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This is a slightly revised translation of an essay I wrote for the festschrift in honour of Willem Kuiper, reader in Dutch medieval literature at the University of Amsterdam (Want hi verkende dien name wale, ed. M. Hogenbirk & R. Zemel). Willem has done more than any scholar to raise our awareness of names in medieval texts; this essay is presented in the spirit (although not with the erudition) of Willem’s always fascinating and thought-provoking columns, published since 1993 in Neder-L (http://nederl.blogspot.co.uk).


Years ago, on holiday in Italy, I met two Danes who lived in Venice, where they sold tickets for concerts, wearing period costume. They told me that for months they had announced tickets for performances of music by ‘Vivaldi, Albinoni, Anonymus and Verdi’. Only after a long time had they realized that Anonymus was a composer of a completely different calibre from the other three.

Besides being a famous composer of classical music, Anonymus (also known under her pseudonym Anonyma) was hands down both the most versatile and most productive author of the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, scholars have never held Anonymus in very high esteem: in general, they prefer a different name for the author of ‘their’ texts. The wish to know more about these texts leads to a desire to label every text with an author’s name. When, after long puzzling and archive research, that desire can finally be satisfied, scholars often breathe a ‘sigh of deceit’, as Herman Pleij, professor of Dutch medieval literature, once fittingly characterized it (in a slip of the tongue which he subsequently himself branded Freudian).

Of course, to some extent, this was already the case in the Middle Ages, and even then people often searched for the name of the author behind the anonymous text. Works by Anonymus could with regularity be given now this, then that author’s name – thus, for example, in the case of the Historia Brittonum, which was sometimes attributed to the all but unknown Nennius, but at other moments to the famous Gildas. In the meanwhile, the text also continued to be copied as a work by Anonymus (see Dumville 1975/6).

An author’s name could also fulfill a function which could perhaps best be compared to the function of the publisher’s logo on the modern printed book: at the same time a mark of quality and an indication of genre. Thus, when Geoffrey Chaucer had prematurely ceased writing the Canterbury Tales, many an Anonymus wrote continuations under Chaucer’s name (see Bonner 1951). Even that collective authorship, by the way, did not suffice to tell all the tales promised on the departure to Canterbury. Similarly, the ‘father of all Dutch poets combined’, Jacob van M(a)erlant – let’s not even get started about the correct form of his toponym – appears to have been a victim of such practices with some regularity. Which regularity exactly is still subject of dispute, but dBoec vanden Houte (‘The Book of the Rood’) has long ago been deleted from his oeuvre, and the same should happen with Van den lande van oversee (‘Of the Land Oversea’, see Jacob 2000). Der kerken clage (‘Complaint of the Church’) and some of the Martijns attributed to Jacob are also suitable candidates for such deletion.

Name grab still regularly occurred in the early modern period, too: thus, six years after his death, Shakespeare wrote a play about Merlin (it was first printed much later still, in 1662). Even when taking into account the time-bending powers of the prophet who was the subject of the play, this is an impossible achievement of the bard. And thus it continues: still in the nineteenth century a fabricated eye-witness account of the trial and execution of Jerome of Prague was published under the name of the actual eye-witness Poggio Bracciolini (see Salomon 1956).

Comparable to such cases is also the pseudo-Author, or perhaps better the pseudo-Authority: an Anonymus who presents as a usually many centuries older (late) classical authority. The Encyclopedia of the Medieval Chronicle (Dunphy 2010) names, among others, pseudo-Joshua de Stylite, pseudo-Methodius, pseudo-Iamsilla and pseudo-Symeon. Willem Kuiper has introduced his readers to, among others, pseudo-Turpin, pseudo-Bonaventura, pseudo-Hegesippus and pseudo-Albertus Magnus (Kuiper 2007, 2010, 2013; Kuiper & Resoort 1995; Lie, Kuiper & Summerfield 2011). And there are also pseudo-Texts: thus, Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that behind his Latin history of Britain lay a ‘British’ (that is, probably, Welsh) source. His actual use of sources tells another story (see Levelt 2002). Possibly most impressive in this context is the work of Annius of Viterbo (which appropriately itself again is a pseudonym of Giovanni Nanni). In his work pseudo-Authority and pseudo-Text coincide: to support his pseudo-Ancient History, Annius himself composed seventeen complete pseudo-Works by pseudo-Authors (see Ligota 1987).

But while there are, of course, many texts which were provided with an author’s name in this way, and on the other hand enough texts of which the author’s name was known with reasonable certainty, the medieval public in general did not object against work by Anonymus – and Anonymus was always ready to satisfy the desires of that public. Many of the most famous works from the Middle Ages are transmitted to us anonymously: from Beowulf to the Brut chronicles, from Everyman to Piers Plowman,* from the York Mystery Plays to the Dream of the Rood, from Pearl to Patience to Cleanness to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, time and again the texts were written anonymously and remained so, or were only provided with an author’s name (much) later. The following example will make clear how that process of attribution is not always innocent, and that in any case the moment of attribution of authorship is also a moment of significant loss.

In 1517, in Leiden, Die cronycke van Hollandt, Zeelandt ende Vrieslant (‘The Chronicle of Holland, Zeeland and Friesland’) was published. The printer was Jan Seversz, the author was Anonymus. An argument has been made that the author did not wish to reveal his identity because the work contained some ideas which were ‘quasi-Lutheran avant la lettre’, but here as always the law of Ockham’s razor applies: the inquisition, self-evidently, was not introduced ‘avant la lettre’. In 1516, when the author submitted the manuscript of the chronicle to the publisher, virtually nobody had ever heard the name Martin Luther in the Low Countries (only in October 1517 he would publish the theses which would make his name renowned and much maligned), and religious persecutions only really took off over the course of the 1520s. That the chronicle’s publisher, Jan Seversz, in 1524 became the first Dutch printer to feel the brunt of these persecutions does not change that: Anonymus is not Merlin, and cannot foresee the future. When the chronicle was written, one would be entirely justified to say: ‘Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition.’ Anonymus remained anonymous because that was the matter of course; there is, therefore, no need to search for extraordinary circumstances to explain that anonymity.

The title of the chronicle, as well, was as generic as could be. Quickly, however, it was replaced by readers with more specific descriptions: the ‘large’ chronicle of Holland; the chronicle with ‘divisions’ (the work was organized in thirty-two ‘divisions’). Today, the work is best known under the title Divisiekroniek (‘Division Chronicle’), but that name should properly be placed between inverted commas. Nowadays, we also have an author’s name, for which we should especially thank an early reader, Jan van Naaldwijk, who tells us that the work was written by one ‘brother Cornelius of Lopsen, regular’; him we believe to know under the name Cornelius Aurelius. The remark, which Jan wrote down shortly after he had first become acquainted with the chronicle, was rediscovered in the nineteenth century, and seized to permanently provide an author to Die cronycke van Hollandt, Zeelandt ende Vrieslant.

And while Aurelius is an excellent candidate for the authorship of the Divisiekroniek, it is not at all clear whether Jan van Naaldwijk based his claim on actual knowledge, or on conjecture; in any case we know for certain that for personal reasons it was expedient to him that via Aurelius, a childhood friend of Erasmus, he was able to link the Divisiekroniek to the group of humanists which had formed around the famous son of Rotterdam. The attribution of authorship blurs our vision on those reasons, and passes by the fact that the great majority of readers of the Divisiekroniek in the sixteenth to the nineteenth century knew the text as a work by Anonymus; it possibly also is a contributory factor to the circumstance that in scholarly publications about the text little attention has been paid to the possibility that the publisher himself thoroughly intervened with the work (see Levelt 2011: 148-68 and Gerritsen 1992).

Sometimes it was individual readers, like Jan van Naaldwijk, who replaced Anonymus with a named author; sometimes such an attribution was shared widely. Thus, virtually every contemporary knew that the anonymously published Weltchronik was the work of Hartmann Schedel (thus, for example, Trithemius 1494: fol. 139v and Anonymus 1517: fol. b.v). Sometimes readers were collectively engaged in depriving Anonymus of the authorship of a work: thus, for example, many readers of Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion (1612), in a large number of extant copies, by hand added the name of the anonymous author of the prose commentary which was printed with the text. When he wrote this commentary, John Selden was a nearly unknown entity; when modern readers of the text write how Drayton for the commentary consulted ‘the great antiquarian scholar’ John Selden (‘the learnedst man on earth’), therefore, they are wide beside the mark. Drayton consulted a promising but virtually unknown young friend, who eventually, partly thanks to the work he delivered, made name. By taking the name of the author for granted, we miss that dimension in our understanding of the text and its history.

Taking into account how widespread anonymous authorship was, it is regrettable that in general, in books about medieval literary theory and ideas about authorship (such as Minnis 1988 and Wogan Brown et al. 1999), the principle is all but ignored; there, the emphasis is especially on the self-confidence and self-knowledge of the medieval author. On the one hand, that is a welcome correction to what came before: the previously widespread assumption that individuality did not exist in the Middle Ages. But it also ignores the interesting dynamic that individuality and anonymity can engage in. The fact that most medieval texts were disseminated anonymously does not detract from the significance of authorship in medieval textual culture, on the contrary: only in contrast with that omnipresent anonymous authorship we can clearly distinguish the contours of known authorship (see, e.g., Unzeitig 2010).

Thus far my plea for the recognition of Anonymus as author; not because the author is dead (Barthes 1967), nor because we have to believe without question Foucault (1969) when he claims that authorship, before the early modern period, was only considered important in relation to works of science, but because we are now – in part thanks to Alistair Minnis (1988) and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (1999) – thoroughly convinced that authorship has indeed always mattered, but Anonymous nevertheless continued to write with impressive persistence (see North 2003).


For whom this all still does not suffice, this: Anonymus, over time, became known under countless other names, too. Besides Saint Nobody, one of these names is Nameless, who in turn was better known by the name Oursson (Kuiper 2012). Acquaintances of Willem Kuiper know him better by the name Wildeman (‘Wild Man’).** Sufficient reason to pay close attention to the precise role of Anonymus in medieval literature.





* Helen Cooper has recently discussed the consequences of attribution of authorship of Piers Plowman to our understanding of the text in a lecture at the University of Oxford Medieval English Research Seminar, ‘Right Naming in Piers Plowman and the Romances’.


** ‘In De Wildeman’ is the beer tasting bar frequented by Willem with his students and colleagues (http://www.indewildeman.nl/).






Anonymus, Die cronycke van Hollandt, Zeelandt ende Vrieslant, beghinnende van Adams tiden […].Leiden, 1517.

Barthes, R., ‘The Death of the Author’, in: Aspen 5-6 (1967), transl. Richard Howard, n.p.

Bonner, F.W., ‘The Genesis of the Chaucer Apocrypha’, in: Studies in Philology 48 (1951), 461-81.

Drayton, M., Poly-Olbion. London, [1612].

Dumville, D., ‘“Nennius” and the Historia Brittonum’, in: Studia Celtica 10/11 (1975/6), 78-95.

Dunphy, G. (red.), Encyclopedia of the Medieval Chronicle. Leiden, 2010.

Foucault, M., ‘Qu’’est-ce qu’un auteur?’, in: Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie 63 (1969), 73-104.

Gerritsen, J., ‘Jan Seversz prints a Chronicle’, in: Quaerendo 21 (1992), 99-124.

Jacob, de coster van Merlant, ‘Over mijn verzamelde werken’, in: Neder-L 17/1/2000 (http://digitaalarchiefwillemkuiper.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/‌neder-l-column-47-over-mijn-verzamelde.html).

Kuiper, W., ‘Die destructie van Jherusalem in handschrift en druk’, in: Voortgang, jaarboek voor de neerlandistiek 25 (2007), 67-88.

Kuiper, W., ‘Valentijn en Oursson’, in: Voortgang, jaarboek voor de neerlandistiek 28 (2010), 213-45.

Kuiper, W., ‘Die historie van Valentijn ende Oursson compleet’, in: Neder-L 28/10/2012 (http://nederl.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/die-historie-van-valentijn-ende-oursson.html).

Kuiper, W., ‘Het dieet van Karel de Grote’, in: Neder-L 7/2/2013 (http://nederl.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/column-91-het-dieet-van-karel-de-grote.html).

Kuiper, W. & R. Resoort (eds.), Maria op de Markt. Middeleeuws toneel in Brussel. Amsterdam, 1995.

Levelt, S., ‘“This book, attractively composed to form a consecutive and orderly narrative”: The Ambiguity of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britannie’, in: E. Kooper (ed.), The Medieval Chronicle 2. Amsterdam, 2002, 130-43.

Levelt, S., Jan van Naaldwijk’s Chronicles of Holland: Continuity and Transformation in the Historical Tradition of Holland during the Early Sixteenth Century. Hilversum, 2011.

Lie, O. & W. Kuiper (eds.), T. Summerfield (transl.), The Secrets of Women in Middle Dutch. A bilingual edition of Der vrouwen heimelijcheit in Ms. Ghent UB 444. Hilversum, 2011.

Ligota, C.R., ‘Annius of Viterbo and Historical Method’, in: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 50 (1987), 44-56.

Minnis, A.J., Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages. 2e ed., Aldershot, 1988.

North, M.L., The Anonymous Renaissance: Cultures of Discretion in Tudor-Stuart England. Chicago, 2003.

Salomon, R.G., ‘Poggio Bracciolini and Johannes Hus: A Hoax Hard to Kill’, in: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 19 (1956), 174-7.

Shakespeare, W. & W. Rowley, The Birth of Merlin, or: The Child hath Found his Father. London, 1662.

Trithemius, J., Liber de scriptoribus ecclesiasticis. Basel, 1494.

Unzeitig, M., Autorname und Autorschaft. Bezeichnung und Konstruktion in der deutschen und französischen Erzählliteratur des 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts. Berlin, 2010.

Wogan-Browne, J., N. et al. (eds.), The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory. University Park, PA, 1999.



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Early modern/medieval histories

A significant part of my research is devoted to early modern readings of medieval histories. In particular, I have written about how medieval chronicle traditions were continued into the sixteenth, seventeenth and even eighteenth centuries: for example, one chronicle of Holland which I worked on, first printed in 1538, and itself based on a printed chronicle from 1517 which was itself based mainly on late 15th-century sources, was continuously reprinted until 1802, and regularly revised in the process. My book (previews available here and here) concerns the chronicle tradition of the county Holland – a medieval principality which from the 1580s would become one of the seven constituent provinces of the Dutch Republic. When I worked on that chronicle tradition, two aspects in particular stood out for me in the early modern treatments of medieval histories of the county of Holland: firstly, the provincialism so characteristic of the medieval chronicle tradition of the county of Holland was no problem for readers in the Dutch Republic; secondly, neither was its Catholicism. Or so I thought. But the story turns out to be quite a lot more interesting than that. In fact, judging from readers’ responses I encountered since, their Catholicism may for many readers very well have been the very point of reading such histories. I already knew that these works did find a receptive audience among Catholic communities in the Protestant Netherlands: this was indeed one of the explanations I had offered for the popularity of one particular offshoot of the chronicle tradition of Holland, namely that concerning the house and monastery of Egmond. I had found further confirmation of this kind of use of medieval histories in a fascinating early seventeenth-century manuscript (Haarlem, Noord-Hollands Archief, Collectie van losse aanwinsten [inv. 176], no. 1524), which contains excerpts from various (printed) medieval chronicles as well as polemical Catholic works of the early modern period. Such use can also be seen in what is probably the most interesting book I’ve encountered in this context: The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 393 F 18. It is a printed chronicle of Holland (one of the countless revised reprints of the 1538 chronicle mentioned above), printed in the 1590s but concluding in 1540. The KB copy, however, has been further revised and updated: the printed pages are interleaved with blank pages for corrections and additions to the text of the chronicle, and further blank pages were added at the end, and the chronicle was updated up to 1574 (with one remark postdating November 1588), thus including a report of the early years of the Dutch Revolt. [Update 15 January 2015: the full book can now be viewed, for free, here.] Image First, however, the reviser set to make corrections to the original printed chronicle. Most of these are relatively minor: deletions, mostly of matter not strictly concerned with Holland; and substitution of Arabic for Roman numerals. Image Regularly, however, additional entries of information are also included, or passages are extensively revised. Most of these additions and the continuation, while interesting, do not provide us with much information about their author: the description of an Anabaptist as a ‘false fraud’ and the teaching of Menno Simons as an ‘error’ would be shared by anyone who considered themselves to be anything but a Mennonite or an Anabaptist. Even Martin Luther is described in entirely neutral terms. But occasionally the manuscript gives us clues to the personality of the reviser, whose identity, however, remains unknown. Thus, we can deduce from the language that the continuation is written by an apparent supporter of the Revolt. The sack of Naarden by Don Federico, in 1572, for example, is written in negative terms, and a survival from a burned and collapsed building in the town described as miraculous. Support for the Revolt, however, does not necessarily imply support for the Reformation, and this is where things get really interesting: it appears that the reviser of our chronicle was a Catholic, who attempted to ground the history of the Dutch Revolt on the medieval history of Holland. Some clues are provided by some types of information: thus, the reorganization of bishoprics under Philip II is given much space, including the names of several bishops; the bishops of Utrecht are listed by name up to 1588. While the aims of the revolt are described in positive terms – to ‘expel the Spaniard from this land’ – and the rule of Duc d’Alva in negative terms – ‘oh terrible tyranny’, the writer exclaims (but subsequently deletes) – the narrative is by no means straightforward, particularly when dealing with the first wave of the Inquisition in the Netherlands. While the second wave is dismissed as cruel and cause of great conflict, the same cannot be said for the initial response to the Reformation: especially Ruard Tapper, one of the leaders of the Inquisition during the very early Reformation, is described in very positive terms: he was ‘very famous’, and a ‘staunch defender of the Pope’. Image The reader who would be interested to hear more about the ‘devout deeds’ of the leader of the first wave of the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands is referred to the Inquisitor’s own autobiographic (and hagiographic) writing, the Apotheosis. For some readers, the very point of reading medieval chronicles in the early modern period was their Catholicism. And this was not only the case for Catholic, but also for some Protestant readers, if in a diametrically opposed fashion. Such a response can be seen in a book in the Bodleian Library, H 1.8 Art.Seld., a 1591 edition of the 1517 chronicle of Holland which had been the source of the shorter chronicle from 1538. According to an ownership mark, the book once belonged to one Johan van Valckenburgh – possibly to be identified with the military engineer of that name (c.1575–1624) who was in the service of Maurits of Orange. Image Again we have a later reprint of a late medieval chronicle of Holland, and again we find manuscript additions; here, however, these remain limited to occasional annotations in the margins. The annotator in this case, however, was clearly anti-Catholic, and most of the annotations serve to dismiss ‘fables’ of the ‘papists’, and to call extra attention to narratives of corrupt and heretic popes and the like. ‘Oh God,’ our annotator at one point exclaims, ‘how can the world have been so blinded?!’ Image Indeed, the negative sentiments aroused by the chronicle seem to have been a source of a certain titillation; in this case it was not the Catholic heritage of the middle ages, but this excitement aroused by Catholic narratives, which made the medieval chronicle so appealing to this early modern reader. Image This latter type of response is in fact a frequent occurrence in early printed chronicles; another example is found in an English chronicle in the Bodleian Library (F 2.27 Art.Seld., a copy of the English translation of Higden’s Polichronicon, printed in 1515 by Wynkyn de Worde), where in the table of contents the word ‘pope’ is consistently crossed out – ‘Adrianus pope / Johannes the .xxi. pope / Nicholaus the thyrde pope‘ –, a reminder that even the most innocuous additions of readers could be crucial evidence to perceptions of texts.* It is a response perhaps similar to the deliberate scratching out of eyes in frescoes in Anatolian Churches. Such occasions of targeted destruction are, in fact, evidence of serious engagement with a culture perceived as ‘other’ by the vandal. As such, they form important evidence not only for early modern readers’ responses to medieval histories, but for their interaction with the world around them. . Images used with kindest permission from the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague (images from Early European Books) and the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. . . * @EdvanderVlist kindly suggested to me that the deletion may have had to do with legislative efforts under Henry VIII to have references to Catholic icons such as Thomas Becket and the pope ‘rased and put out of all the bokes’ (thus in a decree from November 1538). This suggestion led me to this excellent article, by Dunstan Roberts, to whose evidence illustrating that many readers went ‘beyond the minimum requirements of the legislation’ the Bodleian Polychronicon can be added. I agree with him that such books appear to show that ‘the owners of books developed the habit of crossing out words on an almost systematic basis.’

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