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Edward Wilson, ed., A Middle English Translation from Petrarch's Secretum
by William J. Kennedy

A Middle English Translation from Petrarch’s Secretum. Ed. Edward Wilson, completed with an introduction by Daniel Wakelin. Published for the Early English Text Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Lxvii + 98 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-882833-4. $74.00, cloth.


Nearly two centuries before Spenser emerged into print, shards of Petrarch’s writing began to penetrate the English literary imagination. Petrarch never visited England, but in Familiares 1.3.4-6, he expressed admiration for Richard de Bury, first ambassador of Edward III to the papal court of Avignon. It’s conceivable that de Bury reciprocated by informing Edward’s courtiers of Petrarch’s achievements. By the mid-1380s Chaucer had ventriloquised Petrarch’s Italian sonnet 132 in book 1 of Troilus and Criseyde and his Latin rendition of Boccaccio’s story of Griselda in ‘The Clerk’s Tale’. An anonymous translation of Petrarch’s De Remediis utriusque fortunae ca. 1400 proved widely popular in the century that followed. In 1979 there emerged from obscurity a manuscript anthology of Middle English verse and prose in 226 leaves assembled at Winchester Cathedral Priory between 1477 and 1487, which contains an anonymous partial translation of Petrarch’s Secretum. Now edited and annotated by Edward Wilson and with an introduction by Daniel Wakelin, this translation provides valuable insight into the reception of Petrarch and Italian humanism within the ecclesiastical world of late fifteenth-century England.

Wakelin illuminates the context of the Winchester anthology which includes such diverse works as John Lydgate and Benedict Burgh’s Secrees of Old Philisoffres and a prose tract on The Demaundes off Love. These and other contents reflect educational practices at the Cathedral Priory, with their accent upon classical works of moral and humanist philosophy. The translation of the Secretum likely dates from earlier than its transcription, with the philological evidence of its lexicon, scribal techniques and textual transmission suggesting its composition in the mid-fifteenth century. Its formal compression of some passages from the Latin text and its paraphrase of others, along with its overall preference for concrete rather than abstract locution raise possibilities that the Anglicised dialogue between Franciscus (Petrarch) and (Saint) Augustinus might have been tailored for public readings or staged performances. These would comport with activities common in priory schools and ecclesiastical cultures of late fifteenth-century England.

Wilson’s editing calls appropriate attention to these features. The translation encompasses the prologue and first part of Petrarch’s three-part prose dialogue. It renders the text in verse rather than prose, deploying the stanza form of Chaucer’s ‘Monk’s Tale’ for the prologue and Augustinus’s closing lines, and shifting to couplet rhymes in flexible line-lengths of eight to thirteen syllables for the rest. Wilson supplies an informative endnote for almost every line of verse, comparing the translator’s lexical choices with Petrarch’s original Latin and pointing to instances of contraction, omission and expansion, along with identifying historical references, literary allusions and instances of revision. A select glossary of fifteenth-century word usage and a comprehensive up-to-date bibliography complete this short but densely packed volume.

In a wholly speculative vein, I wonder how Spenser’s generation—or for that matter the translator’s—might have responded to Franciscus’s insolent objections to Augustinus’s counsels about defeating the attractions of mortal life. Wilson’s notes on the translator’s idiosyncrasies have prompted me to explore them further in Nicholas Mann’s 2016 edition and translation of the text cited in the bibliography. A notable pattern emerges from these idiosyncrasies. Expansions of Augustinus’s arguments generally clarify and strengthen the saint’s reasoning, while those of Franciscus’s responses usually soften his resistance to the former’s advice. From the start Augustinus advocates for memento mori as a way to purge ‘The constreynt-despysynge and puttynge-ought / Off mannys lyff the vnclenn[l]ynesse’ (138-39). There’s no clear equivalent of this garbled phrase in the Latin text, but in the lines that follow, Augustinus urges Franciscus ‘To remember hys oold wrecchydnesse / And bysy medytacyon of dethe in especyall’ (140-41). Conversely, while the latter’s reply in the Latin text suggests curt opposition (‘I don’t understand you’), the translator’s expansion of it to ‘I vnderstonde the not clerelyche, ywysse. / I beseche the declare to me more pleyn’ (150-51) suggests effusive docility. The tendency is to uphold Augustinus’s admonition at Franciscus’s expense.

This pattern persists even when the interlocutors agree upon common principles. Both disparage the empty logic of scholastic dialectics, but as Augustinus’s derision of ‘arguments and sophynys and such dotage’ swells into parody, Franciscus’s rejoinder shrinks to submission: ‘Agayne thilke monstruus studye noo man can / Chide ynoughe ne byttyngelye hit repreve’ (597-610). Tellingly at the dialogue’s end, important differences between the historical protagonists’ attitudes toward language undergo contraction. Starting at line 800, Augustinus offers an allegorical interpretation of verses from Vergil’s Aeneid 6.730-34 that he finds congruent with Wisdom 9:15 (misattributed to ‘noble Seynt Powle,’ 809), Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations 1.16, and Attic philosophy: ‘Saufe change of Ƿe wordes Ƿer ys non oǷer dyfference / But Ƿat Ƿou shalt fynde, that may the plese, / The phylosophye of Plato and Socrates’ (834-36). For the historical Petrarch, the emergent philologist whose exquisite sensitivity to nuances of language and rhetoric would fuel literary discoveries and careful emendations of corrupt passages from Livy, Cicero, Seneca and Quintilian, nothing could be further from Augustinus’s holistic claims of identity for these authors. In Petrarch’s Latin text, Franciscus abruptly urges his interlocutor to return to the topic of their earlier discussion. In the translator’s version, however, Franciscus submits meekly to Augustinus: ‘But nowe to thy purpose I am condescendyde’ (868). Here Petrarch emerges as a kinder, gentler, less two-sided expositor on the claims of contemplative and active, compliant versus oppositional tempers that others would attribute to the historical personage.

The result allows Spenserians to glimpse in transit a manuscript culture still available to the Elizabethan poet, a humanist culture of translation and imitation rendered in myriad forms. Who might ever second-guess how Spenser profited from such sources of inspiration? By the mid-sixteenth century, at least five printed editions of Petrarch’s Latin works including the Secretum (1496, 1501, 1503, 1554, 1581), and many more printed editions of individual works such as De Remediis and his Latin and Italian poetry, had emanated from Italy. Most of them would have presented to Spenser a different face of Petrarch from the one inscribed in the fifteenth-century translation of Secretum. Leaving aside Spenser’s youthful encounter with Petrarch’s canzone 323 (seemingly via Clément Marot’s French translation of that poem) and his later engagement with Petrarchism in Amoretti, Epithalamion, and amatory episodes of The Faerie Queene, we can look to the commendation of ‘Petrarque’ in E. K.’s Epistle to Gabriel Harvey prefacing The Shepheardes Calender. This ‘Petrarque’ is the author of twelve Latin eclogues in his Bucolicum carmen, of which the second, fifth, sixth and seventh bitterly satirise machinations of church, state, and the Avignon papacy. These poems in turn leave general but unmistakable marks upon Spenser’s Maye, Julye and September eclogues about ecclesiastical politics. Spenser’s personae there appear far removed from the kind and gentle Petrarch of the manuscript Secretum. And so it might be that Spenser shows himself reacting against an earlier and easy-going depiction of the complicated and complex Italian humanist.


William J. Kennedy

Cornell University



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Cite as:

William J. Kennedy, "Edward Wilson, ed., A Middle English Translation from Petrarch's Secretum," Spenser Review 49.2.8 (Spring-Summer 2019). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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