Sir John Cheke’s Greek Books


First published June 2010

James Harmer, St John’s College

Fig. 1 St John’s College, Cambridge, Aa.4.48. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge.

A landmark donation made this year to the St John’s College Library by Brian Fenwick-Smith will help future generations of researchers to study the life and work of Sir John Cheke (1514-1557), a figure who, as humanist tutor, classical scholar and author occupies a central place in the history of the English Renaissance. Fenwick-Smith’s donation of three Aldine texts of Greek history that were owned and extensively annotated by Cheke sheds a fascinating light on the intimate Renaissance relationship between scholarship and statecraft.

John Cheke was born in Cambridge and entered St John’s in 1526. He was tutored principally by George Day, another important figure from the College’s early history who was helping to make St John’s a major centre of what is now known as Renaissance humanism. Humanism can be thought of as a programme of educational, cultural and religious reform which had its beginnings in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries before spreading rapidly across Europe. Humanism’s chief focus was the study of the classical past – its history, languages, and thought – as a rich resource for the shaping of the whole person. Humanistic study taught one how to live both an examined private life and also a civic, public one. For humanists, scholarship and statecraft went hand in hand: what one found in the histories or poems or orations one studied could be applied directly to the way in which one lived one’s life and served one’s society. Someone with a humanist education could do all kinds of things: understand love, draft a law, write a poem, win a debate, interpret the Bible, and advise a prince. The acquisition of a volume such as this Aldine edition of Greek history – which comes in the wake of other recent donations by Brian Fenwick-Smith, including first editions of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and More’s Epigrammata (1521) – shows how much there is still simply to be unearthed, made available, and understood about the dynamic history of reading in this period. The role that continues to be played by College special collections in expanding and developing what resources are available is vital in enabling early modernists to do all kinds of things – pedagogical, bibliographical, conceptual – with those resources. In this sense, then, such donations and such libraries are very much legacies of the humanist project itself.

At St John’s, Cheke excelled at the study of the classical past and its languages, and he played a critical role in developing an understanding of the language at a time when the study of Greek was in its infancy in England. Cheke was admitted as a Fellow of St John’s in 1529 and took his BA in 1530. During the 1530s, Cheke concentrated on improving his Greek studies, and became in 1540 the University’s first Regius Professor of Greek. It was also during this period at St John’s that he taught a number of Johnians who would go on to have distinguished careers, including William Cecil (Elizabeth I’s principal minister) and Roger Ascham (tutor to Elizabeth I). Cheke’s public profile grew further when he was plucked from Cambridge and dropped into the very centre of court life. In 1544, he became tutor to Prince Edward, to whom he taught, in Greek, the works of Aristotle and Plato. The Prince became King Edward VI in 1547, and in 1553, having remained close to Edward throughout his short reign, Cheke was appointed his principal secretary. Yet 1553 also brought the death of the young King, and the staunchly Protestant Cheke was to spend his last years struggling with life in Queen Mary’s Catholic England, spending time in exile and in prison before his early death.

Fig.2 Title page showing ownership signature of John Cheke. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge.

So there is a direct line to be drawn from humanist St John’s to the heart of the political and religious life of mid-Tudor England. Cheke’s work at Cambridge, and especially his distinctive study of ancient Greek texts, was what gave him the authority to advise a young King, help direct government policy, and play a prominent role in the English Protestant Reformation. The donation to the St John’s College Library of a book used by Cheke gives us a vital insight into this extraordinary Renaissance relationship between classical scholarship and the workings of society. The volume comprises three separate works of Greek history bound together in one folio volume: The Histories by Herodotus, The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, and the Hellenica of Xenophon. The first two works in this volume were printed by the Aldine press in Venice in 1502; the printing of the last work in the volume, the Hellenica, was delayed slightly until 1503 (Aldus was apparently nervous about not having enough manuscripts of Xenophon to work from). Together, these texts form a history of Greece that stretches from the Persian wars, through the Peloponnesian war, and which ends, with Xenophon picking up straight after Thucydides, in 362 BCE. The collation of this copy of Aldus’ edition is complete, its texts beautifully clean. The volume is bound in eighteenth-century English calf, and the pages have been cropped slightly by the binder: this affects some of the annotations in the margins of the Hellenica but leaves the marginalia pertaining to the other texts unaffected. The volume bears the bookplate of Sir George Osborn (1742-1818). Osborn was a descendent of Peter Osborne (1521-92), who was a close friend of Cheke’s and one of the executors of his will. Osborn was responsible for the education of Cheke’s son, Henry (c.1548-1586), and it is possible that some of the marginalia which appear in the volume are in the mid-Tudor hand of Henry Cheke. There are certainly two hands at work in the margins of the volume, and perhaps more: at this stage, however, it is at least clear that Cheke’s hand is a very extensive presence in those texts by Herodotus and Thucydides.

Fig. 3 St John’s College, Cambridge, Aa.4.48, sig. 2H6r. Cheke notes in the margin of the Histories of Herodotus that the Scythians made ‘conquests’, and then notes that the text is describing ‘The prizes the Scythians bear away’. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.

Cheke’s ownership signature appears in Greek on the title page, and Cheke goes on to write down hundreds of individual Greek words and phrases in the margins. Just when he made these notes is a question that would benefit from further investigation, but judging by comparable samples of his hand and the arc of his teaching and study of Greek, it is reasonable to suppose that Cheke annotated the volume during the 1530s. Sometimes one can glimpse Cheke extending his Greek vocabulary: he notes the words for such things as a fawn, a small horse, a ferryman, a vessel for carrying water. At other, more significant moments, Cheke is interested in finding the word that best captures a passage of military action. Several times he comes across descriptions of battles where one side is being overwhelmed by the other: Cheke notes the Greek for being ‘squeezed’ or ‘crushed’ (see, e.g., Peloponnesian War, sig. G2r). Relatedly, in reading Thucydides, Cheke notes passages that describe a tactical retreat or negotiated alliance (Peloponnesian War, sigs A5r, K6r). In the Histories of Herodotus, Cheke notes that when they made a conquest, the Scythians would carry away prizes – the scalps and skins of their enemies (sig. 2H6r). He consistently has an eye for the detail that distills a passage, and makes a habit of finding in these texts a single Greek keyword which encapsulates a chunk of writing. Cheke picks out words that are moral, political, action-packed. Here is a passage from Herodotus about ‘retribution’ (Histories, sig. G5r); here another touching on the ‘barbaric’ (Histories, sig. 2S2r). Here is a passage in Thucydides about being ‘suspicious’ (Peloponnesian War, sigs B5r, L5r), here another about handling ‘grievances’ (Peloponnesian War, sig. L1r). And here – close by – is a good example of ‘wickedness’ (Peloponnesian War, sig. L1r). What Cheke is doing with these books is extracting examples of policy and conduct, and finding Greek words and meanings for those examples that can refine or enrich English words and deeds. This is the stuff, these are the textual activities, out of which good courtiers, good advisers, and good Kings are made.

Coincidence and Curiosity: A Tale of Discovery in the Old Library at Queens’ College


First published April 2010

Karen Begg, Librarian, Queens’ College

A happy coincidence of scholarship and curiosity resulted in the recent discovery of three masterpieces of 14th century Italian manuscript illumination that for many years lay forgotten in a plan chest in the Old Library of Queens’ College. In 2007, when working on another project, Dr Stella Panayotova, Keeper of Printed Books and Manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, identified the pieces as the work of Pacino di Bonaguida, a prolific and distinguished Florentine artist. Since their identification, the miniatures have travelled the globe in a unique collaboration between the College, the Fitzwilliam and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, to learn more about the artist, his world and his techniques. As College Librarian, I am delighted to recount the Cinderella-like tale of discovery that has enabled a few more pieces of the ‘Pacino jigsaw’ to be fitted together and to report on a future for our miniatures that promises more than a return to the Library’s plan chest.

Figure 1 Image of the Martyrdom of St James the Great, Queens' College MS 77D.

The story begins with Stella’s visit to examine Dutch material for inclusion in the first volume of the Cambridge Illuminations catalogues [1]. Stella kindly agreed to glance at some cuttings that we knew little about, but suspected were of North Italian, early Renaissance origin. Stella excitedly and immediately shared her suspicions that these were lost leaves from a Laudario painted in Pacino’s workshop that she, together with other art historians around the world, had been researching. A laudario is a manuscript comprising lauds, or songs of praise in Italian that were used by lay communities to celebrate religious feasts or Saints’ days. The Queens’ leaves depict the Martyrdoms of St Christopher, St James the Great and St Lucy. The Fitzwilliam had been given two comparable leaves early in the 20th century and, coincidentally, had recently found a third – all from the same Laudario. Stella’s subsequent scholarly article on the Queens’ and Fitzwilliam leaves [2] summarises much of what is known about the artist and this Laudario, Pacino’s most renowned work, which is believed to have been commissioned by wealthy patrons for the Compagnia di Sant’ Agnese in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence [3]. Stella describes in detail the content and context of each leaf and the art historical relevance of its discovery.

Figure 2 Image of the Martyrdom of St Christopher, Queens' College MS 77B.

During the next year, other specialists, including two experts from the Getty Museum, viewed our leaves and confirmed Stella’s opinion. In early 2009, Queens’ was invited by the Getty to take part in scientific research, the findings of which would feature in an exhibition planned for 2012 entitled “Florentine Painting and Illumination in the Time of Giotto”. This offered a unique opportunity to contribute to a significant and interesting study, and the College’s Governing Body unhesitatingly agreed to allow our manuscripts to travel to the Getty Museum, where non-invasive analysis of pigments and structure could be undertaken.

Plans were made for me to accompany the miniatures to Los Angeles in summer 2009 and review the analytical procedures. The arrangements took the College into new realms of legal discussion, as insurance agreements between us and the Getty had to take account of many risks, including the potential for ownership disputes. At this stage, the lack of provenance data for the cuttings’ arrival in Queens’ presented something of a problem, and conjured visions ranging from straightforward theft to claims of Nazi seizure. Fortunately, however, records confirmed their presence in College far enough back to dim this risk. It is worth noting though, that such unattributed acquisitions, perhaps long forgotten gifts, may now be financially as well as historically valuable, and the importance of acquisition records cannot be overemphasized.

As planned, in July last year I took the miniatures to the Getty Museum, a stunning hilltop campus of gardens, galleries and terraces that commands panoramic views of Los Angeles and the North Pacific Ocean. I was welcomed by the curators, conservators and scientists of the Getty Museum and Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), who showed me around their conservation studio and laboratories, and demonstrated the state of the art equipment that would be used in the analyses. Their main objective was to “identify, characterize and compare the painting materials and techniques used by Pacino and his workshop” [4], particularly as previous investigation of the three Getty owned leaves had suggested the involvement of more than one artist’s hand, perhaps using a slightly different palette. This new study would widen the range of images studied, allowing direct comparison of nine of the 24 known surviving miniatures, and held the potential to reveal much about workshop practice of the 1340s. X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and Raman microspectroscopy would be used to identify pigments under drawings and techniques, without taking physical samples or touching document surfaces, and digital images would provide a visual record of findings.

The Cambridge leaves returned to the UK in September 2009 and the research findings, some of which were presented at a National Gallery symposium last autumn, will soon be published. The techniques used can be seen in the images below, which have been reproduced with kind permission of the GCI.

Figure 3. Image of X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy analysis of Queens' College MS 77B, showing the small air space between the object and the instrument. Photo: C. Patterson, GCI.

Figure 4. This image provides a view of the full Raman spectroscopy setup for the smaller leaves, showing the leaf on the sample stage of the microscope. The Raman instrument is visible behind the microscope, and the computer that controls the system is in the background. Photo: C. Patterson, GCI.

Figure 5. Image of the Raman setup for laser light excitation; the manuscript under analysis is Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 194. Image reproduced with kind permission of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. This image gives another view of the Raman spectroscopy setup, using 785nm laser light excitation. The manuscript is mounted on an easel, and the light is guided through the microscope and onto the leaf through the black arm. The entire configuration is non-contact.

Figure 6. Image of the Raman instrument and Getty staff members. GCI scientists and a Getty curator are discussing the analysis of Queens' MS 77D. Photo: K. Trentelman, GCI.

Figure 7. Another image of the Raman setup for laser light excitation; the manuscript under analysis is, again, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 194. Image reproduced with kind permission of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. This image provides a close-up Raman image of MS 194, showing the laser spot as a yellow dot on the manuscript.

Much more is expected to emerge from this collaboration between several quite different institutions. In addition to the publications in preparation, we look forward to taking part in the 2012 exhibition, for which the Cambridge miniatures will once again travel to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the three Queens’ College Pacinos will soon relinquish their plan chest for a new home in the Founder’s Library at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The generosity of a number of College alumnae has enabled Queens’ to offer them on long term loan to the Museum, where they will be accessible to scholars and available for public display in a way which is not possible in the College Library. The Fitzwilliam will be able to store them with their own Pacino leaves in an environment that celebrates their significance and beauty as early Renaissance works of art.


[1] Nigel Morgan and Stella Panayotova, A Catalogue of Western Book Illumination in the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Cambridge Colleges. Part 1, Vol.1. Harvey Miller Publishers, London 2009.

[2] Stella Panayotova, ‘New Miniatures by Pacino di Bonaguida in Cambridge’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. CLI, n. 1272, March 2009, pp. 144-147.

[3] R. Offner, A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting: The Fourteenth Century, Section 111, vol. VII, New York 1957.

[4] Unpublished Proposal for the Technical Analysis of Queens’ College, Cambridge MSS 77B, 77C, and 77D , submitted to Queens’ College by the J. Paul Getty Museum, March 2009.