Polydore Vergil Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Polydore Vergil 1470?-1555

Italian historian and nonfiction writer.

Vergil is best remembered for his Anglica historia (1532), the first account of English history to combine narrative with critical analysis. Although some of Vergil's conclusions—especially his conviction that King Arthur was little more than a fable—shocked contemporary English readers, the Anglica historia quickly became one of the most influential English histories, earning him the title “father of English history.” Vergil's greatest contemporary fame, however, came not from the Anglica historia but from his De inventoribus rerum (1499), an inventory of historical “firsts” that has no modern literary equivalent. Covering a wide array of subjects, De inventoribus rerum seeks to establish which individual or civilization first invented such things as writing, drama, music, painting, and weaponry; Vergil's commentary, often critical of Christian practice, caused De inventoribus rerum to be banned by Vatican officials. Modern students of English literature often learn about Vergil's Anglica historia because of its profound influence on Edward Hall, whose histories form the basis of several of Shakespeare's plays.

Biographical Information

Very little is known about Vergil's early life and education. He was born near Urbino, Italy, probably around 1470, into a prominent and well-educated family. He attended universities in Padua and Bologna, and in 1496 he was ordained a priest and named to serve as chamberlain in Pope Alexander VI's chancery. Over the next three years, Vergil published three books: Cornucopiae latinae linguae (1496), an edition of Nicholas Perotti's grammatical commentary; Proverbiorum libellus (1498), a collection of ancient and classical proverbs and adages; and the first edition of De inventoribus rerum. These works gained Vergil scholastic respect as well as the patronage of Adriano Castelli, an influential church official who would eventually rise to the rank of cardinal. In 1502 Castelli brought Vergil to England, where he was welcomed by King Henry VII as a visiting scholar. In 1505, at Henry's request, Vergil began to research and write a comprehensive history of England. Vergil earned his living in a variety of ecclesiastical positions, most importantly as archdeacon of Wells. In 1510 Vergil was naturalized as an English subject. For most of the remainder of his life, Vergil lived quietly, writing his Anglica historia, updating and expanding his collections of adages and first inventors, composing original dialogues, and translating works by the sixth-century historian Gildas and the Christian saint John Chrysostom. He returned to his native Urbino shortly before his death in 1555.

Major Works

Most of Vergil's literary output is all but forgotten. Even his Proverbiorum libellus, which in its final 1550 edition had been expanded to include over 700 sacred and nearly 400 profane proverbs and adages, has been relegated to a literary footnote, being overshadowed by Desiderius Erasmus's similar work, Adagia (1500). Today, critical commentary focuses almost exclusively on the two works that made Vergil's literary reputation: De inventoribus rerum and Anglica historia.

When De inventoribus rerum was first published in 1499, it included three books of research on the persons or civilizations most likely responsible for first inventing almost any conceivable art or scientific technology, as well as secular and religious institutions. In 1521 Vergil expanded the work by an additional five volumes devoted to the origins of Christian rites and practices. In 1525 a third edition appeared which included Vergil's commentary on the Lord's Prayer. More than merely a catalog of names, dates, and places, De inventoribus rerum also contains commentary, some of it highly critical of how Christian customs and institutions had evolved since the early days of the Church. Despite Vergil's attempt at objectivity, he repeatedly comes to the conclusion that the civilization Moses founded is superior to all others.

The research and writing of Anglica historia was a time-consuming process, and Vergil did not finish a first draft of the work for eight years. The work circulated in manuscript form until it was formally published in 1532. Tracing the history of England from the earliest recorded events until the reign of Henry VII in 1509, the work was published in three parts. The third and most influential part is divided into chapters, or “books,” each one devoted to the reign of an individual king, expressing Vergil's conviction that the actions of the royal head of state were the most important determinant of a country's fate. In 1546 a second edition of the history was published, which concentrated more on the importance of London's growth and influence. A final edition in 1555 updated the history through the reign of Henry VIII, to whom the work was dedicated. It is in this final edition that Vergil's personal opinions are most notable, especially his angry portrayal of Chancellor Thomas Wolsey, against whom Vergil likely harbored personal as well as political animosities.

Critical Reception

Vergil's enduring literary reputation lies almost exclusively with his Anglica historia, widely considered to be the first historical narrative of English history that combined literary flourishes with careful, scholarly research. Though much of the information Vergil's history provides has since been discounted, Vergil continues to be credited with first expressing doubt in the historical reality of Brutus, then known as the first Briton, and King Arthur. Literary critics have often noted the importance of Vergil's history on Shakespeare's historical dramas; though Shakespeare did not read Vergil directly, the information he used, and more importantly the interpretations he came to about various English kings and leading figures, were supplied to the playwright through his reading of Hall's translation of large sections of the Anglica historia. The vast preponderance of modern critical analysis of the Anglica historia focuses on whether or not the work should be viewed as Tudor propaganda. Although most critics have concluded that Vergil's history celebrates the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, more than a few have argued that a careful reading of the final chapters reveals Vergil's subtle criticism of contemporary monarchs whom he could not afford to openly oppose. Nearly all agree, however, that the work, though not as original or engaging as others, should be applauded for its exhaustive research and early attempt at historical objectivity, both vital to the evolution of modern historiography. While modern critical attention as well as debate over Vergil's literary influence has been dominated by the Anglica historia, several scholars have attempted to keep Vergil's De inventoribus rerum from being forgotten. These critics most often note the great popularity of Vergil's work, which for nearly 200 years was considered the most authoritative collection of its kind. They argue that although literary figures such as Miguel de Cervantes ridiculed its storehouse of knowledge, it was a work that was known to most writers into the eighteenth century. De inventoribus rerum is seen as one of the earliest works to express the humanist belief in the advances of humankind, to show the progression of technology and medicine, and to compare religious traditions. Although the information it supplies remains of little interest today, modern critics praise the De inventoribus rerum, much as they do Anglica historia, as a work of long-lasting influence.