England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 Resident Aliens in the Late Middle Ages

Stefano Surigone

The Integration of Alien and Native Book-Craftsmen in Fifteenth-Century Oxford

Stefano Surigone is perhaps best known for the Latin verse epitaph appended to the epilogue of William Caxton’s 1478 edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Boece, concluding with the famous distich ‘Galfridus Chaucer vates…’. The epitaph written by this ‘poete laureate’ could also, Caxton claimed, be found hanging on a pillar near Chaucer’s tomb in Westminster Abbey (which was, in turn, very near to Caxton’s shop). Critics vary in opinion as to whether Surigone was actually ‘writing for William Caxton’ or not, following Roberto Weiss’ original speculation that both men met in Cologne in 1471 and later collaborated on the edition of Boece. It is unlikely that we will ever be certain that Surigone’s verses were composed at Caxton’s request but his earlier collaboration with an illuminator from Catte Street, Oxford, suggests that if it was the case, it was not the first of Surigone’s associations with a native book producer.

From the findings, primarily, of Roberto Weiss and Rodney Thomson, we know that this Milanese writer was a member of the religious order of the Humiliati and that he can be credited with being one of the first Italians to teach humanist eloquence in an English university town. Surigone was active as a private tutor in Oxford during the 1450s when he taught William Sellyng (c. 1430–1494, prior of Christ Church, Canterbury), before leading a nomadic existence between the University towns of Louvain and Cologne until the early 1470s, presumably making his living primarily through teaching. He returned to England, graduating at Cambridge, potentially composing verse for Caxton, and, it seems, teaching once more in Oxford; John Claymond (1467/8–1536, first President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford) later recalled sharing verses with this ‘consummate poet and orator Stefano Surigone of Oxford’. Surigone composed a prose tract, De institutionibus boni viri, which survives today as Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.14.47 and is fully digitised on the website of the Wren Library. It was dedicated to the prior of Great Malvern, Richard Dene, perhaps shortly after his appointment in 1457, and its prologue has been described by Daniel Wakelin as ‘exemplify[ing] the ongoing attempts of Italian humanist scholars to introduce their taste to English readers’. David Rundle argues that TCC, MS B.14.47 is ‘an unsigned manuscript by Stefano Surigone of Milan and localizable to Oxford on the basis of its illumination’. I have identified this particular illuminator in some fifteen manuscripts – the earliest dated 1451 – and he may now be named as John Bray, limner-binder, of Catte Street.

It is exceptionally rare for a medieval illuminator to sign his work and equally rare for a payment record to survive by which we might link the names in archival records to anonymously-decorated manuscripts. Andrew Watson was able to achieve just this when he noted payment in 1484 to one John Bray for the illumination and binding of Oxford, Exeter College, MSS 60 & 68 (part of a set of Hugo de S. Cher) in the Rectors’ Accounts. Watson’s analysis of further records revealed that Bray was continuously active in Oxford from at least 1463 until 1493. In order to develop Watson’s remarkable find, it was necessary to ‘profile’ Bray’s hand, that is, to determine a combination of distinctive motifs and details considered to be idiosyncratic and therefore indicative of his hand (a style criticism method similarly applied by palaeographers). By ‘grouping’ manuscripts according to a profile in this way, it becomes clear in the case of Bray that Surigone was not the only alien scribe with whom he collaborated. Some of the borders in Oxford, Balliol College, MS 204 (part of a set of John Duns Scotus, dated 1461), for example, were executed by Bray while the text was written by the German scribe Johann Reynbold of Zierenberg in Hesse. Like Bray, Reynbold was resident in St Mary’s parish, Oxford. The opening border of this manuscript, as identified by Kathleen Scott, was made by a limner working in a Netherlandish style and normally active in London. Indeed, the majority of the Exeter College set of Hugo de S. Caro was written by the Spaniard William Salamon of León, similarly resident in St Mary’s parish, and Rundle finds that ‘Scribe 3’ of Bray’s volumes ‘also appears to be continental’; this copyist is known elsewhere in collaboration with the German scribe Henry Mere, as identified by Albinia de la Mare.

The frequent collaborations of one particular English limner, John Bray, with immigrant book producers testifies to a potentially greater degree of integration between native and alien communities than the impression we gain from surviving records. The ‘fierce anti-alien feeling’ of J. L. Bolton’s interpretation is based on a catalogue of persistent complaints, from allegations that aliens only employed fellow aliens as their servants, that they spent their profits abroad, to their responsibility for spreading the plague. It is difficult to assess the extent to which some were assimilated into the native community (and why) while others remained a ‘focus for discontent’. It is partly, as Rundle suggests, because there was a certain ‘cachet to being a foreign a scribe’, a different quality of penmanship, and a desire in the patron to ape ‘the cosmopolitan eclecticism which was the vogue of princely courts’; in the case of Surigone and Bray, the scribe was simultaneously the author of the treatise copied (saving him money and promoting use of the humanist script?) while Bray was a prolific limner at the centre of the university book trade – a book trade which seems to have been insufficiently-populated with its own native producers. Bray’s books attest to his collaborations with multiple London and foreign limners, perhaps as much in an effort to supply demand as to reflect patron-taste. There is very little in the way of archival records witnessing cooperation between native and alien book craftsmen (in fact, the ordinances of multiple contemporary guilds threaten large fines), but the application of palaeographical and art historical methods of style criticism to anonymous manuscripts frequently attests to what Alexandra Gillespie sees in Caxton’s Boece-epilogue: a ‘marriage of foreign fashion and local flavour’.

Holly James-Maddocks


Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.14.47.
Oxford, Balliol College, MS 204
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 281
Oxford, Exeter College, MS 60 and MS 68

Chaucer, Geoffrey (trans.), Boece (Westminster: Caxton, 1478; STC 3199)
Registrum Cancellarii Oxoniensis 1434–1469, ed. H. E. Salter, 2 vols (Oxford, 1932), ii.123 (Reynbold); ii.119 (Salamon)

The Alien Communities of London in the Fifteenth Century: The Subsidy Rolls of 1440 and 1483–4, ed. J. L. Bolton (Stamford, 1998), 1–3, 35–6, 38–9

Blake, N. F., ‘Caxton and Chaucer’, Leeds Studies in English, n.s. 1 (1967), 19–36 (28–30)
De la Mare, A. C., Duke Humphrey’s Library & the Divinity School 1488–1988: An Exhibition at the Bodleian Library June–August 1988 (Oxford, 1988), 107
Gillespie, A., Print Culture and the Medieval Author (Oxford, 2006), 70–2
James-Maddocks, H., ‘Collaborative Manuscript Production: Illuminators and their Scribes in Fifteenth-Century London’, 2 vols (unpublished Ph.D. diss., University of York, 2013), i. 214–222
Margolis, O., and D. Rundle, ‘Bibliographical Appendix of Fifteenth-Century Italian Humanists’, in Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe, ed. David Rundle (Oxford, 2012), 337–380 (346, 377–8)
Rundle, D., ‘Of Republics and Tyrants: aspects of quattrocento humanist writings and their reception in England, c. 1400 – c. 1460’ (unpublished DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 1997), 331–3
Rundle, D., ‘English Books and the Continent’, in The Production of Books in England 1350–1500, eds. Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin (Cambridge, 2011), 276–91 (281–2 n.27)
Scott, K. L., ‘Two Sequences of Dated Illuminated Manuscripts Made in Oxford 1450–1464’, in Books and Collectors 1200–1700, eds. James Carley and Colin Tite (London, 1997), 43–69
Thomson, R. M., ‘The College’s Medieval Manuscripts: Some Discoveries’, The Pelican Record, vol. xlv (2009), 14–18 (16–17)
Wakelin, D., ‘England: Humanism Beyond Weiss’, in Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe, ed. David Rundle (Oxford, 2012), 265–305 (275–6)
Watson, A. G., A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts of Exeter College Oxford (Oxford, 2000), 85–7
Weiss, R., Humanism in England in during the Fifteenth-Century, 3rd edn (Oxford, 1967), 138–9 (in the new online edition, eds. David Rundle and Anthony John Lappin, 211–12)

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England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 25 February 2017), https://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/individual-studies/stefano-surigone