1. This dialogue was first printed in a set of four of philosophical dialogues by Polydore printed at Basel in 1545 (the volume has no formal title, but scholars and library cataloguers usually refer to it as Polydore’s Dialogi). The first two, Dialogus de Patientia et eius Fructu and Dialogus de Perfecta Vita, appear to have been written in the early sixteenth century, not long after their author’s arrival in England. The setting of both is evidently Polydore’s native Urbino, the speakers are Italians, one of the participants, Polydore’s kinsman Teseo Pini (for whom see the see the Introduction to Polydore’s Dialogus de Patientia et eius Fructu) is portrayed as young, callow and impressionable, and the Dialogus de Patientia et eius Fructu contains what looks like an allusion to Christopher Columbus describing the New World in a way that strongly suggests it was written while exploration of the New World was still in its infancy (see the arguments set forth in the Introduction to Dialogus de Patientia et eius Fructu). Teseo reappears in this one, but describes himself as a senex in ¶ 10, and in the present dialogue he seems much more mature, independent-minded, and assertive than in the previous two. Its principal speaker, Henry Cole, is introduced as Warden of New College, Oxford, a position he held from 1542 until 1551. All the signs, therefore, suggest that the Dialogus de Veritate et Mendacio was written substantially later than the two that precede it in the volume, and not long before its publication. This volume is prefaced by a dedicatory epistle to Guidobaldo II, Duke of Urbino, written in such a way that it covers the first three but not the fourth. Evidently Polydore had first thought of publishing just those three but, for some reason, the original project had fallen through. Its fourth one, the Dialogus de Prodigiis, had already appeared by itself in a 1531 edition (the dedicatory epistle preceding that dialogue establishes that it was written in 1526). The scheme according to which the 1545 volume was organized, therefore, was not the obvious one of the order of their composition. More likely, the organizing principle was an ascending complexity of the dialogues’ philosophical contents, at least inasmuch as those of the first three are simple and unoriginal, whereas the same cannot be said about the fourth.
2. Polydore’s biographer Denys Hay complained about the “superficial quality of the Dialogi as a whole.” NOTE 1 This is an accurate appraisal of the first two, but does not fully apply to the third. A more cogent complaint is its lack of originality. This dialogue contains a fair amount of solid thinking about the theological implications of falsehoods, but the difficulty is that the thinking in question is almost exclusively done by St. Augustine in his Enchiridion, so that it is fair to say that, as far as Polydore’s own contribution to the advancement of thought is concerned, the dialogue is almost completely devoid of originality. Nevertheless, to write off these dialogues because of their questionable intellectual content would be a notable exercise in point-missing.
3. In introducing the Dialogus de Patientia et eius Fructu, I suggested that this dialogue and its companion-piece on the perfect life were written to further Henry VII’s program of introducing the New Learning into England. As doubtless the most distinguished of the corps of Continental Humanists Henry assembled, Polydore put his personal prestige behind this effort by introducing his English audience to a new form of literature, the Ciceronian dialogue, as an attractive alternative to the dryasdust academic approach of scholasticism, and to demonstrate that the discussion of ideas could be a pleasurable diversion. For that purpose, and given their intended audience, writing dialogues with non-challenging intellectual content was obviously the best approach. So these dialogues deserve to be viewed, in a sense, as teaching materials. NOTE 2 At the same time, Polydore’s dialogues had at least two further things to teach. The first is that they were not just written in “clean Latin,” but rather in a stylish, elegant manner that illustrated the artistic possibilities of the Latin language. The second thing they had had to teach is more difficult to define and discuss, because it concerns the complex and evolving idea of the English gentleman. In his dialogue De Prodigiis (II.17) he puts in the mouth of its principal speaker, Robert Ridley, this statement:
...ea de causa ad te diverti, ut postquam aliquantum quieram animum relaxarem, quod facio ita ambulando disputandoque, et quidem melius quam venando aucupandove, id quod vel facere potest qui infra omnes infimos homines esse censetur. Quare miror nostram nobilitatem in venatione tantum esse, in eaque se a pueris exercere, prae qua permulti reliquas bonas artes parum student.
[“For which reason I have visited you, so that, after I have rested a bit I might relax my mind, which I do by strolling and disputing in this manner, and this indeed is better than hunting or birding, something even the lowest of the low are capable of doing. This is why I am surprised that our nobility is so devoted only to the hunt, and exercise themselves in that from boyhood onwards. In comparison with that, a great number do little by way of devoting themselves to the other goodly arts.”]
Polydore seems to be describing the mores of the English nobility and gentry as he originally found them, at a time when they were preeminently men of action and preferred to entertain themselves as such (exceptions such as Henry V’s brother Humphrey of Gloucester, “Good Duke Humphrey,” did exist, but had been very thin on the ground). His first two dialogues are populated exclusively by Italians, who in their own way qualify as “gentlemen” but are cut from an entirely different cloth, since they are have considerably wider intellectual horizons than their contemporary English counterparts: they obviously have a great deal of book learning, take pleasure in handling ideas, and are prepared to support what they say with copious citations of their reading, both secular and scriptural. And the volume is dedicated to Duke Guidobaldo, who (as we are told at the end of the dedicatory epistle) was a man equally at home on a battlefield and in his study. It is as if, by giving these dialogues an Italian setting, Polydore is using them to hold up their participants as enticing models for a possible new kind of Italianate English gentleman.
4. By the time Polydore wrote this third dialogue in the series, the situation had changed. The New Learning had taken hold, England was already producing its own Humanist writers with interesting and worthwhile things to say, and this new kind of English gentleman now existed. In fact, the best and most compelling example of such a new model gentleman who managed to combine learning and intellectuality with a life actively engaged in public affairs was none other than Henry VIII himself. His father may have taken other steps to foster the growth of English Humanism, but the most conspicuous and successful way he pursued this project was the arrangements he made for the education of his own sons, NOTE 3 and it is easy to imagine that at among his motives was the desire to make the young man a fashionable figure for imitation. As soon as his elder brother Arthur died, Henry’s previous tutor, the poet John Skelton, was dismissed and replaced by Thomas More’s friend and correspondent John Holt. As a recent biographer put it, “With the change — to exaggerate a little, but not much — Henry had stepped from the middle ages into the renaissance.” NOTE 4 In all probability, standing behind Holt was not only More but also William Blount, Lord Montjoy, a powerful courtier and friend of Erasmus (with whom they young Henry later corresponded). His French tutor was the Flemish Giles d’Ewes, subsequently keeper of the royal library at Hampton Court, and his Greek one another Erasmus associate, Richard Croke, who later taught Greek at Cambridge. He received Latin instruction from the blind French monk Bernard André, his father’s — and subsequently his own — regius poeta whom Henry VII had unsuccessfully attempted to make into a quasi-official historian of his reign until it became painfully obvious that the man had no talent for the job, so that position was filled by Polydore himself. The result was that England had a king such as it had never had before, a genuine Renaissance prince, a Duke Guidobaldo writ large. The young Henry emerged from this process as the highly attractive paradigm for a new kind of Englishman, equally able to write books, compete in the joust, and lead armies in the field, and of course he found plenty of imitators. One of these, for example, was the poet Thomas Wyatt, for we learn from John Leland’s 1545 poem Κύκνειον ᾇσμα (299f., that he also commanded one of His Majesty’s ships of war. The way was paved to that ultimate beau ideal and passionately imitated model of the English Renaissance gentleman — and, one strongly suspects, the deliberately selected model for Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey — Sir Francis Sidney.
5. Such a redefinition of the English concept of the “gentleman” was well underway by the time Polydore wrote the present dialogue. The setting is now England rather than Italy, the principal speaker an Englishman well endowed with learning, philosophical insight, and civilized politesse, and now the tables are turned and it is the Italian Mateo Pini who sits at his feet absorbing wisdom, rather than dispensing it as he had done back in Urbino (we are not told what Pini is doing in England, although it is tolerably evident that he is residing in Polydore’s household).
6. Lest the reader think that this interpretation of Polydore’s intention writing these dialogues goes too far, it is worth noticing a couple of telling details that help define Cole’s psychology. In ¶ 3, when Pini invites him to take the lead in disputing truth and falsehood, he replies, Cur recusarem, quandoquidem ingenii nostri vires experiendi causa in hoc disputationis certamen nobis veniendum est? [“Why should I refuse, when we must engage in this disputation-contest to test our wits?”] And in ¶ 22 he says, Attamen, quia nihil mihi est antiquius quam experiri meum ingenium, curabo ne nostrum desideres officium [“Nevertheless, since nothing is more important me than to put my wit to the test.”] Generally speaking, Polydore’s dialogues are highly imitative of Cicero’s, but these statements introduce a jarring and completely alien new element. The participants in a Ciceronian dialogue are engaged in a friendly collaborative effort to find the truth about something, but in no way is this effort characterized as a certamen or contest. And in Cicero, one of the participants takes the lead as principal speaker, but his motive is scarcely “to put his wit to the test.” It looks as if Polydore is seeking to inject into the dialogue the values of a joust. The participant in a joust sought, to demonstrate his prowess by besting his opponents in mock-combat, and to gain prestige by doing so. A joust was a safer and more civilized moral equivalent for warfare, and it deserves to be suggested that Polydorus is using his dialogues to show how engaging in intellectual disputation can be the moral equivalent for a joust. Cole is not explicit in stating what he means by “putting his wit to the test,” but it is striking how often Pini is put in a position where he has to admit he has suffered some kind of defeat. By placing him in this position, Cole is demonstrating his mettle just as much as a jouster did when he scored a hit and unhorsed his opponent. And the urge (one is tempted to say the need) to score these debating victories seems an important feature of his psychological makeup. This appears to be Polydorus’ strategy for making intellectual activity appetizing for the competitively-minded gentlemen of his day.
NOTE 1 Denys Hay, Polydore Vergil: Renaissance Historian and Man of Letters (Oxford, 1952) p. 49.
NOTE 2 The fact that they were not printed until 1545 does not tell against this interpretation of Polydore’s motive for writing these early dialogues. Throughout the sixteenth century in England, literature continued to circulate widely in manuscript form.
NOTE 3 Henry had made similar arrangements for the education of his elder son Prince Arthur, which need not concern us here.
NOTE 4 David Starkey, Henry, Virtuous Prince (London, 2008) p. 173. Starkey’s entire Chapter 11, on Henry’s education, is relevant.