In the winter of 1559/60 Pierre Boaistuau, a French popular writer, set off for England bearing a book that he hoped to lay before the young Queen Elizabeth, newly installed on the throne of England.
This book, later entitled Histoires Prodigieuses – which can be loosely translated as ‘Wondrous Tales’ – had not yet been published. It had been handwritten by a professional scribe in a fine Italic script, and was dedicated to ‘The Most Illustrious, Most Excellent and Most Virtuous Princess Elizabeth, by the grace of God Queen of England….’
Exactly what Pierre Boaistuau’s motive was in trying to gain Elizabeth’s attention is not clear: it was conventional to dedicate books to illustrious patrons or princes in the 16th century, but the Queen of England was not the most obvious choice of dedicatee for a work in French on monsters, freaks of nature and extraordinary happenings from mythology and ancient history. No expense had been spared to decorate the work with lavish illustrations for its stories of mythical beasts and miraculous events. A sumptuous binding in red leather and gilt completed the whole.
It was perhaps the glamour of this new star in Christendom’s royal firmament that attracted Boaistuau, even though by the time he was crossing the Channel to present his volume to her, Elizabeth’s rival to the throne of England, Mary Queen of Scots, had already ascended the throne of France as queen consort of François II. Earlier in 1559 Boaistuau had adapted a copy of a previous work of his, Histoires Tragiques, for presentation to Elizabeth, with a new dedication to her and judicious adjustment of the text to avoid giving offence. As he tells us himself in his dedication he had despatched the earlier book to the English court but had heard nothing in return, hence his decision to accompany this new work in person to ensure that it was actually placed in Elizabeth’s hands.
Histoires Prodigieuses is an example of a genre of literature that was immensely popular in the 16th and 17th centuries: tales of an admonitory or educative nature, drawn from biblical, classical or other reputable sources, that were nonetheless intended to astonish and delight the reader. It is not so much an original creative work of literature as a compilation and retelling of stories that derive largely from earlier authoritative sources and thereby gain added credibility and value. Boaistuau, whose final work it proved to be, had already published several such compilations before Histoires Prodigieuses in a brief flurry of activity from 1556, and indeed he helped establish the genre as his works continued to be expanded, reissued and translated by others after his death.
The beautiful handwritten and illuminated book that Boaistuau took to England was eventually purchased by Sir Henry Wellcome for his Library in 1931. It has the shelfmark Western Manuscript 136, and can now be seen in full colour facsimile via the Library’s media player:
Little is known about the book’s fate after its arrival in England.. It used to be assumed that Elizabeth I had rejected it because when the first printed edition of Histoires Prodigieuses was published in Paris in 1560 it carried a quite different dedication, to the Breton nobleman, Jean de Rieux, seigneur d’Assérac; but this is wrong, as Boaistuau demonstrates in his published account of his reception at the English court:
‘Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, who, despite the fact that she was not well when I arrived, and that she had every reason not to be accessible to persons of such little quality as myself, did me the very great honour of having me summoned before Her Majesty, where in the presence of several great lords and ladies, she began to speak on several lofty and difficult subjects, and not content with so many favours and signs of goodwill … she gave me as well a gift so worthy of esteem that a great lord would have had every reason to be content with it’.(1)
Probably his manuscript dedication had done its job – Boaistuau could now boast of his splendid reception at Elizabeth’s court and afford at the same time to include a new dedicatee in the printed work to maximise his credit.
Whatever the Queen thought of the book presented to her, it is plain that it did not return to France with Boaistuau and did not serve as the manuscript exemplar for the text and illustrations as printed in 1560, albeit that there are many similarities between the two. Perhaps she gave it to the Earl of Hertford, who seems to have patronised Boaistuau and some of whose books found their way into Emmanuel College Cambridge Library, which also holds a companion volume to the Wellcome manuscript. The true fate of the book before it re-emerged onto the open market in the late 19th century will probably never be known. But it remains as a witness to the role of books – and especially manuscript books – not only as carriers of information and things of beauty, but as unrivalled windows into the past.
Posted on behalf of Dr. Richard Aspin, Head of Research and Scholarship
(1) Pierre Boaistuau, Histoires prodigieuses: MS.136 Welcome Library, ed. Stephen Bamforth (Milan, Franco Maria Ricci, 2000), p. 14