Dangerous Satire in the Court of a Tyrant

Elyot, Thomas, Sir (1490?-1546)

Pasquyll the playne

London: In ædibus Thomæ Bertheleti typis impress. 1540


Octavo: 14.6 x 9.5 cm. 46 pp. Collation: A-B8, C8 (lacks blank C8)

THIRD (AND ONLY OBTAINABLE) EDITION (the first two editions were printed by Berthelet in 1533).

Later repurposed vellum. Light soiling, some spotting and staining. This edition, like the second, included numerous changes from the first. All three editions are incredibly rare. The first edition exists in a single, defective copy (Bodleian), the second exists in two (Cambridge, Huntington), and this third edition in six, only two of which are in North America: Folger, Yale (the latter defective.)

“Elyot's first published work after ‘The Governor’ of 1531 and his subsequent personal remonstrance to the King in June 1532, was a small pamphlet, ‘Pasquil the Plain’, printed anonymously by Thomas Berthelet in 1533. It, like those earlier interventions into the political arena, reflects Elyot's continued concern with the need for plain speaking in the courts of princes and the ruinous, divisive consequences of the failure of counsel at the center of government…

“It describes, by implication, the paralysis that is created at the center of government when counsellors practice timeserving and flattery rather than offer the King honest advice. Written and printed at precisely the time that the Act of Appeals was declaring the ‘imperial’ nature of the English crown and Henry's Royal Supremacy was gaining the full force of law, Elyot's text, like ‘The Governor’ before it, set out a radically different and more subversive account of the nature and impulses of princely government. Far from lauding the sovereign as the fount of wisdom and political authority, as royal propaganda would require, he described in ‘Pasquil’ a situation in which princes in general, and the unnamed royal ‘master’ of the dialogue in particular, are actually political liabilities. Like Erasmus's young lion, the prince described in the text is a willful, headstrong creature with little natural wisdom to guide him, who must be steered towards virtue by the assiduous labor of his counsellors. And despite his intention to live and rule well, he is always liable to veer from the path of probity and fall into personal vice and tyrannical government under the influence of flatterers or malign advisers. Once such men have ‘rooted in [their]... master's heart false opinions’, it will be a monumental task to uproot them. 

“As with the description of princely virtues in ‘The Governor’, the account of the fallen court in ‘Pasquil’ offers, in addition to a timeless account of the evils of flattery, a direct, and this time still more obviously personalized commentary on the contemporary failings of the Henrician administration as Elyot saw them. The central conceit of this three-handed Lucianic dialogue was drawn from recent Italian history. When, in 1501, a classical statue was unearthed in Rome, Cardinal Oliviero Carafa had it erected adjacent to his palace in the Piazza Novanna, where it quickly became the center of an academic festival. On St Mark's Day (25 April) each year thereafter, students and their tutors were permitted to dress the statue, which was nicknamed Pasquino, in the likeness of an historical or mythological figure of their own choosing, and to fix to it satirical verses and lampoons concerning individuals or contentious issues in the city. A rival statue, nicknamed Marfono, standing in the Campus Martius, became the site for satirical replies to the so-called Pasquinades. Some of the verses and responses were published, further pastiches and scurrilous oppositional sequences claiming to be genuine Pasquinades were written and circulated, and a literary tradition was born…

“The arrival of [a pamphlet of these Italian pasquinades] in London, and the interest shown in it by Cromwell, may well have suggested to Elyot the usefulness of the figure of Pasquil or Pasquillo (the diminutive form of ‘Pasquino’) as a vehicle for the further exploration of his ideas about political plain-speaking, and as a mouthpiece for a satirical broadside against his personal and political enemies….

“The dialogue, a ‘merry treatise wherein plainness and flattery do come in trial’, sets out its stall on the high ground of political morality, and, like the first book of More's ‘Utopia’, discusses the efficacy or otherwise of truth-speaking in the counsel of Kings. But, like the ‘Utopia’ itself, it seems to reveal as much about the doubts and anxieties of its author as it does about the principles at stake. On one level at least, ‘Pasquil’ provides a continuation in a more demotic form of the discussion of counsel begun in The Governor; for the three characters involved are fuller, animated versions of types (the plain-speaker and two kinds of flatterer) that he had already sketched out in the earlier text. The flatterers, the open prince-pleaser and the puritanical hypocrite, are presented as two sides of the same coin, differing only in that, where the one is voluble in his hypocrisy, the other is taciturn, allowing the appearance of gravity to conceal his pusillanimity.”(Walker, Tyranny and the Conscience of Man, in Writing under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation.)

ESTC S108773; STC (2nd ed.), 7673