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A Centuries-Old Mystery Hidden in Rare Book Room

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
December 14th, 2011

Diane Mazzella, WVU Today

The mystery began more than 500 years ago in England.

But it surfaced in recent months in an unlikely place – the Rare Book Room in West Virginia University’s Charles C. Wise Library.

It remains unsolved.

Was Elizabeth Dacre’s poem an academic exercise in copying the style of love?

Or was the erotic poem telling her own story?

Even with these unanswered questions, the discovery goes beyond a captivating tale and points to the practical concerns of today’s research University: the need for research in every discipline, the importance of gifts to a University and the sheer surprise of what might hide around the next corner or on the next page.

But that is jumping ahead of the story.

It starts with the discovery of a mystery – during a guest lecture to WVU students last summer by Florida State University faculty member Elaine Treharne.

She and the students headed to the Rare Book Room on the sixth floor of the Downtown Library where Treharne happened to open a 1561 edition of works by Geoffrey Chaucer that includes The Canterbury Tales.

She opened it, and saw the Latin poem pasted in the back of the book.

From that moment, time works backward.

The investigation

To discover the origins of this poem, all Treharne has is the Latin, her own research experience and a name. As a medievalist, Treharne rarely studies anything more recent than 1200 C.E., but she’s interested in what the elegantly handwritten words signify.

She did what many folks in the 21st Century do as the first step of research, even if it involves the 16th Century. She Googled it.

She assumed what was tucked in the book was only a copy of a known poem. But it wasn’t on the Internet. None of the scholars she spoke with had heard of it.

The name in the front pages of the book and at the base of the poem is Elizabeth Dacre. And Treharne’s translation of the poem revealed another name – the person for whom the poem was written: Anthony Cooke, tutor to King Edward VI, son of King Henry VIII.

So Treharne searched for Elizabeth, from the U.S. and in England.

And the story she found is as unconventional as its heroine.

Possible. Actual. Fictional. Love.

As nearly as anyone can tell, Elizabeth would have been about 18 years old when she wrote to Cooke, a tutor to Henry VIII’s son, and father to highly educated daughters. He could have tutored Elizabeth around the time of his wife’s death, according to Treharne. It could have been around the time Elizabeth married Lord Dacre and about the time Cooke left England for Europe.

In her journal article on the find, Treharne writes, “Whether this poem records an amorous relationship, or something more akin to a display of poetic erudition (which just does not seem to do justice to the personal and tender lament here), its private nature is evinced in the poem’s hidden history, and in the touching scene it depicts.”

But on the telephone one afternoon, Treharne said she truly believes that Dacre was writing to someone she loves.

“I’ve published it in a very serious journal, as unsentimental as I possibly can be,” Treharne said. “That poem is just gorgeous. It’s beautiful and sad. It’s very ambiguous. I actually do really genuinely believe that she was really in love with her tutor.

“It has that level of intimacy and playfulness about it. At the very least it’s cheeky, and it’s much more likely to be an indicator of a very, very personal and illicit – totally illicit – relationship.”

She knows there’s not much evidence, except Elizabeth’s words, that anything ever happened.

In 14 lines, Elizabeth draws a portrait of her faithfulness, her intensity, her sadness. And she includes an epigram that is, Treharne says, “a tad rude,” in its description of her longing for Cooke.

And there’s common sense, too, that points to something more. From the historical record it seems unlikely that a tutor of women, something rare in itself, would ever ask a female student to write him an amorous poem, Treharne says.

“It’s not just that it’s a love poem, but that it’s quite suggestive and women simply didn’t write poems like that,” she said.

An unpainted portrait

Even without an affair, Elizabeth had an eventful and powerful life. For 10 years, she was married to Lord Dacre, bearing five children. Through her husband, she amassed power and land, and would have been the most influential women in the British Empire second to Queen Elizabeth I.

But Lord Dacre died, and Elizabeth was quickly remarried, possibly while pregnant, to the Queen’s close relative, the Fourth Duke of Norfolk.

There were few clues pointing to who Elizabeth was or even that she existed, Treharne said. There were also several Elizabeth Dacres at the time. But through searching places where Elizabeth would have spent time, Treharne found a description of the Queen’s discussion with the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard, before his marriage to Elizabeth.

She also found a diatribe from Elizabeth’s first husband’s brother, expressing his dislike of the woman who took the lands and wealth from her first marriage into her second.

“Elizabeth Dacre shows us that women must have had a major role to play both in terms of education and in terms of politics and power,” she said.

But she has no portrait, no other papers, no grave, even.

The closest thing to a portrait of Elizabeth is the unflattering image of her daughter, Anne, Countess of Arundel in which Anne has a frown, a prominent nose and a pointed black headpiece.

It helped in Treharne’s research that Elizabeth had a well-known daughter. Anne wrote of an incident from her mother’s death in which the Duke did not allow his wife to see a priest when she died at age 30 in childbirth.

For aside from being a woman who wrote a suggestive, passionate poem in a language not many women knew, Elizabeth was also Roman Catholic at a time when that was becoming increasingly unpopular in England.

Yet, that small slice of Elizabeth’s life provides a known, sad fact to reinforce the wistfulness of her poem, made even sadder when you find that her husband was himself a closet Catholic.

“I just think that’s unforgivable,” Treharne said of Howard’s refusal to give her that last comfort.

It may be her husband’s fault that there’s no grave for Elizabeth. His first two wives share a grand tomb, but after Elizabeth died, the Duke attempted to marry Elizabeth’s cousin and avowed enemy, Mary, Queen of Scots.

Familiar with the Duke’s biography, Treharne knew that he was executed after doing something so “lunatic,” she said. It is possible that any papers surviving her were destroyed and a tomb would have been impossible for the wife of a man executed for treason.

The book moves from hand to hand to WVU

At some point, probably while the book was owned by someone named Peter Shee in 1812 – whose name is inscribed in front pages – the poem was pasted to the end papers when the book was rebound.
Sometime during the career of Shakespearean actors Edward Hugh Sothern and Julia Marlowe Sothern (both born in the second half of the 19th century) Dacre’s Chaucer passed into their hands. It was eventually purchased by Arthur Spencer Dayton, a prominent Charleston attorney and a WVU alumnus who amassed a collection of about 7,000 books.

Upon Dayton’s death in 1948, his collection was willed to WVU, with 1,500 of the books establishing the Rare Book Room at the WVU Libraries, said associate curator Harold Forbes. One of those books was Dacre’s 1561 edition of Chaucer.

Aside from the collection by Chaucer, the father of Modern English literature, Dayton also bequeathed the University every edition from the first four folios, or editions, of Shakespeare through the editions published in Dayton’s lifetime.

The collection included the “Nuremburg Chronicle” – the first real world history book – works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and every first edition of Mark Twain’s books.

The books in the Rare Book Room are about more than preserving history and the handwritten notes of their owners. Patrick Conner, a recently retired but still very active English professor at WVU, says they are an active resource for the University’s research.

“A university that’s going to do research ought to do research in all the areas that it can,” Conner said, “because all of the disciplines work together. Physicists, for example, find themselves intrigued now with material philosophers have been thinking about for years. When researchers find they need a text from the past, they may well need to see it in specific forms preserved in rare books rooms around the world.

“Elaine’s work with Elizabeth Dacre puts our collection into that research network,” he said.

Forbes said most of the people coming into the book room are students led by their professors to discover the first editions of books printed 500 or more years ago.

“Books are so easily available and so widely available to us that we don’t realize how special they were a few centuries ago when there were not many available and the ones that were available were only in very limited editions and were only owned by those who could afford to own and take care of them,” Forbes said.

Elizabeth Dacre was one of those, and that’s remarkable say scholars.

Yet, it’s believable, says Conner.

“I’ve always thought Chaucer was writing for women because there’s a kind of flair, almost like Billy Crystal winking at the ladies while he’s telling a joke,” Conner said. “Nevertheless, in other ways he’s not the poet I’d expect to find in a young lady’s library. I’d have expected to find romances or moral treatises at this time.”

Elizabeth Dacre brings up an important point on politics as well considering she was a highly placed Catholic in a Protestant government.

“It’s a little bit of a game shaker, especially at the time we’re in right now where we really are so polarized politically,” Conner said. “We look back on the past and imagine that parties and groups have always been so polarized. What we’re seeing in this case is certain levels of accommodation that existed in certain situations, and it’s absolutely fascinating.

“On one hand, Queen Elizabeth had men going about actively harassing Roman Catholics, and on the other, she exhibited personal concern over this Catholic woman’s marriage.”

To Treharne, the discovery shows what was really going on at least for some women, who lived behind the scenes of a male-run world.

“I think it’s a particularly important find,” she said. “On the one hand it’s not brain surgery. It’s not a major discovery like DNA or something. But I think I’m right in saying that we don’t have any other nonreligious Latin poetry written by a woman possibly at all—and certainly in this period. So it’s the only love poem written in Latin by a woman ever until maybe the 18th century. That’s kind of astonishing really.”

To Anthony Cooke
The goodbye I tried to speak but could not utter with my tongue
By my eyes I delivered back to yours.
That sad love that haunts the countenance in parting
Contained the voice that I concealed from display,
Just as Penelope, when her husband Ulysses was present,
Was speechless—the reason is that sweet love of a gaze.
Then afterwards Ovid sends greeting muses to the absent,
Just as to you, distant, I have sent my small note.
I hope then that silent Dacre will not be scorned by you
For the mind has suffered and held fast in faithfulness to you.
Believe that among servants there is not any more faithful:
As Plancus Plotinus thus will Dacre be to you.
I remain your servant Plancus, more faithful than any;
To this servant Dacre, you remain sweet Coke.

Epigram written by Martial, ‘Of the girdle’

Long enough am I now; but if your shape should swell under its grateful burden, then shall I become to you a narrow girdle.

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