Archive | December 2014

Rednose College, Oxford

Testones be gone to Oxforde, god be their speede:

To studie in Brasennose there to proceede.

I’m calling this a Christmas blog, on the basis that it involves red noses, and that’s about as festive as I get. Anyhow, what we have here is an epigram by the Tudor writer John Heywood (1496/7-1578 or later), shared with me by Bea Groves (thank you!), and it joins my growing collection of theoretically amusing epigrams that aren’t necessarily terribly funny (cf. this one by Martial).

To the poem in a second, but Heywood first: a pioneering English-language playwright and poet/epigrammatist, and a well-connected and successful man, although his Catholic faith became more and more of a liability the older he got, and he died in impoverished exile in the Low Countries. He was married to a niece of Sir Thomas More, which hints both at the advantages he enjoyed and the obstacles he faced; and his grandson was John Donne. Not the least of Heywood’s achievements was his popularization, through his poetry, of proverbial turns of expression. We still find ourselves saying (something like) “An ill winde that bloweth no man to good”, “a dog hath a day”, “Rome was not built in one day,” “eate your cake and have your cake”, to name just a few of Heywood’s proverbs, though it’s a cause of deep regret to me that we seem to have lost “Hungry dogges will eate durty puddings” and “to bring haddock to paddock”. Heywood owed a lot of these proverbs to Erasmus, whose collection of thousands of Latin and Greek sayings, the Adages, was one of the most influential pieces of writing ever composed. Anyone interested in the evidence for that claim, see here.

Now, our poem is just a common-or-garden epigram, not a proverb, and it’s actually concerned with an issue very specific to Tudor England, the debasement of the coinage. We might conclude also that it illustrates Heywood’s limited poetic talents, and how poorly humour travels across centuries, but I leave that judgment to my readers.


A teston is a coin, a shilling, minted by Henry VIII, and as this blog explains the financial pressures Henry faced had led to a drastic watering down of the silver content of a coin whose bullion value was supposed to be equal to its face value. I’m pretty certain the economic consequences of the so-called “Great Debasement” weren’t as straightforward as that blog suggests, and it’s actually an interesting question how much the general user of coinage knows about any reduction in precious metal content. When the same thing happened in third-century AD Rome, there’s an appealing theory that no one was much bothered about it until the reforming emperor Aurelian made the mistake of being upfront and honest about the debasement. That was the point at which confidence crashed and inflation took off, whereas up until then, so the thinking goes, most people had faith in the faces on the coinage: if its value was backed by the authority of the emperor, that was enough to maintain most people’s confidence in the currency.

It’s an intriguing situation if so, since it would be a case of “commodity money”, money worth what it’s worth by virtue of the precious metal it contains, functioning as “fiat money”, possessing value essentially because the government says so.

There’s evidence that the same might have been true of Henry’s debased shillings, and that they managed to retain their face value even as their bullion content plummeted, but the truth of what had happened to the silver coinage clearly did over time become widely known. An unfortunate consequence for Henry was a mocking nickname he received, “Old Coppernose”. On raised parts of the coin image, such as the tip of the king’s nose, the silver wash designed to maintain the appearance of an authentically silver coin would be rubbed off, exposing its essentially copper composition.

Here is an image of a debased teston which I’ve borrowed from the Royal Mint blog:


The joke of Heywood’s epigram is to relate these “coppernose” testons to a college at Oxford University, mine as it happens, called Brasenose or Brazen Nose. We don’t know how the college got its name (one theory traces it to an old word for brewery), but we’re very proud of it and our symbol is a nose. The debased coins, Heywood says, have upped sticks and gone to get a degree at an educational establishment that suits their character, Brazen nose College.

I’m pretty confident that isn’t funny. But it’s interesting that Heywood is implying that debasement is a past practice, now entirely abandoned: the debased testons are leaving the economic scene for Oxford, seems to be his point. This poem and the one that follows it on the same theme come from Heywood’s publication A fourth hundred of Epygrams, from 1560 (epigrams 63 and 64). By this time Elizabeth is on the throne and ostentatiously marking the new age by restoring the bullion content of the coinage: I do wonder how many people were really aware of the debasement until Elizabeth made a big noise about correcting it.

So the poem seems to be a bit of schmoozing directed at Elizabeth from a poet who had got on perhaps a little too well with Queen Mary. But it wasn’t much help in the long run: enforcement of Elizabeth’s religious settlement at the start of her reign made the position of Catholics like Heywood very difficult indeed, and in 1564 he left the country for good, with precious few shillings to his name.

Scene, a Cave

One line of Virgil’s Aeneid out of a total of around 10,000:

speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem

But the Aeneid is so intricately composed that every single line of it is potentially a miniature masterpiece in itself. This is my current favourite, anyhow.

Actually I’m cheating, because this one is strictly speaking two lines, first used at Aeneid 4.124 and then repeated, unchanged, at 165. The first time, it’s spoken by the goddess Juno as she explains to Venus her plan to unite the Trojan visitors with their Carthaginian hosts and hence neutralise the threat that Aeneas, through his descendants, poses to her beloved Carthage. She will raise a storm as they hunt, she tells Venus, and “Dido and the Trojan leader will take refuge in the same cave,” where Juno, the goddess of marriage, will join them in wedlock: speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem/ deuenient. When the line returns, it is in the voice of the narrator, the only change being the tense of the verb that rounds off the sentence in the following line, a present tense in place of Juno’s future as the goddess’s prediction is realised. The Trojans and Carthaginians gather for the hunt, a storm breaks, and “Dido and Aeneas take refuge in the same cave,” speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem/ deueniunt.

Everything about these six words is exquisite, if I’m honest, but let’s start with the very fact it’s repeated, because that in itself is a powerful narrative device, effortlessly achieved. Virgil likes to manipulate his readers’ sense of human free will. Throughout the Dido story we’re forced to wonder where the agency lies: are Dido and Aeneas falling in love as any humans might, or are they the puppets of higher forces? Here Juno sets out to Venus how she will arrange matters, but after that scene in heaven the narrative shifts back to the human level, and we’re distracted by a sequence of compelling descriptions of human activity, the magnificent preliminaries to the royal hunt, the superlative beauty of Aeneas and Dido especially (Aeneas is equated to the god Apollo), and then the excitement of the hunt itself. It has only been forty lines, but in that time the power of Virgil’s storytelling has made us forget the gods’ role in events, lulling us into accepting a strictly human frame of reference. Then suddenly that line returns, the narrator repeating the precise words of Juno; and we realise that events are happening exactly as Juno had predicted they would. The illusion of mortal freedom and dignity is shattered, and it’s a terrifying moment.

But what about the line itself? Even if there weren’t that wonderful effect in store, we could forgive Virgil for repeating it, since he makes it communicate far more than any line should. For starters, he exploits the flexibility of Latin word order to create a verbal image of the scene: the words for the cave, speluncam … eandem, “in the same cave” or perhaps “in the cave together”, surround “Dido and the Trojan leader” (Dido dux et Troianus) just as the cave encompasses the two lovers: a line of verse is made, as far as a line of verse can be made, to look like the restricted space of a cave. I’ve always felt that this famous image from a fifth-century manuscript of Virgil, the Vergilius Romanus, the lovers squeezed into a very cosy-looking cubicle, was inspired by the structure of Virgil’s line.

But if the cave is evoked by meticulous word placement, so is the relationship between the couple within it. Something that Virgil constantly plays on in the Dido story is the anxiety he knows Romans are bound to feel at the idea of their founding father emotionally entangled with the queen of Carthage. There are levels to this anxiety, none of them reflecting well on the Romans: at the most basic, a Roman male would feel threatened by the very notion of a man surrendering his emotional autonomy to a woman, and Virgil works on this fear expertly here. By pushing apart the words we translate as “Trojan leader”, dux et Troianus, and allowing the word for leader, dux, to sit next to Dido’s name, Dido dux et Troianus, Virgil introduces an ambiguity into the line: momentarily we think that the dominant figure in this relationship, the leader, is Dido, not Aeneas, and we’re more prepared to do so because Dido has been presented by Virgil as a charismatic leader of her people (from a Roman perspective a highly paradoxical, female leader) ever since her first introduction to the poem: Venus, recounting Dido’s achievements to Aeneas when he first arrives at Carthage in Book 1, tells him that dux femina facti, “a woman was the leader of the enterprise.” Here in Book 4, as I say, the effect is momentary: when we get to Troianus we know it’s an adjective and it needs a noun to qualify: the “leader” is the “Trojan” Aeneas. But the idea has been broached that Aeneas is not embodying the masculine dominance that Romans expected of their heroes.

But Dido and Aeneas aren’t just any old woman and man, of course. They are the founder of Carthage and the founder-to-be of Rome, in other words representatives of two cities which would in historical times fight the Punic Wars to decide which of them controlled the Mediterranean basin. To Romans the Carthage founded by Dido could only be the city that produced Hannibal, the city that almost destroyed their own, and which Rome felt had to be destroyed to ensure their own survival (delenda est Carthago, as Cato the Censor used to put it). That struggle was still a strong folk memory in Virgil’s day. Long after Hannibal’s death he was a bogeyman Roman mothers used to get their kids to eat their greens, just as Boney was in England for a long time after the Napoleonic Wars. One of the very strangest things about Virgil’s account of Carthage is how sympathetic and appealing he chose to make a place that his readers were conditioned to regard as irredeemably malevolent. An alliance between the Trojans and Carthaginians, even an amalgamation of the two peoples, is repeatedly mooted, explicitly and implicitly, in Virgil’s Carthage episode, but the poet knows that that the notion of Rome’s ancestors contributing to the gene pool of their sworn enemies is anathema to his Roman readers.

Well, contributing to the Carthaginian gene pool is one way of describing what Aeneas is up to in that cave. What we need to appreciate is how wrong in principle such a relationship would have seemed to Roman eyes.

So Virgil’s intricate word order suggests a man losing control of his destiny, ceding leadership to a woman. But it is a Roman man we are dealing with, and a Carthaginian woman, and that increases the offensiveness of the scene significantly. What occurred to me in the middle of a school talk last week (it was late on a Friday, so forgive me) was that all of this Roman anxiety about Aeneas’ shenanigans in Carthage could be boiled down to a fear of muddying the clear distinction that had to be maintained between Trojans/Romans and Carthaginians, and this is what I think is most troubling about the line: Virgil presents us with characters whose proper roles are confused, but more fundamentally with a couple so intimately involved that they can’t clearly be distinguished.

Now one thing to say is, again, that the sharp differentiation of Roman and Carthaginian was critical to a Roman sense of Romanness to a degree that we can’t any longer appreciate. This is a scene bound to outrage the sensibilities of the male Romans who were Virgil’s primary audience, then. But it also seems to me that this is yet another respect in which Virgil’s line is reflecting in its verbal shape the scene it depicts, in other words that there’s something very suggestive about the intertwining of the (words for the) lovers in this cave-like line. Virgil is notoriously oblique about what does happen in the cave, but I’d say that the word order gives the game away clearly enough.

Of course, Latinists don’t need to be told how sexy the word order of an inflected language can be.