Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.04.19


Sir William Herbert. Croftus sive de Hibernia Liber. Edited by Arthur Keaveney and John A. Madden. Dublin: Irish Manuscripts Commission, 1992. ISBN 1-874280-02-9. Pp. lxii, 207.

Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania

In a review of Mark Morford's Stoics and Neostoics (BMCR 3.3.12), I said of Lipsius, "But like many men, he had a misshapen sense of his own contribution (he thought that his derivative and ephemeral Politica would be read as long as the Latin language lived), and he was anything but a universal cynosure." Hardly had that review appeared when there came to hand the present volume, whose pertinence will emerge in a moment.

Sir William Herbert (1553?-1593), whose family's names were on all the streets and lanes between the Dublin neighborhoods of Ballsbridge and Donnybrook that I was wont to prowl twenty years ago, was a high-minded and heavy-handed British landowner and magistrate in Ireland in the days of Queen Elizabeth. He was given 13,000 acres at Castleisland, co. Kerry, where he spent five years improving the natives (my own family arrived in those parts, on the run from the English after Kinsale, a few years too late to be improved by him). His Croftus sive de Hibernia Liber is one of three important later Elizabethan treatises deliberating the fate of Ireland (Spenser's View of the Present State of Ireland was written six years after Herbert's death), and offers realistic, sympathetic, and authoritarian observations and advice. Protestantism will be established, and with it Universities, and the native bards should be suppressed (Plato's ban on the poets is appositely cited) and substitutes provided (p. 114): 'ut carmina Hibernica lingua ad virtutem hortantia, ad temperantiam animique tranquillitatem allicientia, ad divinas denique laudes decantandas idonea, populo proponerentur, ut suavi hac musica demulceantur....' The work is here edited with an abundance of useful apparatus of introduction and annotation, with useful appendices on sources and analogues. Here is where the bell rang: Herbert's chief source of contemporary and ancient political wisdom was a fresh-from-the-presses copy of Lipsius' Politica. What is striking here is a point that Paul Oskar Kristeller likes to make, that the life of Latin thought and letters in early modern Europe has become an invisible part of our past: Herbert and Lipsius are not part of the canon of recognized literary authors because they did not write in the now-favored vernacular, and so a whole chunk of our corporate literary past has fallen away from us. (J.W. Binns, Intellectual Culture in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: the Latin Writings of the Age [Leeds, 1990], is a heavy but valuable survey of some of that.)

But we must not idealize that lost literature either. The editors here make the excellent point that Herbert turned immediately to Lipsius, found his conversion to Protestantism laudable and his politics of tolerance pragmatic, exploited him enthusiastically, and learned almost nothing in the process. "One gets the distinct impression that he found in Lipsius what he wanted -- convenient political theory.... Herbert's approach to the Politica then, was essentially utilitarian and opportunistic." Nothing in Lipsius ever changed Herbert's mind. The history of Rezeption is as full of incomprehension as of insight.