John Leland, who died in 1552, lived less than 50 years and was mad for the last five of them. Today he is one of the forgotten worthies of 16th-century England. An enormous edition of his major prose work may therefore seem an eccentric publishing choice. Yet there are many reasons why we should remember this gentle, melancholy and rather obsessive scholar from another age.
Leland lived at a time when England was changing faster than it had ever done before. Henry VIII had broken with Rome. An aggressive protestantism had achieved a growing influence, and was soon to take possession of the English Church. The monasteries and friaries which had dominated the intellectual life of medieval England were being closed down and their magnificent buildings redeveloped, sold for building materials or simply abandoned to become the romantic ruins of another age. An ambitious new aristocracy was building its fortunes on the hazards of royal favour and the monasteries’ confiscated riches. Changing tastes, internal migration and new patterns of economic enterprise were altering the country’s physical appearance beyond recognition.
The European Renaissance defined itself mainly by its self-confident dismissal of the millenium that separated it from classical Rome, and Leland routinely mouthed the prejudices of his age. He deplored the corruption of late medieval monasticism and was perfectly capable of referring to the ‘gross barbarity’ of the age of Chaucer, Langland and Gower. Yet, more than any other scholar of his time, he also knew how much the civilisation of medieval England had contributed to its modern identity, and did his best to record it at a time when it was rapidly passing from the memory of men.
Like most of Henry VIII’s ablest servants, Leland was a protégé of that great talent-spotter, Cardinal Wolsey. After the cardinal’s fall in 1529, he set about ingratiating himself with the new regime, becoming a royal chaplain and writing obsequious verses in the King’s honour in the hope of patronage. It seems to have worked, for in 1533 he persuaded the King to commission him to search the libraries of the monasteries and colleges for material for the literary history of England. Three years later, when Henry’s agents were busy dispersing their custodians and their contents, Leland obtained authority to preserve some of the more important books, observing in language that might have been taken from the modern heritage lobby, that they would otherwise be lost to rapacious and moneyed Germans who could not be expected to honour England’s special place in the literary culture of the past. Out of this enterprise, which took up most of the rest of his active life, grew the two works which serve today as Leland’s principal monuments.
One is his vast collection of travel notes, the fruit of six years of constant movement, which were published long after his death as the Itineraries. There was, he said,
no cape nor baye, haven, creke or pere, river or confluence of rivers, breches, washes, lakes, mores, hethes, forestes, woodes, cyties, burges castels, pryncypall manor places, monasteryes and colleges but I have seane them and noted in so doynge a whole worlde of thynges very memorable.
The travel notes were intended as materials for a great topography of England which Leland never got round to writing. For posterity’s sake this is probably just as well. The polished Latin of the final work would certainly have been less picturesque than the author’s quirky and observant scribbling on the move. It is largely because of Leland that we know more about the physical appearance of England in the 16th century than in any other period of our early history.
Leland’s other monumental work, which was unfinished at his death and unpublished until 1709, was De Viris Illustribus (On Famous Men), which now appears in this splendid new edition, complete with a translation by James Carley. In the course of his travels Leland appears to have read virtually the whole surviving literature of medieval England. All of this accumulated learning he poured into his enormous biographical encyclopaedia of English men of letters from 500 to 1500.
Written in elegant but muscular Latin, it is as unconventional as everything else that Leland wrote. He recognised the falsity of the great national myths, like those of King Arthur, but defended them furiously against what he saw as the mean-spirited and unpatriotic pedantry of foreigners like Hector Boece (‘most vacuous of Scots’) and the Italian Polydore Virgil (‘that dunce’). He sneered at the monastic life with the best of them, but admired the literary tradition which it generated. In an age when few scholars had a good word for relics or pilgrimages, Leland could even commend a collection of miracle stories as ‘worthy of the ears of the learned and of all good people.’
Running through the whole of Leland’s book is something else that seems extra- ordinary for its time: an intense love of the landscapes and past of England, and a constant and moving melancholy provoked by the sense of passing time. This is rare before the Romantic age. At a time when his contemporaries were writing off Anglo- Saxon England as an age of utter darkness and monkish superstition, Leland rejoiced in the achievements of its poets, its historians, and its missionaries. Writing of the literary tradition of the Northumbrian monasteries at Jarrow and Wearmouth, where Benedict Biscop and Bede had once laboured, he pauses for his own elegiac reflection:
Now vast ruins mark the wreckage of their once mighty buildings, which I have contemplated with awe and with sadness for the vicissitudes of human enterprise.
No other servant of Henry VIII could have written that.