1. Of Polydore Vergil’s five philosophical dialogues, this fourth one on prodigies evidently had the most impact on his contemporaries. It appeared in a number of printed texts: a.) an independent edition issued at Basel in 1531; b.) together with Polydore’s De Inventoribus Rerum at Basel in 1544, a volume reprinted at Leyden in 1644 and Amsterdam in 1671; c.) with other works on prodigies by Julius Obsequens and Joachim Camerarius, at Basel in 1552, reprinted at Lyon in 1552; d.) as the fourth of four dialogues in a 1545 Basel volume Polydori Vergilii Urbinatis Dialogi; and e.) as the fifth of five dialogues in a 1553 Basel volume with the same title, containing the four 1545 preceded by a new one on truth and lying; and f.) an independent printing at Lyon, 1589. In addition, this dialogue on prodigies served as the subject of several translations: a.) into Italian , with the other dialogues, by Francesco Baldelli, Venice 1550; b.) another into Italian, by Damiano Maraffi (Lyon, 1554); c.) a one into French, Lyon 1555. The Wikipedia article on Polydore mentions mentions a 1543 Italian one, a 1546 English one, and a 1550 Spanish one. I cannot comment on the first and third of these, beyond noting that I have seen no other references to them. Surely the 1546 English one is a bibliographic phantom, and the true reference is to Thomas Langley’s abridged English translation of De Inventoribus Rerum, printed at London in that year.
2. The date of this dialogue’s composition is uncertain. It is a puzzlement that at I.12 Polydorus describes the Sack of Rome, which occurred in May 1527, and since he says this occurred “last summer,” this would appear to show it was written either later in 1527 or in 1528, and yet the dedicatory epistle at its beginning is dated July 20, 1526. Two possible explanations come to mind. Either the dialogue indeed was written in 1526 and this passage was added subsequently, or the date of the letter contains a printer’s error for “1528”(XXVI for XXVIII). If so, the mistake must have been mechanically inherited from the 1531 edition, in which the same date stands. That this may have been possible is perhaps indicated by the printing errors itemized in the Textual Notes, in which some mistakes and omissions are found in both editions. Polydore may have handed the 1545 printer an uncorrected copy of the earlier edition with a small number of alterations noted marginally.
3. In reading at least Book I of this dialogue (and also the three preceding ones printed with it in 1545, written earlier but first published at that time), it would easy for a reader to grow exasperated by their Medievalism. By which I mean that very typically the principal speaker’s “arguments” consist mainly, or sometimes even exclusively, of the citation of some more or less apposite bit of Scripture or passage from some particularly prestigious Church Father, as if wheeling up such massive authority settles the matter currently under dispute and no further argumentation or resort to logic is necessary, or even possible. Equally or perhaps even more exasperating is the meek passivity with which the dialogue’s interlocutor accepts these responses and quickly abandons the position he has formerly held. But as the present dialogue progresses, “Polydore” (I use quotation marks to distinguish the character in the dialogue from its author) grows increasingly restive in the face of this form of argumentation and is actively trying to subvert it. For in the present dialogue it is striking how often “Polydore” asks Ridley about the cause of the subject presently under discussion. Alternatively he asks Ridley to discuss that thing’s origin or “first principles,” which is probably tantamount to asking the same thing. This “Polydore,” in other words, is motivated by a frequent and persistent urge to delve beneath the surface of things and gain some understanding of the hidden workings operating behind them. And yet, nearly as often as he asks for some such illumination from Ridley, he is either greeted with a conversation-killing admission that Ridley does not know the answer, or that it is unknowable, or else his curiosity is deflected by some unresponsive change of subject, such as an observation that it is getting late in the day. Ridley’s inability or unwillingness to engage with “Polydore” on this deeper intellectual level, and particularly his inability to answer “Polydore’s” persistent questioning on the subject of how true prophecies, portents and dreams can be distinguished from false ones, soon becomes conspicuous and serves to reveal his limited intellectual horizons. Indeed, he often reacts with visible annoyance to what he regards as little more than interruptions of his thread of thought or means of unnecessarily prolonging the discussion, and also, perhaps, as challenges to his personal authority. We have seen exchanges like this in Polydore’s first three dialogues, but never on this scale, and the main speaker’s interlocutor has never been so doggedly insistent in trying to get satisfactory answers to his questions. This failure of minds to meet occurs with sufficient regularity that it is impossible to shake off the impression that, in writing this dialogue, one of Polydore’s intentions is to subvert the kind of authority-based, and more than a little bit authoritarian, approach Ridley represents, and to offer broad hints that a more thoughtful one based on asking questions meant to get at a deeper truth is actually superior.
4. As the dialogue progresses, the personalities of “Polydore” and his friend Ridley undergo striking changes. Book I reads much like one of Polydore’s three earlier dialogues. In Book II, his persistence in demanding answers to his probing and not unintelligent questions place Ridley increasingly on the defensive. In Book III Ridley’s transformation is altogether remarkable: he now drops his authority-based style of argumentation in favor of a very different one: he adopts the strategy of discrediting various events in the world around us that superstitious folk regard as portentous by demonstrating that they have entirely natural and mechanical causes. Now it is Ridley who stands forth as a champion of rationalism — at times he almost sounds as if he had been reading Lucretius — and it is striking that the number of authorities he cites is drastically reduced. “Polydore,” on the other hand, is put in the position of citing these various events as at least possibly portentous This reversal of roles is only permissible because the disputation is conducted as a kind of game in which the two speakers agree at the beginning of each day of their three-day dispute to adopt them. In theory, at least, they could go back over the same ground, arguing the same points with their roles reversed. (It is possible that “Polydore” is assigned the role of reeling off long lists of prodigies that occurred over the course of Roman history because he is a historian and the description of such ominous prodigies was a feature of some of their historians. Tacitus was particularly fond of them in his Annales, either because he genuinely believed in them or at least as a literary device.)
5. In reading the present dialogue, one gains the impression that Polydore is using it as a vehicle for demonstrated the differences between two modes of argumentation, one old and one new. More precisely, the one is Medieval-Scholastic and the other Renaissance-rationalist. The old is rigid and authoritarian, and in its search for truth is satisfied to look no farther than Scripture and the leading Church Fathers for passages that can be alleged as definitive statements on the subject at hand: an apposite reference to one of these sources is deemed to settle the matter and remove, or at least discourage, the need for any further discussion. The “Medieval” cast of this approach, at least when it is embodied by Ridley, is reinforced by another trait of his, a constant inclination to blame demons for whatever he dislikes (even in Book III his credentials as a rationalist are somewhat suspect because he still persists in rattling on about demons). In Books I and II, however, “Polydore” is chiefly distinguished by his dissatisfaction with Ridley’s approach and insisting on a different, more intellectualized one.
6. By now it should be fairly obvious that the reason I have been highlighting these particular intellectual virtues embodied by “Polydore” is that these are the same virtues that elevate his Anglica Historia above the level of mere chronicle-writing. In the first place, I mean his willingness to subject pseudo-history of the Geoffrey of Monmouth variety to a rationalistic critique and discarding those traditions that do not pass muster (this is done at I.19f.) This forms a strong contrast to another Humanistic history that had appeared a few years before his own, and that in many ways may have served as his inspiration and model, Hector Boece’s Scotorum Historia (Boece’s history was first printed in 1527, Polydore’s seven years later). For Boece uncritically accepted the mythological “histories” of both Scotland and England, and this makes Polydore’s history appear significantly more modern. Then too, Polydore frequently resorts to the test of probability to pick his way through contradictory accounts of some particular historical event.
7. Another form of rationalism are the assumptions, first, that in history there are causes and principles underlying the surface play of events, and second, that the historian’s mind is capable of discerning these. In the Anglica Historia, this is manifest in two ways. In the first place, the work is liberally sprinkled with moralizing generalizations about human nature designed to reveal the inner motivations of his historical actors, of the sort one finds at III.7, cum omnibus prope mortalibus etiam infimis quibusque natura sit innatum sitire honores et principatus [“since it is innate for all mortals, even those of lowest degree to thirst after honors and principalities”]. Then too, as one would only expect of somebody who first came to England in the capacity of a papal tax-collector, Polydore is particularly alive to the importance of money as a moving force English history. He appreciated that England’s kings frequently needed to apply to Parliament for money to fund their wars, and in return for furnishing it, Parliament managed to extract an ever-growing list of concessions increasing its liberties and rights. Clearly, no matter how many egregious mistakes Polydore managed to make concerning the facts and personalities of England’s history, and blunders concerning her national geography, he managed to grasp a fundamental principle of English constitutional development. Boece’s Scottish history may be a “modern” Humanistic history insofar as, in many ways, it is contrived to look like a Greek or Roman history, is written in stylishly elegant Latin, and employs the tools of classical rhetoric, but some commentators have accurately observed that its contents are in fact uncritically old-fashioned (John Mair’s 1521 Historia Maioris Britanniae tam Angliae quam Scotiae wears by contrast a Medieval look but is considerably more intellectually advanced in its contents). this is why, even if modern historians disdain Anglica Historia as a historical source for English history prior to the reign of Henry VI, it deserves to be regarded as a milestone in Renaissance historiography, and for this reason it is well worth reading. For it is modern in both style and contents, and it is worth nothing that Polydore first nails his colors to the mast by embracing rational intellectual inquiry in his dialogue on prodigies.
8. The present edition is based on the 1545 Basel text.