THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

12 October 2018

A long-lived Spanish book and a short-lived English king

Mexia tp C.20.e.15Title-page of Pedro Mexia, Silva de varia lection ... (Valladolid, 1551) C.20.e.15.

John Gough Nichols in his Literary Remains of King Edward VI (London, 1857; C.101.c.2.) gives a small ‘catalogue of such of the books in the Royal Library now preserved in the British Museum’ (pp. cccxxv-cccxxxviii), including:

SILUA DE VARIA LECTION, cōpuesta por el magnifico cauallero Pedro Mexia nueuamēte agora en el año de mil y quienientos [sic] et cinquenta y vno. Valladolid, 1551,
On the last leaf are these lines, written in a very neat Italian hand:
Il pouero s’affatica molto in cercar quel che gli manca. Et il ricco in conseruare quello che egli ha. Et il virtuoso in domander [sic] quel che gli bisogna.
[Google now identifies these line as coming from Doni’s Zucca (1551)]

Mexia inscription The manuscript inscription from the last leaf of Silva de varia lection ...

Nicols continues:

These lines resemble so much King Edward’s best hand that they may have been regarded as his. On the sides of the book are impressed these arms, in colours – Gules, on a chevron between three fleurs-de-lis or as many hurts, which render it a doubtful whether this was really one of the King’s books.

In the British Museum Library’s main catalogue of printed books (known as ‘GK’) this hardened to: “On the verso of the last leaf is written an Italian proverb, most probably in the handwriting of Edward VI., to whom the volume belonged.”

If Nichols was sceptical, T.A. Birrell was even more so: as he points out, the ‘E VI’ on the spine need mean no more than that the book was printed in his reign (p. 13).

And what could be less revealing of identity than a fine Italic hand?

The Tudors were all good linguists. Edward’s Greek and Latin were excellent, possibly better than his French: “conversing with him in Latin, Edward asked [Hieronymus] Cardano about his recent book which had been dedicated to him. There then ensued a debate upon the nature of comets, during which Cardano considered Edward ‘spoke Latin as politely and fluently as I did’” (Skidmore, p. 240).

I’ve no evidence of his knowledge of Spanish. There are no manuscript annotations in (t)his copy of Mexia, before you ask.

Whether this copy was Edward’s or not, it was a much-read book in its time throughout Europe. It’s a compendium of miscellaneous, curious knowledge, some of it useful and some of it useless (if knowledge is ever useless). Subjects include: did early men live longer than the moderns? The history of the Turks (a hot topic in 1540); the history of the Amazons; why a small head and broad chest is a bad sign; do mermen exist? Who was the first person to tame a lion? And many many more.

It attracted the attention of the Inquisition, who demanded the chapter on Pope Joan (I, ix) to be expurgated.

Mexia IndexThe entry for Silva de varia lection from the Novus index librorum prohibitorum et expurgatorum, issued by Cardinal Antonio Zapata (Seville, 1632) 617.l.27., p. 829 

Inquisition notwithstanding, Mexia was a best seller in Spanish (27 editions from 1540 to 1673), Italian (23 from 1544 to 1682), French (36 from 1552 to 1675), English (six from 1571 to 1651) and Dutch (four from 1588 to 1617).

What to me is interesting is not only the number of editions but that Mexia fell from favour in the 1670s and had disappeared by the 1680s.

Birrell charmingly calls it a “bedside book”, and although I don’t actually keep it by my pillow, I can attest from personal experience that it’s certainly good to dip into.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References

T. A. Birrell, English Monarchs and Their Books from Henry VII to Charles II, The Panizzi Lectures 1986 (London, 1987) 2719.e.1586

Chris Skidmore, Edward VI, the Lost King of England (London, 2007) YC.2007.a.8001