Renaissance cryptophilology: scholars, poets, and the pursuit of lost texts
Shapiro, Aaron Charles
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This study offers a narrative of literary responses to lost texts, ancient and modern, from the age of Petrarch to the age of Milton. Whether continental scholars or English poets, the authors whom I consider share an abiding belief that the imagination is the right vehicle to access the otherwise irretrievable past, and that absent texts can be put to practical uses. Bringing together the work of textual critics, bibliographers, and literary scholars, the introduction evaluates available methods of studying lost texts and proposes an integrated framework for further research. The four chapters that follow provide four distinct answers to the question, what did early modern scholars and poets make out of lost texts? The first chapter finds Petrarch in his De remediis utriusque fortunae inaugurating a long-lasting tradition, the lament for lost books and libraries. I argue that, with help from Petrarch, the Florentine circle of Leonardo Bruni developed what would become a conventional language for explaining these losses. A chapter on scholarly misbehavior examines fifteenth- and sixteenth-century narratives—i.e., legends, lies, and slanders—about lost texts alongside the emergence of the humanist supplements, the efforts of early modern editors (e.g., Erasmus, Ermolao Barbaro) to fill lacunae in partial classical texts with their original compositions, sometimes surreptitiously. This practice of imitation-as-emendation led English authors—Shakespeare, Chapman, Jonson, and Burton—to complete the partial texts of their recent and medieval predecessors and to apprehend with their imaginations the literary heritage that they could not hold in their hands. In the two latter chapters, I argue that this interest sometimes took the form of an imaginative supplement, as when Spenser completes Chaucer's fragmentary Squire's Tale in The Faerie Queene, and sometimes the form of a meditation, as when Milton in "Il Penseroso" envisions English literary history as a series of incomplete works. Likewise, earlier claims about lost texts could simply be revived (e.g., in the invective of Thomas Nashe), or they could be repurposed in self-conscious tropes, as when Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser entice their readers with representations of lost, unpublished, and unwritten works.