Department of Greek & Latin


Neo-Latin Poetry in Manuscript

This project has ended. Our colleagues continue to work on the subject outside of the project.  Please see our research page for current information about our research activities and areas.

Welcome to the webpage for Dr Victoria Moul’s Leverhulme-funded research project.

Neo-Latin Poetry in English Manuscript Verse Miscellanies, c. 1550-1700.

This project is surveying for the first time the enormous quantity of neo-Latin verse preserved in early modern English manuscript sources. We hope to restore to scholarly visibility the ‘Latin dimension’ of the bilingual literary culture of sixteenth and seventeenth century England: a period in which Latin (not English) was an international language, and in which not only the reading but also the writing of Latin verse was a significant element in all secondary education. Latin poetry was widely used in contexts ranging from personal correspondence and private devotional verse to popular satire and formal panegyric.

The project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust over four years (2017-2021). Our team consists of the project lead and principal investigator, Dr Victoria Moul, who is an Associate Professor (Reader) in Early Modern Latin and English at UCL; Dr Bianca Facchini, a full-time post-doctoral researcher (2017-20); Dr Edward Taylor, a second post-doctoral researcher from an early modern history background (2019-21); and two fully-funded PhD students, Sharon van Dijk and Raffaella Colombo.

We have so far identified around 28,000 Latin verse items, ranging from single lines to epic-length poems, in around 1,500 manuscripts now held in about 40 different English archives and libraries. These includes poems of many different genres and verse commenting on almost every significant political event of the period, as well as a great deal of more personal material. 

First line index

The project is developing a first line index which will eventually include all the examples of post-medieval Latin verse surveyed in early modern English manuscripts. This is a work in progress and it will be some years before it is freely available. In the meantime, researchers who are interested to know whether a given Latin poem or poems is recorded in the index as it currently stands should feel free to contact Victoria Moul (v.moul@ucl.ac.uk).

If you are interested in the project or have questions about the material we are working on do please contact Victoria (v.moul@ucl.ac.uk). Victoria is happy to advise both academic colleagues or research students and librarians or archivists on any early modern Latin verse material they have come across.

See below for several short blog entries and essays describing the work of the project.

Project essays and blogs

A visit to Surrey History Centre (Spring 2018)

In the first few months of the project we were surveying almost entirely in very large collections - at the British Library, the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Cambridge University Library. These are enormous collections which have over the centuries acquired sets of manuscripts from many different sources. We'll post more in due course about what we have found in the large collections of this kind, including the Portland Collection at Nottingham, the Brotherton Collection in Leeds and the manuscripts held in the John Rylands library in Manchester.

But today I thought it would be interesting to say a bit about what it's like from a research point of view to visit smaller collections. In the past few weeks we have visited local archives and record offices in Chester, Brighton, Woking, Stafford, Northampton, Hertford, Chelmsford, Aylesbury, Derby, Manchester, Leeds, Winchester, Taunton and Warwick as well as the National Archives (at Kew) and collections in Durham, the Society of Antiquaries in London and the Royal Society (also in London). One of the fascinating things about this project is how we are finding some examples of neo-Latin verse in almost every collection with significant material from the sixteenth or seventeenth century.

A few weeks ago, for instance, I went to the Surrey History Centre in Woking. https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/heritage-culture-and-recreation/archives-and-history/surrey-history-centre

I had contacted the archivists in advance with a list of 18 items which, from our search of the Surrey Archives (http://www.surreyarchives.org.uk) looked like they either definitely did, or realistically might, contain Latin verse dating from between c. 1550 and 1700. Most catalogues don't itemise Latin verse so there's a lot of informed guess-work behind this kind of preparation, though experience helps: for instance, commonplace books and verse miscellanies described as being collections of English verse more often than not, in this period, have at least one Latin poem. Of the items I had requested on this occasion, four turned out to have no Latin poems at all. One, which the catalogue had suggested was Latin verse in praise of Oriel College, probably from the 18th century (so worth checking for our purposes), was in fact a college drinking song composed in the early 19th century. (By John Hughes: John Hughes)

The others all had Latin verse which was 'in scope' for the project, dating from between around 1566 and the 1640s, though with a few complications: one volume included some Latin verse (from the 1640s) which wasn't mentioned in the catalogue; and two other manuscripts turned out to be different portions of - originally - the same pamphlet. The cataloguer had noticed that they were in the same hand, but not that they were actually parts of the same thing. One had at some point been folded the wrong way, which made it hard to spot what had happened. Here I was able to contribute a correction to the catalogue, which now lists these two items as one corrected catalogue entry. Many thanks to Isabel Sullivan, the archivist, for her interest in the project. Meeting professional archivists is one of the best bits about these local trips: at these smaller collections it is often possible to discuss individual items in a way that isn't feasible in very large research libraries.

The most intriguing item I found in Woking was a strongly Catholic poem amongst the papers of one of the enforcers of the Elizabethan settlement, William More of Loseley, who died in 1600: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_More_(died_1600)

The poem was catalogued as 'anti-Calvinist', when it is in fact much more generally anti-Protestant, urging England to cast off the darkness of the Reformation and confidently predicting the resurrection of the Catholic cause. The hand-writing looks like it belongs to the latter part of the 16th century, which fits with More's dates. It is a striking piece - but what is it doing amongst William More's papers? Why would an ardent Protestant have such a poem?

I took it to the archivist on duty, Michael Page, who was equally intrigued. He too thought the hand looked 16th century. With an experienced historian's eye, he looked straight for the proper names (usually the quickest way to date or place something unfamiliar). I was able to translate two Latin adjectives meaning [of or relating to] Douai and Louvain, two centres for the education of English Catholics in the latter 17th century - the college at Douai was founded in 1561. Mike then asked me what a word repeated twice towards the end of the poem, 'Bristone', might mean: this is not a Latin word, and it's not the standard Latinization for any particular place. It is therefore likely to be the Latinization of a vernacular name. A bit of internet research duly led us to Richard Bristow (1538-1581), educated at Oxford, who, increasingly convinced of the Catholic cause, abandoned a promising university career in England and left for the continent in around 1568. He went to Louvain, helped William Allen run the English college at Douai and played a major role in the Douai-Rheims translation of the Bible, before returning to England in 1581. Although records are sparse, it seems that he was arrested with Edmund Campion later that year but (probably luckily for him) died in prison before he could meet the same fate as Campion. The poem is addressed to Bristow, and concludes with strong personal praise of him; it was perhaps given to him by a fellow English Catholic when he left for England.

At this point Mike's local knowledge was invaluable - he knew that William More was involved in the enforcement of the Elizabethan settlement, and was involved in the trial of Catholics. Indeed, the Loseley archive includes an account of the last speech and execution (on 2 Mar 1585) of William Parry, a Roman Catholic accused of plotting to murder the Queen; according to the record of proceedings in the House of Commons, More seconded a motion 'urging that a more hideous means of executing him be devised than the usual traitor's death' (House of Commons, 1558-1603, ed P W Hasler; thanks to Isabel Sullivan for this reference). We have no other evidence (so far) that More was involved in Bristow's case, but it seems probable that this - rather incriminating - poem was confiscated from Bristow on his arrest.

This is quite a satisfactory piece of detective work into what we call 'provenance' - where a manuscript came from and how it ended up where it is now. Though as so often such an explanation leaves some tantalising questions: such a story plausibly explains how More might have come by the poem, but not why he choose to keep this item in particular. Could he have known Bristow earlier in his life? Did he feel sorry for him? Perhaps he just thought it was a strikingly effective poem. Or the opposite - a vivid example of the wrong-headedness of the Roman Catholics of whom he was an enthusiastic persecutor. The poem is anonymous, but perhaps he thought it might come in useful in a future trial.

We'll probably never know why this particular man kept this particular poem; but we are finding many items of this sort - individual Latin poems amongst miscellaneous papers, even in collections which are not literary in general. Pieces of this kind are particularly likely to be uncatalogued, or only very minimally described, but they can be a treasure-trove of insights into what mattered to the individuals who wrote, copied, received or choose to keep them; and although we can find it hard to understand today, they testify vividly to the cultural, political and personal importance of Latin poetry in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Meet the team - Sharon van Dijk

I am Sharon van Dijk, one of the PhD students working on the project, and I thought I would briefly introduce myself.

My background is in Classics and English literature. After graduating from University College Roosevelt (University of Utrecht) with a BA in Liberal Arts and Sciences focusing on these subjects, I completed an MSt in Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford. As part of this master, I did a module in Classical reception and my dissertation focused on classical reception in (early modern) English pastoral elegies. When I decided to do further research, and apply for a PhD, I discovered the importance of neo-Latin literature in this period.

After completing my master, I taught Latin at the Royal Masonic School for Girls in Rickmansworth and at Priory Academy in Dunstable, before starting work for a charity called the Latin Programme, which teaches Latin to Y3-6 in London primary schools, with the aim of improving literacy. After starting the PhD this academic year, I carried on teaching for them one day a week until Christmas and they interviewed me for a fundraising article (“A Day in the Life”), which also mentions the Leverhulme project. You can find it here:


Within the larger project, which surveys neo-Latin verse preserved in early modern English manuscripts, my research focuses on pastoral. I am interested in the conceptions of pastoral in the early modern period. We have already found poems which show that classicists’ assumptions about generic terminology are not a reliable guide to early-modern practice, such as an Idyllium on Germany’s pre-eminence in mining and war and poems referred to as Eclogae, which are not in hexameters. I also enjoy the occasional nature of these poems, which address political and religious issues and often concern important historical figures. I think a better understanding of neo-Latin pastoral could also offer further insights into the English genre of pastoral, which starts to flourish in the late 16th century.

Because of my teaching experience, I am passionate about showing the importance of (neo-) Latin to children and young people. I am therefore very excited about the outreach we are doing as part of the project, including a series of primary school workshops which we’ll post about in more detail soon. This Friday (the 9th of February), Bianca and I will be going to Oxford to represent the Society for Neo-Latin Studies at the Festival of Imagined Worlds (which is organised by the Iris Project and will take place at Cheney School). At our stall, visitors will discover that many people could speak and write Latin in the early modern period and that we therefore have many Latin poetry, plays and stories from this period. They will learn something about the imagined worlds from two neo-Latin texts: Thomas More’s Utopia and Ludvig Holberg’s Nicolai Klimii iter subterraneum. Taking pages from these texts as examples, children can have a go at writing some Latin with a quill, just like pupils in the 16th and 17th centuries did and create their own bit of manuscript.

I am also the postgraduate representative for the Society for Neo-Latin Studies. The society’s yearly postgraduate event will take place in Manchester on the 16th of March.  It promises to be an interesting event, which will give postgraduate and post-doctoral researchers opportunities to discuss ideas and meet other scholars in the discipline. There will be papers in the morning and a special workshop on ‘Editing Neo-Latin Texts’ led by Prof. Sarah Knight in the afternoon. Please do comment if you have any questions about this event or any other aspect of what we are doing.

An introduction to the field: why read or study early modern Latin poetry?

This project aims to survey for the first time the enormous quantity of post-medieval Latin (‘neo-Latin’) verse preserved in early modern English manuscript sources. We hope to restore to scholarly visibility the 'Latin dimension' of the bilingual literary culture of sixteenth and seventeenth century England: a period in which Latin (not English) was an international language, and in which not only the reading but also the writing of Latin verse was a significant element in all secondary education.

The latter sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are a period of English literary history in which both print and manuscript were important modes of publishing and circulating poetry. Many important English poets of this period – such as John Donne or George Herbert – choose not to publish their poetry in print during their lifetimes, and instead circulated it only or largely in manuscript copies. Many thousands of manuscripts containing contemporary poetry survive from this period. These sources range from beautiful, professional presentation manuscripts, copied by scribes, and given as gifts to a monarch or influential patron; to personal notebooks and miscellanies, containing an individual’s favourite poems and often their own compositions too; to scraps and piles of unbound letters and papers which have been preserved in various archives, often as part of a family collection. All these very different kinds of manuscript contain important information about the sorts of poetry that people at the time were reading and writing. This is a period, then, where we can’t fully appreciate the literary culture of the age unless we look at both manuscript and print sources.

The importance of manuscript sources for understanding English poetry of this period has been well recognised among scholars for some time. But if were to go to a large library, such as the British Library, and order a selection of printed books and manuscripts from this period at random, you would find something surprising: although the statistics vary depending on time and place, around 50% of what would be delivered to your desk would be either wholly or partly in Latin, not English; and a larger proportion than this if you included, for instance, English books with some Latin prefatory verses. English literary culture was bilingual throughout this period: and not just in the sense that works were read and written both in English and in Latin, but also in a stronger sense – one of the most common categories of poem in manuscript sources are bilingual pairs, one in Latin and one in English. Such ‘pairs’ may be translations, imitations or responses to each other.

So ‘English’ literary culture was, to a profound degree, carried out not only in English. But for various political, cultural and academic reasons, English literary scholarship has almost completely ignored the Latinity of early modern literary culture. Even the (very substantial) body of Latin poetry of a poet as significant to English literary history as George Herbert has barely been studied at all, and until recently was unavailable in English translation. From a 17th century European perspective, the single most influential British poet of the period was not Shakespeare (whose works are barely mentioned by contemporary readers between his death and the 18th century), Jonson (who wrote only in English) or Milton (whose posthumous reputation was damaged by his politics) but the enormously popular Welsh epigrammatist John Owen. Legal and pirated editions of his poetry were a publishing hit right across Europe, and his work was widely quoted, copied, imitated and even taught in schools well into the eighteenth century. Jonson’s Epigrams (first published in 1616) are in large part an attempt to capitalise in English poetry on the popularity of Owen (whose epigrams appeared from 1612). Indeed, so many editions of Owen’s poetry were produced that you can still buy a seventeenth century copy for well under £100. But the only modern edition of Owen’s poetry appeared only in 2015, with French commentary and translation, and there is still no modern English translation of what was by a substantial margin the single most popular work of poetry produced in 17th century England.

Influence worked in the other direction, too, and in ways we now may find surprising. Herbert – today generally appreciated as a paradigmatically ‘Anglican’ poet – would not have developed the style of devotional English verse that he did without wide reading in the hugely popular Jesuit Latin poets of the early seventeenth century; and the tradition of English hymnody, largely the invention of Isaac Watts, and probably the most widely influential and most broadly known body of English poetry in the world, would not have come about with Watts’ formative encounter – by his own admission – with two poets above all – the ancient lyric poet Horace, and the contemporary Polish Latin poet, the Jesuit Casimir Sarbiewski. Latin poetry was a truly international phenomenon, and it crossed boundaries of religious difference and (in modern terms) national identity in a way that has many parallels with the ‘international’ languages, including English, in the modern world.