The Cornerstone of Prison Literature. The Heber-Britwell copy

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus (480-525 A.D.); Coleville, George, translator (fl. 1556)

Boetius de Consolationae [sic] Philosophiæ. The boke of Boecius, called the comforte of philosophye, or wysedome, moche necessary for all men to read and know, wherein suche as be in aduersitie, shall fynde muche consolation and comforte, and suche as be in great worldly prosperitie may knowe the vanitie and frailtie therof, and consequently fynde eternall felycytie. And this boke is in maner of a dialoge or communication betwene two persones, the one is Boecius, and the other is Philosophy, whose disputations and argumentes do playnly declare the diuersitie of th lyfe actiue, that consisteth in worldly, temporall, and transitory thynges, ... Translated out of Latin into the Englyshe toungue by George Coluile, alias Coldewel, to thintent that such as be ignoraunt in the Latin tongue, and can rede Englyshe, maye vnderstande the same. And to the mergentes is added the Latin, accordynge to the boke of the translatour, whiche was a very olde prynte

London: In Paules churche yarde at the sygne of the holy Ghost, by Ihon Cawoode, prynter to the Kynge and Quenes Maiesties, 1556


Quarto: 20 x 14 cm. [A]4, B-Z4, Aa-Ff4 (blank Ff4 lacking)

FIRST EDITION of Coleville’s translation.

Bound in contemporary English calfskin, rebacked in the 19th c., a few patches to the leather of the boards. Text in very good condition with occasional browning, darker in signatures I and K. Light dampstain to signatures T, Z, Bb, and Ff. Text in Latin and English in two columns, the former printed in italics and the latter in black letter, small woodcut initials. Very rare. Only 5 U.S. copies in ESTC: Folger (defective), Harvard, Huntington, Yale, Illinois.

Dedicated to Queen Mary Tudor, Coleville’s English translation of Boethius’ masterpiece is the only early English translation to include the original Latin text, indicating that, in addition to those readers with no knowledge of Latin, the author took into consideration the more educated, Latin-literate English audience. Coleville provides interesting marginal glosses and explanatory notes, including the tale of the sword of Damocles. In an amusing instance, either through ignorance or prudishness, he explains that the beautiful youth Alcibiades was a woman(!) But, remarkably, Coleville also incorporates such explanations as amplifications into the text itself, such as when Coleville seeks to clarify astronomical and meteorological references in Boethius’ text.

The result is a rendering of Boethius’ work that offers us insight to the way in which the “Consolation”, a work in which references to Christianity are noticeably absent, was interpreted by a mid-16th c. English Catholic educated in the humanist tradition. As Kenneth Hawley observes:

“The translation is replete with Coleville’s own insertions that attempt to amplify and/or clarify something he considers ambiguous or partially true. In his presentation of the passage wherein Lady Philosophy asserts that all motion and mutability derive ultimately ‘ex diuinæ mentis stabilitate’, Colville identifies the divine as God and divides his mind into its constituent parts, so that such changeable things exist ‘by the stedfastnes of gods wyll and pleasure’. Thus, God’s intellectual immutability allows such moved things to exist and holds them together because he wants to do so, because it pleases him to do so. This phrase ‘wyll and pleasure’ was apparently a typical idiom in Colville’s day, as attested by John Knox’s 1556 printing, ‘Book of Common Order’, which refers to ‘the good will and pleasure of Almighty God.’”

Boethius and the “Consolation of Philosophy”

"The Roman statesman and philosopher Boethius, often styled "the last of the Romans", is regarded by tradition as a Christian martyr. He was left an orphan at an early age and was educated by the pious and noble-minded Symmachus, whose daughter, Rusticana, he married. As early as 507 he was known as a learned man, and as such was entrusted by King Theodoric with several important missions. He enjoyed the confidence of the king, and as a patrician of Rome was looked up to by the representatives of the Roman nobility. When, however, his enemies accused him of disloyalty to the Ostrogothic king, alleging that he plotted to restore ‘Roman liberty’, and added the accusation of ‘sacrilege’ (the practice of astrology), neither his noble birth nor his great popularity availed him. He was cast into prison, condemned unheard, and executed by order of Theodoric. During his imprisonment, he reflected on the instability of the favour of princes and the inconstancy of the devotion of his friends. These reflections suggested to him the theme of his best-known philosophical work, ‘De Consolatione Philosophiae’.

"Written during his imprisonment, the ‘Consolations of Philosophy’ is justly called the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen. It is a dialogue between Philosophy and Boethius, in which the Queen of Sciences strives to console the fallen statesman. The main argument of the discourse is the transitoriness and unreality of all earthly greatness and the superior desirability of the things of the mind. There are evident traces of the influence of the Neo-Platonists, especially of Proclus, and little, if anything, that can be said to reflect Christian influences. The recourse to Stoicism, especially to the doctrines of Seneca, was inevitable, considering the nature of the theme.

“It does astonish the modern reader, although, strange to say, it did not surprise the medieval student, that Boethius, a Christian, and, as everyone in the Middle Ages believed, a Christian martyr, should have failed, in his moment of trial and mental stress to refer to the obvious Christian sources of consolation. Perhaps the medieval student of Boethius understood better than we do that a strictly formal dialogue on the consolation of philosophy should adhere rigorously to the realm of ‘natural truth’ and leave out of consideration the lesson to be derived from the moral maxims of Christianity – ‘supernatural truth’.

"The work takes up many problems of metaphysics as well as of ethics. It treats of the Being and Nature of God, of providence and fate, of the origin of the universe, and of the freedom of the will. In medieval times, it became one of the most popular and influential philosophical books, a favorite study of statesmen, poets, and historians, as well as of philosophers and theologians. It was translated into Anglo-Saxon by King Alfred the Great and its influence may be traced in Beowulf, Chaucer, in Anglo-Norman and Provençal popular poetry, in the first specimens of Italian verse, and even in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy.’”(Catholic Encyclopedia)

STC 3201