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Early Modern Times – better translate than never

Early Modern Times - better translate than never

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Dear readers,

In the very same week in late November that Dr. Yolana Wassersug (Assistant Registrar, Student Recruitment) lectured to Foundation Year Program students and faculty about Elizabeth I of England–including the Tudor queen’s learning and scholarship, as well as political savvy–a British academic revealed that Elizabeth I was the translator of a Roman history in a manuscript in Lambeth Palace Library in London unnoticed since the seventeenth century.

Dr. John-Mark Philo of the University of East Anglia was researching translations of works by the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 CE), long admired for his elegant prose histories of the Roman Empire. Tacitus is noted especially for his Histories and The Annals covering the emperors of Rome from 14 to 70 CE. Less well-regarded is the companion-piece of the latter work, a dark and probing chronicle written on toilet-papyrus of Roman constipation and diarrhea: The Anals of the Roman Empire.

Dr. Philo discovered a 42-page manuscript translation of Tacitus’s account of the benefits of monarchical rule. The manuscript was written on a special paper used in the Tudor era. Philo explains that ‘there was, however, only one translator at the Tudor court to whom a translation of Tacitus was ascribed by a contemporary, and who was using the same paper in her translations and private correspondence – the queen herself.’ Thus, Philo followed this tantalising paper-trail, which led him to the queen’s authorship, further confirmed by special watermarks on the manuscript: ‘a rampant lion and the initials G.B with a crossbow countermark’, used in Elizabeth’s private letters as well. Presumably, these watermarked papers were just ‘lion’ about, while the crossbow image unerringly hit the mark. The final piece of evidence was the fact that the manuscript was written in Elizabeth’s unique and sloppy handwriting (for as the monarch, she had the privilege of messy writing for others to decipher): the queen’s distinctive penmanship-of-state.

Why would Elizabeth have been interested in Tacitus’s history? It covers Roman imperial rule from the end of Augustus Caesar’s reign to the prominence of his successor Tiberius. Tacitus’s work, however, was regarded as inimical to monarchy by English royalists in the following century. It may be, then, that Elizabeth wanted to learn certain lessons from the Roman historian: that a monarch’s power depends on promoting the good of the realm and the implicit acquiescence of the people. We might call this the idea of ‘Tacitus consent’.

’til next week,

Simon Kow

Scribal King, Early Modern Eliza-can’t-be-beaten Studies Program


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