Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Bel-vedére: Tracing Early Modern Authorship

Lukas Erne, Devani Singh

To those familiar with the Shakespeare-laden shelves of modern bookshops, it may come as a surprise to learn of the existence of Bel-vedére, or The Garden of the Muses. Published in 1600, it is no doubt the only early modern book containing a significant amount of verse by Shakespeare that has not been edited since the early seventeenth century. Bel-vedére is an early modern printed commonplace book which presents 4,482 quotations from contemporary authors and texts, arranged under topical headings: ‘Of God’, ‘Of Love’, ‘Of Hate’, and so on. Amongst these are lines not only from the works of Shakespeare, but also from Michael Drayton, Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, and other leading authors of the period. With its emphasis on vernacular writers, Bel-vedére confirms (and no doubt contributed to) the rising status of English literature in the Elizabethan period.

Although printed commonplace books in English were increasingly available at the turn of the seventeenth century, Bel-vedére boasts several features which make it unique amongst them. It is comprised of decasyllabic verse, rather than prose, and each passage is anonymised rather than attributed to its author. Perhaps most notably, more than 200 of its passages are drawn or adapted from professional plays, rubbing shoulders with excerpts from prestigious poems such as The Faerie Queene and poets such as Sir Philip Sidney. Given the relatively low prestige accorded to printed plays that originated in the public theatres, this co-mingling of professional drama with poetry is a remarkable testament to English drama’s ascent as a literary genre. 

Despite the importance of Bel-vedére to English literary history, no modern edition has been published until now. There are good reasons for this. James Crossley, in his ‘Introductory Notice’ to the Spenser Society reprint of Bel-vedére (1875), warned that ‘To trace back to each author … the lines in the following collection … would be no easy task’. Indeed. The work of identifying the sources of the 4,482 passages was, however, begun by at least two others: the antiquary, poet, and editor Thomas Park (1758/9-1834), and the literary scholar and editor Charles Crawford (1859-1934). Crawford’s surviving papers, which formed the starting point of our own editorial work, show that he had identified an astonishing 2,387 passages correctly, although he never saw the fruits of his research in publication. We believe to have identified the sources of another 1,169 passages.

Unlike Crawford, who conducted his research with the aid of printed concordances, we had the good fortune to undertake this work in the digital age of scholarship. The existence of Early English Books Online-Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP) allowed us to check Crawford’s identifications (which are almost always correct), and to find matches between untraced passages in Bel-vedére and printed books. We have also relied on less traditional and more collaborative methods of searching early modern corpora, including the use of a bespoke sequence-matching algorithm, which searched the corpus of untraced lines from Bel-vedére against the entirety of any uploaded text. A large volume of verse circulated exclusively in manuscript during this period, and we have searched several promising corpora generously furnished by colleagues in order to look for untraced passages, though with limited success. 

Most of the authors and texts that comprise the 4,482 passages in Bel-vedére are now known to us, but about one-fifth have remained elusive. We are excited at the prospect of crowdsourcing as a methodology for tracing the remaining passages, and are hopeful that the publication of the edition and the accompanying online release of the untraced passages will yield further discoveries by our readers. To contribute to this crowdsourcing initiative, which aims to identify the early modern sources of the remaining 926 passages, please visit the project website: https://www.unige.ch/belvedere/.

Bel-vedére or the Garden of the Muses edited by Lukas Erne and Devani Singh
Bel-vedére or the Garden of the Muses edited by Lukas Erne and Devani Singh

About The Authors

Lukas Erne

Lukas Erne is Professor of English at the University of Geneva. He is the author of Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist (Cambridge, 2nd edition, 2013), Shakespeare and the Book Trade...

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Devani Singh

Devani Singh is a Research Fellow at Université de Genève. Her publications include essays in The Chaucer Review and the Journal of the Early Book Society, and Shakespeare in Gen...

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