Berkeley Castle is a mighty stone edifice in south-west Gloucestershire, from which, for over 900 years, the lords of Berkeley have been able to look westward toward the river Severn and the Welsh border. Built by Norman warlord, Robert Fitzharding, at the order of Henry II, the castle has the distinction of being continually occupied by one family, who, despite, centuries of prominence in national politics, must nevertheless stay competitive in the modern tourist industry. Today, Berkeley Castle features an excellent tea house, an elegant terraced garden (favorably described by Bloomsbury writer Vita Sackville-West), and, of course, a website complete with a motto, “where history is a home.”
Edward II, who met his end in Berkeley Castle in 1327, would surely have seen the irony in the motto. In 1327 the disgraced king made his last royal itinerary, from Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, to Berkeley Castle. What happened at Berkeley Castle – the circumstances of the king’s death – the role played by his custodian, Lord Berkeley, will never be known for sure, though he may well have been poisoned by the fumes from decaying corpses piled in the castle dungeon. Fourteenth-century historians were generally eager to acquit Berkeley in Edward’s death (Berkeley was forgiven by Edward III), and the castle itself eventually absorbed all ignominy as a “house of horrors,” a home for generations of Berkeleys, but a house of historical excess, and a site on which literary authors, like Christopher Marlowe, could project grisly scenes. It is almost a relief to relive Edward II’s postmortem journey from Berkeley Castle to Gloucester Cathedral, fifteen miles to the north, where the king rests in alabaster effigy. On a nearby column is painted the arms of Edward’s ill-fated great-grandson, Richard II, who must have been a sympathetic visitor to the tomb.
Berkeley Castle made cultural as well as political history when, in the 1380s, the 5th Baron of Berkeley, Thomas IV, turned his attention to literature, selecting as the beneficiary of his patronage one John Trevisa, an Oxford scholar, a man likely of low birth, originally from Cornwall, whose life overlaps almost exactly with Geoffrey Chaucer’s. Berkeley and Trevisa had an ambitious and coherent agenda: to translate learned Latin texts into a straightforward English prose for the consumption of lay aristocratic readers. The fruit of their labors include two works indisputably translated by Trevisa and commissioned by Berkeley: Ranulph Higden’s massive universal history, the Polychronicon (c. 1325, tr. 1387), and Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s natural encyclopedia, the De proprietatibus rerum (c. 1260, tr. 1398). Other translations variously attributed to Trevisa include the pseudo-Ockham Dialogus inter militem et clericum, Archbishop Richard Fitzralph’s Defensio curatorum, Giles of Rome’s De regimine principum, and a short prose work called the Liber Metodii, a brief apocalyptic history of the world. Trevisa may have also translated the Gospel of Nicodemus.
Trevisa’s translations are valuable to modern linguists because they preserve so many Middle English forms. They also helped create a rich and versatile English prose, just as Chaucer’s translations of Italian and French poetry helped create an English poetic style. Trevisa’s translations are important, too, for what they reveal about the conditions of literary production in England at the end of the fourteenth century. Thomas de Berkeley was not only Trevisa’s patron but also the executor of his works: at the very least he commissioned the early 15th-century volume of Trevisa’s collected works owned by the Earl of Warwick, Berkeley’s son-in-law (i.e., British Library, Additional MS 24194); according to Ralph Hanna, Berkeley may have arranged for an early Gloucestershire manuscript of Trevisa to be copied by London scribes. (That Berkeley continued to develop a corpus of scholarly prose translations after Trevisa’s death is evidenced by his patronage of John Walton, who, in the first decade of the 15th century translated two Latin prose works, Vegetius’s De Re Militari for Thomas de Berkeley, and Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae for Berkeley’s daughter, Elizabeth). It is possible that Berkeley’s collaboration with Trevisa was inspired by the literary circle at the court of the French king Charles V (1338-1380), a famous bibliophile, who capitalized on the abundant talent at the University of Paris. Charles primarily sponsored French translations of Latin scholarly works, such as Nicole Oresme’s translation of Aristotle’s Ethics, Raoul de Presles’ translation of Augustine’s The City of God, and Jean Corbechon’s translation of Bartholomeus Anglicus’s De Proprietatibus Rerum, all translated in the 1370s. Unlike his French counterparts, Trevisa was neither a philosopher nor a theologian. But he aspired to translate Latin prose that passed for philosophy, such as his translation of Bartholomaeus’s natural encyclopedia, which he seems to have been preparing for his entire career.
In this view, Berkeley and Trevisa’s collaboration raised several interesting possibilities for late fourteenth-century English literature, possibilities that were not actually borne out by literary history. One of these possibilities was that vernacular literature in England would be characterized by scholarly prose (i.e., translation), rather than by poetry. To be sure, Chaucer, like Trevisa, translated several prose works, which were originally composed in Latin, such as Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and the Treatise on the Astrolabe, and Pope Innocent III's De Miseria Humane Conditionis; all three were likely mediated by French translations. In contrast to Chaucer, Trevisa specialized almost exclusively in Latin prose, and his translations, made directly from Latin and sensitive to the difficulties of translating technical or archaic terms into English, highlight his university training. Notably, several of the texts he translated show how Latin learning might be easily customized for a secular readership. For example, two works attributed to Trevisa, his translation of the pseudo-Ockham Dialogus inter milem et clericum, and his original treatise on translation, the Dialogus inter dominum et clericum (the latter perhaps a send-up of the former) feature an layman and cleric engaged in serious intellectual debate, in which the layman ultimately has the upper hand.
Live at Berkeley Castle in the 1380s and 90s was a second and related possibility, namely that a English literary tradition would emerge from the relationship between an institution of learning (Oxford) and a noble patron (Berkeley), just as a French literary tradition might have seemed to Trevisa to have emerged from the relationship between the University of Paris and Charles V. Through this relationship, moreover, noble patronage might provide a direct stimulus to vernacular literature. Chaucer enjoyed the patronage of John of Gaunt, Richard II’s powerful uncle, who, for a while, also supported Trevisa’s colleague at Queen’s College, Oxford, the controversial theologian, John Wyclif. But Chaucer’s literary work, if occasioned by his patrons, was not identical to the noble service for which he was rewarded.
Trevisa situation is quite different from Chaucer’s. Shortly after Thomas de Berkeley plucked Trevisa from Oxford, he placed him in benefices in the Berkeley area; Trevisa periodically delegated his duties on others and returned to Oxford, presumably to pursue scholarship related to his translations for Thomas IV. Eventually, Berkeley appointed Trevisa as vicar of the parish church just a stone’s throw away from Berkeley Castle; as vicar, Trevisa likely conducted services for the Berkeley family in one of the castle’s two chapels. Importantly, for Trevisa, literary production and noble service were intimately related through academic study. In his well-known treatise on translation, the Dialogus inter dominum et clericum, appended to some copies of the Polychronicon, Trevisa imagines the Lord and the Clerk debating the legitimacy of translation. Clerk, arguing against translation, suggests that learned Latin texts, such as the Polychronicon, are as sacred as scripture and equally untranslatable. (It is perhaps not surprising, then, that later authors, such as Caxton and Bale, credited Trevisa with the English translation of the bible.) The Lord retorts that the history of (bible) translation has always been sponsored by royal patrons, such as King Alfred the Great, who, the Lord reminds the Clerk, founded the University of Oxford. This great history of patronage, claims the Lord, extends to the present day, to the Lord’s own dominions, and to the very walls of Berkeley Chapel, where verses from Apocalypse are painted in Latin and French, as the Clerk must surely remember (and which still survive today). In his translations, Trevisa often recalls academic life at Oxford. In of the most frequently quoted passages from his translation of the Polychronicon, Trevisa explains that the linguistic environment in England has changed in the 50 years since Higden first wrote the Polychronicon: where it used to be the case that English was neglected in favor in French, now English is used, rather than French, as the language of instruction in grammar schools following the method developed by Oxford masters, John of Cornwall and his disciple, Richard Pencrich. Trevisa dates this observation to 1385. It seems no coincidence that the same year Trevisa penned these lines, Lady Katherine de Berkeley, Thomas IV’s step-grandmother, founded a pioneering grammar school at Wotton-under-Edge, the market town near Berkeley Castle, where Katherine and Thomas are buried.
A third possibility raised by Berkeley and Trevisa’s collaboration was that vernacular literature in England might revolve around a great lord and his dominions, rather than around a major city, like London, or a ruler, like Charles V or Richard II, the latter who, though he had reputation for piety, seems to have been unmoved by books; or even around the conspicuous absence of a lord, as in the case of the learned alliterative poem, Piers Plowman, which continuously registers the presence of lordship, but fails to recognize a commanding hand. Trevisa credits Lord Berkeley in no uncertain terms, not only for commissioning translations, but also for rooting them in time and place. At the end of the Polychronicon Trevisa scrupulously dates his work to anno domini (1387), the year of Richard II’s reign (10th) and the year of Berkeley’s life (35th), “of my lordes age Sire Thomas lord of Berkelye that made me make this translacioun.” At the end of De proprietatibus rerum, he tells us that he completed the work at Berkeley on February 6th, 1398, the 22nd year of Richard’s reign, and the 47th year of the life of Lord Berkeley, “that made me make this translacioun.”
Central to Trevisa’s understanding of translation is Berkeley itself – not just the man, but also the castle, the town, the parish church, and its environs, or in other words, the locality in which the Berkeleys’ influence was felt most directly, between Bristol to the south, and Gloucester to the north, with the Cotswolds to the east and the Severn to the west. Naturally, the Berkeleys had estates all over England, and, like other great magnates, they traveled constantly between them, as well as to London and Westminster on financial or government business, and abroad, especially to France where, according to Jean Froissart, Maurice de Berkeley, as a young man, distinguished himself at the Battle of Poitiers. There is plenty of evidence that Trevisa traveled in Berkeley’s entourage. He speaks knowledgeably about hot baths in Savoy and pooh-poohs Higden’s suggestion that Roman baths in England were something special. He is savvy about modern languages. Higden, in the Polychronicon, wonders how there can be so many English dialects in England but only one insular French dialect, i.e., Anglo-Norman; Trevisa, dodging Higden’s question, comments that there are as many French dialects in France as there are English dialects in England.
Yet, for all his travels abroad, and despite his obvious attachments to Oxford and Cornwall, Trevisa clearly regarded Berkeley as the “home” of vernacular translation, and of history. I have already mentioned the Dialogus inter dominus et clericus, in which the writing on the walls of Berkeley chapel, so familiar to the Clerk, clinches the Lord’s arguments for English translation. In the Polychronicon, Trevisa uses Berkeley as a critique of historical method, and as a practical guide to reading sources. Higden’s great achievement was to compile his vast Latin sources into a universal history, which culminates in the English present and speaks to a national past. Trevisa, in his translation of Higden, makes national history local.
I will give just two examples here. In Book 1 of the Polychronicon (a geography of the world), Higden tries to rationalize competing myths about the foundation of British cities. Finally, he throws up his hands, complaining that occurrence of the same name in different historical accounts makes it impossible to write a coherent description of place. Trevisa offers up local history as a comparative perspective. After all, he says quite sensibly, there is a Newport in Wales (right across the Severn) and a Newport in the parish of Berkeley (2 miles from the castle); there is a Wotton-under-Edge and a Wootton Bassett (25 miles away); not to mention any number of “Wilkes” (Wicks): Wickwar (7 miles from the castle), and Wilke-Spayn, and Wick “in the parish of Berkeley.” Higden segues from Book 1 (the geography) to Book 2 (the history) with a list of prodigies culled from venerable sources such as Pliny, Aristotle, and Gerald of Wales: people with birth defects, peculiar strengths, odd sexual habits, and so forth. Prodigies, which, for medieval writers, were nearly interchangeable with classical antiquity, give the impression of being local phenomena, and Trevisa is not to be outdone on this subject. He counters Higden’s prodigious list with his own list of prodigies from Berkeley: there is Thomas Hayward of Berkeley whose skull is made up of one bone and who can, like Chaucer’s miller, break down doors with his head; there is William Wayte of Berkeley who once saw Siamese twins in Lorraine at the Siege of Poitiers; and there was old man Roggebagge from “Wottoun under hegge in Gloucestre” who, by all accounts, never spat or coughed. For a vernacular translator, Berkeley was truly an inspirational, if “unheimlich” home.
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