A 16c Italian Grammar Book owned by Robert Sackville

This entry is an extension of a guest post in Scope Notes, the University of Chicago Special Collections research blog.

Last month I tweeted about an early printed book I was examining at University of Chicago Special Collections. This was a third-edition copy of William Thomas’s Principal Rules of the Italian Grammer, published in 1567 by H. Wykes (STC 24022). First issued in 1550, Thomas’s manual in fact contains the first Italian grammar and lexicon in print for English readers. Provenance is of interest here, however, for it seems clear from an inscription on the title page that the U of Chicago copy once belonged to the sixteenth-century English politician and administrator Robert Sackville (1560/1-1609). The inscription reads:

“Robert Sackevill oweth / this book.”

Sackville’s name is perhaps most familiar to historians of early modern English politics. His father, Sir Thomas Sackville, First Baron Buckhurst and First Earl of Dorset (1536-1608), was cousin to Queen Elizabeth, as well as an accomplished poet and administrator. With Thomas Norton he was responsible for the courtly drama Gorboduc (1561). He also composed the “Induction” printed in William Baldwin’s second part of Mirror for Magistrates (1563) and a sonnet prefacing Sir Thomas Hoby’s English translation of Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier (1561). Sir Thomas Sackville traveled to France, Italy, and the Netherlands on royal business, and his son, Robert, surely benefited from his father’s highly visible political career.

In his youth, Robert also occupied a rather central position in a growing community of English educators and language teachers. At the behest of his grandfather, Richard Sackville, Robert received his early instruction alongside the son of the royal tutor Roger Ascham. In the preface to his posthumously published book The Scholemaster (1570), Ascham praised Robert’s grandfather as “That earnest fauorer and furtherer of Gods true Religion: That faithfull Seruitor to his Prince and Countrie: A louer of learning, & all learned men.” He continued, mourning the loss of Richard, but acknowledging Robert’s worthy place as recipient of his book:

I wishe also, with all my hart, that yong M. Rob. Sackuille, may take that fructe of this labor, that his worthie Grauntfather purposed he should haue done: And if any other do take, either proffet, or pleasure hereby, they haue cause to thanke M. Robert Sackuille, for whom speciallie this my Scholemaster was provided. (B4r)

Not only Ascham, but also the native French language instructor Claudius Hollyband (or, Claude Desainliens) published educational books with Robert Sackville in mind. During this time, modern languages were beginning to carry more weight in university curriculum, and as French tutor to Sackville, Hollyband dedicated both The French Schoolemaster (1573) and The Frenche Littelton (1576) to him. The title of the former book evidently sought to evoke Ascham’s Scholemaster, although Hollyband hardly desired to limit his work to elite, aristocratic readers. Arranged often in a bilingual, facing-page apparatus, these books were immensely influential in English communities of French language study during the sixteenth century, and saw a combined total of twelve editions through the final year of Sackville’s life. At least eight more would follow through the year 1640, to say nothing of Hollyband’s later Italian Schoolemaister.

Yet, like so many of his contemporaries, Hollyband sought to justify his work to the public with a dedication to a patron, in this case, “yonge Gentilman Maister Robert Sackuill, sonne and heyre to the honorable the Lorde Buckhurst.” At the time he composed The French Schoolemaster, Sackville was twelve or thirteen, and soon to embark on a university education, it seems. In the dedication, Hollyband offers praise to both Sackville and his father in both appearance and in soul. He then explains his reasons for publishing the book:

And so muche the more was I willyngly mooued therevnto because I knew my good Lord your father to bee so much delighted and to excell in the varietie of tongues: and beying good in many, yet hee may iustly complayne vpon the harde learning of the Frenche tongue, wishynge that some, whiche knew more then other, would take some payne therein. (A2v)

Positioning himself as a worthy and gifted native speaker, Hollyband presents this book as the first printed guide to the French language including instructions for both reading and pronunciation. Lauding Sackville as “a profitable patrõ, youge and notable, a Salomon in witte,” Hollyband provides further detail about his choice of dedicatee:

These causes haue allured mee to dedicate this simple worke vnto you, bycause you are not entred any thinge at all into the language, but are new to learne: not that you shuld leaue of your weightier, and worthier studies in the Uniuersitie, but when your minde is amazed, and dazeled with longe readinge, you may refresh and disport you in learning this toongue. (A3v)

Should the present work succeed, Hollyband promises to publish a more serious French language-learning manual, also to be dedicated to Sackville. This would be the Frenche Littelton of 1576, issued in 16mo “that it might be easier to be caried by any man about him.” The book includes also a complex system of typographical markings to clarify pronunciation. (The imprint reads “1566,” but, as A. W. Pollard has shown, this is a mistake, and the book was most likely issued in 1576.)

It is not clear exactly when Sackville acquired or inscribed the U of Chicago third-edition copy of Thomas’s Italian Grammer, which preceded Hollyband’s French Schoolemaster by six years. Nor can one find any marginal annotations in the book that preserve some sense of the ways in which he used it. However, it does offer us a sliver of material evidence concerning Sackville’s interest in vernacular language-learning and the circle of scholars and instructors with which he communicated. Significantly, it demonstrates his possession of an Italian grammar available before his tutor Hollyband embarked on printed Italian language pedagogy. Moreover, it shows that in addition to being a model student and patron in the view of both Ascham and Hollyband, Sackville had some interest in Italian that could have prepared him to study Castiglione in the original.


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