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.