- On Famous Women: The Middle English Translation of Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris, Edited from London, British Library, MS Additional 10304 ed. by Janet Cowen
London, British Library, MS Additional 10304, dating to the mid-fifteenth century, is the only surviving copy of an English verse translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s prose work De mulieribus claris. It is one of only two known premodern English translations of this Latin work, and as such it is an important witness to early humanist interest in Boccaccio, as well as a (broadly) Chaucerian tradition of writing about women. Selections of this translation had previously been edited by Julius Zupitza in 1892, and a full edition prepared by Gustav Schleich was published in 1924. Cowen’s new edition is thus welcome and will make readily available a fascinating moment in the English reception of Boccaccio, greatly facilitating the closer study of this English Famous Women. The edition comprises: a fifty-one page Introduction; the text of the translation, followed by a critical apparatus; a commentary, keyed to line numbers; a glossary; index of names; and a bibliography. The component parts of the edition are all well done, clearly presented, and easy to navigate.
The Introduction examines the manuscript and its scribe. Additional 10304 comprises a mixture of parchment and paper; a humanist script is used for the Latin verse prologues and a cursive book hand for the English text. It is exceptionally rare in the fifteenth century to find a humanist script being used in an English book. The page, then, graphically presents what the work more generally attempts, namely, a verse rendering in English of a humanist Latin prose work. Cowen then describes Boccaccio’s De mulieribus and examines the linguistic profile of the English text. Her painstaking attention to the language of the translation does not yield anything more specific than a determination of location in perhaps Norfolk or East Anglia. The textual problems in the manuscript have all been clearly indicated, and emendations very often follow Schleich. Sometimes variations in spelling are not emended (as they are in Schleich), as Cowen wishes “to draw attention to the imponderables of the situation” (p. xlvii). The textual apparatus is placed at the end of the text, on pp. 51–55, rather than at the bottom of the page, requiring the reader to move back and forth between text and apparatus (what the Italian philologist Alfredo Stussi has wryly described as “ocular gymnastics”).
The translation is selective, including only twenty-one of Boccaccio’s 106 lives. The adaptation often flattens out Boccaccio’s encyclopedic approach, an approach that sees him layer sources one on top of another, including contradictory details, leaving the reader to choose. The Famous Women translator will exclude material, sometimes considerably changing the tenor of the heroine being presented. This is the case for Semiramis, for example, where her incestuous union with her son is omitted in the English version, but treated at length by Boccaccio. The English translator frequently amplifies what he finds in Boccaccio, drawing upon Ovid and Virgil to supplement his brief portraits. This is in no sense, then, a pedestrian re-presentation of Boccaccio’s work, but rather a highly engaged work of selection, omission, and cultural appropriation. Cowen tends to place this translator into a wider fifteenth-century context of verse influenced by Lydgate, and this is [End Page 255] broadly correct. Lydgate’s influence is perhaps most strongly felt in the metrical handling of the line. It is true that the translator imagines a line of succession from Petrarch, author of a compilation of lives of famous men, to Boccaccio, who writes his own compilation of famous men and who invokes the model of Petrarch at the opening of his compilation of famous women, and then to Lydgate, whose Fall of Princes...