- Thomas Gascoigne, Libraries and Scholarship
Thomas Gascoigne (1403/4-1457/8) has long been known to medievalists in a number of interrelated fields: of the history of Oxford University, of English books and libraries, of the writings of Robert Grosseteste, and of fifteenth-century England in general. His career was an unusual one, in that his gentle birth and financial independence gave him the means to follow his inclination: to spend the whole of his adult life at Oxford University, where he served briefly as Chancellor (1443/4-1445).
But Gascoigne was anything but a dilettante or gentleman of leisure: his position in the university was dedicated to theological studies, of which key principles were an emphasis on preaching and pastoral care, based upon a renewed, direct, and profound confrontation with patristic texts: 'back to the Fathers'. The goal of his prodigious reading in this literature over some three decades was to have been an enormous book (occupying 686 leaves in the surviving copy), called by him Liber seu scriptum de ueritatibus collectis ex Sacra Scriptura et ex scriptis sanctorum et doctorum. Arranged under alphabetical subject headings, it presents an array of scriptural and patristic quotations (some 5000 citations from 300 works) together with Gascoigne's own interpretative (often polemical) comments. There is nothing original about either the book's goal or its organization; the Pera Peregrini, compiled by a monk of New Minster in 1350, is similar in both respects, and in the only surviving copy (Merton College MS 70) fills 523 leaves. What is remarkable about Gascoigne's work is the fact that he gives full references to his sources, even to copies in individual libraries. They show, as one would expect, that he drew in the first instance on the resources of Oxford itself - the friars, University and College Libraries - but that he also consulted the libraries of religious houses as far afield as York, Durham, Canterbury, and Worcester, and above all Syon outside London.
The present monograph begins with a concise and illuminating account of Gascoigne's life and work, focusing upon the grand project outlined above, set in the context of post-Wycliffian Oxford. This is underpinned by the subsequent sections (Lists I-IV), which provide the detailed evidence for Gascoigne's reading, travels, and modus operandi. They will also be found a mine of information for scholars with other or broader interests. They offer: works cited by Gascoigne; books owned by him; libraries used by him; and, finally, manuscripts containing his distinctive nota signs and annotations. In this last respect the frontispiece, showing a page from Gascoigne's notebook, is itself a vital document. A few more such plates would have been welcome because it is certainly the case that more of Gascoigne's books remain to be discovered by those who are able to recognize his hand. [End Page 210]
In carrying out the research for this deceptively small book, the author has had to follow in Gascoigne's footsteps both literally and metaphorically. For example, List III, 'Libraries Used by Gascoigne', comprises 121 items representing thirty-six medieval libraries, the surviving books scattered between sixteen modern ones. List IV, 'Manuscripts Annotated by Gascoigne', consists of ninety-six items in twenty-three libraries, all British but widely dispersed, from Aberdeen to London (north to south) and from Cambridge to Hereford (east to west). Many of the books, whether in existence or now lost, are described in considerable detail, based on first-hand autopsy.
Yet no matter how conscientious and hard-working the author - qualities that are conspicuous in this book - work of this kind inevitably depends to a considerable degree upon information supplied by librarians and fellow scholars. It is, then, surprising that the acknowledgements of help are so few. Of the two manuscripts at Hereford Cathedral, for example, one was 'flagged' to the author by another scholar, as this reviewer is well aware. [End Page 211]