the poisonee was Laurence Binyon.

  4. Michael Hendry says

    Not quite as exciting a find, but I just finished indexing a book on Aulus Gellius whose author quotes Borges’ annotations in his copy of Gellius (Spanish translation, not Latin), now at the University of Virginia. As an alumnus who lives just across the Blue Ridge, I’m now wondering if I should take a look at Borges’ books myself next time I’m in Charlottesville.

  5. In this 2013 post, I said Aulus Gellius “sounds like an interesting fellow I should investigate further”; I haven’t, but I really should. I also wrote:

    Incidentally, Gellius also has the distinction of an oddly nativized French name, Aulu-Gelle. As I pointed out to Marie-Lucie in an e-mail, “all other people named Aulus Something-or-other keep Aulus in French (Aulus Plautius, Aulus Cornelius Celsus, etc. etc.)”; she replied, “perhaps when saying the name the scholars first said Aulus-Gelle as one word, adapting the end only (as with single names like Antoine, Apulée, Pétrone, Térence) but soon the -s was lost before consonants by a regular French rule, hence the pronunciation Aulu-Gelle reflected in the spelling. Others named Aulus X were probably less well-known and came into French texts later, at a time when Latin names were preserved as such if they didn’t already have a French form.” Makes sense to me.

    And in the comment thread I wrote:

    Huh: Francisco García Jurado, in “La peculiar fortuna de Aulo Gelio en la modern literatura argentina” (Argos 32 [2009]:45–63), points out the surprising influence of Gellius on 20th-century Argentine writers. In particular, Cortázar, in Rayuela (Hopscotch), quotes a translation of Gellius (a section on the supposed etymology of persona) as chapter 148, and García Jurado suggests that the idea of reading the chapters of the book in any order the reader chooses may have come to Cortázar from Gellius’s “estructura no lineal.”

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    No, the poisonee was Laurence Binyon

    “Pound affectionately called him ‘BinBin’ …”

  7. Between 1933 and 1943, Binyon published his acclaimed translation[11] of Dante’s Divine Comedy in an English version of terza rima, made with some editorial assistance from Ezra Pound. He dedicated twenty years to his translation and finished it shortly before his death.[12] Its readership was dramatically increased when Paolo Milano selected it for “The Portable Dante” in Viking’s Portable Library series.

    I have that Portable Dante; it’s very enjoyable.

  8. Michael Hendry says


    Aulus Gellius is well worth reading, at least in part, and the ~400 chapters all have their topics listed in Gellius’ own index up front, so you can easily pick and choose.

    The author of the forthcoming book (Scott DiGiulio, “Reading Miscellany in the Roman Empire: Aulus Gellius and the Imperial Prose Collection”, Oxford U.P.) makes a strong case that the ostensibly random ordering of chapters is very slyly done, and the interconnections are as intricate and subtle as in other supposedly randomly-ordered collections like the poems of Catullus and Horace.

    He has a lot to say about Gellius’ miscellanistic predecessors, Plutarch (Convivial Questions, including a chapter on which came first, the chicken or the egg), both Plinies (the Younger Pliny’s letters are not arranged by date or recipient), several others.* In the last chapter, he briefly covers later miscellanists influenced by Gellius, including Poliziano, Montaigne, Burton (Anatomy of Melancholy), Isaac D’Israeli (also well worth reading), and Borges.

    Should you read DiGiulio when it comes out? Probably you should read Gellius first: everyone knows one thing that’s in it – chapter 5.14 is the story of Androclus (not -cles) and the Lion. There’s a 3-volume Loeb edition.

    – – – – – – – –

    *My favorite fact about the Younger Pliny: in one of his letters he mentions that he had his name spelled out in topiary in front of his estate in Umbria (near San Giustino). Unfortunately he doesn’t tell us whether the trees just said PLINIVS or PLINI or whether they spelled out his full name CAIVS PLINIVS CAECILIVS SECVNDVS in the nominative or genitive. I like to think he was vain enough to do the latter.

  9. Very interesting stuff — thanks!

  10. explaining that it would be immodest for her ‘dependant’ garments to be ‘mountant’ to her sovereign’s mouth.

    Have to say, not sure I get this. Is she saying the sovereign was about to perform cunnilingus on her person? I thought kings didn’t go in for that sort of thing, but maybe the Normans were more open minded and progressive than Roman noblemen and 21st century rap artists.

    I suppose that’s why Milton was so outraged.

  11. Stu Clayton says

    I thought kings didn’t go in for that sort of thing

    A king may look at a pussy. Even the reverse is proverbially not counted as impudence. Of course those in power can then do what they please. The cat can’t.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s good to be the King!

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    Actually, Milton was not opposed to censorship at all. He was specifically opposed to any system which prevented works being published in the first place without official vetting, but entirely cool with published works being banned or censored after they were published. It’s an important distinction (as he makes clear.)

  14. With exceptions, of course:

    I mean not tolerated Popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpats all religions and civill supremacies, so it self should be extirpate, provided first that all charitable and compassionate means be used to win and regain the weak and the misled.

  15. @Vanya:

    I guess the top of Arlete’s head was level with Robert’s mouth. It was, she pretends, less presumptuous for her to disrobe by letting her dress fall around her than by pulling it up over her head, i.e. level with his mouth. Any concomitant sexiness was entirely unintentional.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    With exceptions, of course

    Well, anybody would draw the line at Popery, obviously. Apart from anything else, it leads to pedlerly anecdotes. Think of the children!

  17. Rodger C says

    Well, Milton’s classmates did call him “the Lady of Christ’s.”

  18. A king may look at a pussy. Even the reverse is proverbially not counted as impudence.

    I recently read the WP article Treatment of women by the Taliban and it says:

    The modification of any place names that included the word “women”. For example, “women’s garden” was renamed “spring garden”.

    I note, that they treat the whole woman in much the same way as we treat the not-to-be-included-in-place-names part. Having this said, a woman in burka can see men.

  19. David Marjanović says

    It’s an important distinction (as he makes clear.)

    It looks like he wanted public spectacles – blazing flames and rolling heads till morale improves.

  20. I’ve never been able to like Milton (as a man, not as a poet) since I learned what he put his daughters through.

  21. Miss Arlete did not let her dress fall down. She “in an humble modestie staid hir lords hand, and rent downe hir smocke asunder, from the collar to the verie skirt.” Phew! Is it hot in here, or is it the humble modestie?

    Further virtue is assigned to Robert: “[…] this William, whome seven yeeres before he [Robert] had begotten upon his paramour Arlete (whom after he held as his wife) with whole beautifull favour, lovelie grace and presence, at hir dansing on a time then as he was tenderlie touched, for familiar utterance of his mind that he had further to say, would needs that night she should be his bedfellow, who else as wivelesse should have lien alone”. No adulterer he, and certainly moved by motives but tender, pure, and noble.

    What was the official view of the Church on fornication then, anyhow?

    BTW I don’t understand much of the syntax.

  22. @Y: I don’t know if Arlete’s actual views are recorded, but Beade had said that if a man and a woman who are eligible to marry freely hold themselves out as husband and wife, then they are, in fact, married. Indeed, my understanding is that this is still the case; forgoing a ceremony is strongly discouraged by the Catholic Church but still officially allowed.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    In Ghana, I was a guest at the (church) wedding of one of my colleagues to his wife of twenty years’ standing, the Presbyterian Church (our mutual employer) having decided that all married staff had to be, like, married.

    He was Mossi rather than Kusaasi, and I don’t know much about Mossi traditional marriage customs, but I know that they are far from informal. The Kusaasi are much less into the whole rites-of-passage thing than most of their neighbours, but there still has to be an “official” notification of the two family heads (ceremonial beer is a required part of this.) The (senior) mother-in-law-to-be has the bride to stay for a few days, and then sends her to the bridegroom’s hut with a lamp one evening so that she can “sweep the floor”, telling her “you needn’t come back.” (There is a lot to be said for the old ways.)

  24. PlasticPaddy says

    From Wace, Roman de Rou

    A Faleize out Li Dus hanté,
    Plusurs feiz i out converté ;
    Une meschine i out amée ;
    Arlot out num , de burgeis née
    Meschine ert uncore è pucele ;
    Avenant li sembla è bêle ,
    Menée li fu à sun lit ;
    Sun bon en fist è sun délit.
    Kant el lit al Duc fu entrée ,
    De sa kemise envelupée ,
    La kemise ad devant rumpue ,
    E treske as piez aval fendue ;
    Tute se poul abanduner
    Sainz sa kemise reverser.
    Li Dus demanda ke desveit,
    Ke sa kemise aval fendait :
    N’est pas , dist-elle , avenantise
    Ke le plus bas de ma kemise ,
    Ki à mes jambes fiert è tuche
    Seit turnée vers vostre buche;
    Ne ceo ki est à mes piez mis
    Seit returné vers vostre vis. ”
    The editor glosses
    converté = séjourné
    meschine = jeune fille
    sun bon = sa volonté
    treske = jusqu’aux
    aval = en descendant
    ke desveit = si elle était folle
    aventanise = convenante
    fiert = frotte
    vis = visage

  25. Great find!

  26. David Marjanović says

    BTW I don’t understand much of the syntax.

    Does would needs mean “necessarily wanted”?

  27. David Eddyshaw says


  28. Stu Clayton says

    Does would needs mean “necessarily wanted”?

    In one context I know, it means “was not to be dissuaded from [X-ing]” or “insisted on [X-ing]”.

    Vulcan was a smith as well as Harry Wynd; he would needs wed Venus, and our Chronicles tell us what came of it. [1828, The Fair Maid of Perth, Walter Scott]

    “Must needs” [muß unbedingt] is more familiar to me. See the quotations for “needs” as adverb here.

  29. PlasticPaddy says

    That is what I understood the two Davids to be agreeing on i.e., “necessarily wanted” as the negation of “did not necessarily want”, which would imply the gentleman could be (perhaps very easily) dissuaded from bedding the lady. Do you have another interpretation for “necessarily wanted”?

  30. Stu Clayton says

    Do you have another interpretation for “necessarily wanted”?

    The one I gave, which does not involve any notion of necessity. Not even via negationis.

  31. Stu Clayton says

    That was a reply to what I understand by “must needs”. I can’t make much sense out of “necessarily wanted”, DM’s composite. These two words are like oil and water. You can whisk them together with great effort to get a semblance of cohesion, but after a short period of reflection they separate.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    Nah. “He of necessity wanted her to …”, i.e. he was driven to want her to …
    This was evidently the royal chat-up line. Just couldn’t help himself, she was so full of beautifull favour, lovelie grace and presence.

    Also, it was that or go to bed by himself. Though I think this may be the narrator’s comment: it probably isn’t such a good pickup line. On the other hand, Arlete seems to have known what she was about. I expect she would have put up with more boorishness from a king than a mere baron or whatever.

  33. I get the feeling that the basic story had been going around, and that the noble sentiments were added for the benefit of William’s reputation, he being the result of this.

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