1404. Robert Southey to John Rickman, [c. 22 December 1807]

1404. Robert Southey to John Rickman, [c. 22 December 1807] ⁠* 

As Henry dines with you Xmas Day the inclosed [1]  will hit him flying.

I have got a third through the French Anna-Comnena [2]  today, & shall have soon have all the remarkables out of the book, with references minute enough to enable me to verify them by the original. The translation seems to be very good.

Last night I was in too much haste to look for the ipsissima verba [3]  of Fuller. They imply more than th stated. ‘It is better to fight naked than with bad armour; for the rags of a bad xxx corselet make a deeper wound, & worse to be healed than the bullet itself.’ [4]  – A good corselet would certainly repel a musket ball; & xxxx xx there [MS torn] enough in the Tower to show it: & the contusion could seldom be of any consequence [MS torn] the corselet did not, in great part, sit close. Besides many balls would slant off. It must have been the greater use of cannon which occasioned the disuse of defensive armour, – & now that battles are so decided by the bayonet, the breast plate ought to be resumed.

I think there is a suit of chain-mail at the Liverpool Museum – but it is Asiatic. This I will see & examine. My paper contains a great number of facts relative to ancient warfare in all its facts, – enough to furnish matter for a curious chapter the question how far did the real state of society ever correspond to what the Romances describe is a curious one, – Turner proposes to examine it as far as relates to this country. He has xxxx xxxxxxx <produced> a Saxon romance anterior to the Crusades [5]  – & that Latin poem which relates to Attila & is referred to in the notes on Madoc is another. [6]  One of the first things which appeared in Anna Comnena is that she describes her father fighting like a Palmerin in battle – there is a good deal of this in Byzantine history, & still more in Persian fable – <read Champion’s Fragment of Ferdusi, [7]  when you can meet with it> It is worth your while to endure the disgust so villainous a translation will excite, for the sake of getting at the story. You know my opinion concerning Romance, – that it is the natural growth of semi-barbarous ages, & that Hercules & Jason & Theseus, were the Guy of Warwick, the Rolands & Launcelots [8]  of their day.

These books were never meant to outrage probability. Amadis [9]  in armour, was no more than the Chicken or Gulley [10]  without it, – the man of most science & most strength, – which ensured success in them the then mode of warfare. Their miracles also were believed; nothing is so common in Romance as enchanted fountains, – yet for one which is there <is> in Romance, I can produce half a dozen in old natural history.

Perhaps you will make one mornings leisure & go with me to the xxxxxx Tower [11]  – where we shall certainly find out something. I have long thought that the disuse of defensive armour rendering personal strength less necessary, has led to the disuse of manly exercise, & xxxxxxx made us weaker than our forefathers. Thus much is certain, – that in former times the gentry excelled the peasantry in bodily strength, – which assuredly is not the case now.

God bless you


150 of Espriella are left, & so they go to press with it again immediately. I am in good hope that this book will turn out a prize for me. [12] 


* Address: To/ John Rickman Esqr
Endorsement: RS./ 22 Decr. 1807
MS: Huntington Library, RS 123. ALS; 2p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 40–42.
Dating note: From Rickman’s endorsement BACK

[1] This has not survived. BACK

[2] Anna Comnena (1083–1153), daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos. She wrote the Alexiad, a history of her father’s reign. Southey may have been reading her narrative in the French-compiled dual Latin/Greek edition of Byzantine texts, Byzantinae Historiae Scriptores (1645–1711). Southey had previously told Rickman: ‘It has long been one of my greatest desires to read through the Byzantine Historians’; see Southey to John Rickman, 21 December [1807], Letter 1402. BACK

[3] Meaning ‘exact words’. BACK

[4] Thomas Fuller (1607/8–1661; DNB), makes this observation in a sermon entitled ‘The First Reconciler’ in A Triple Reconciler; Stating the Controversies, whether Ministers have an Exclusive Power of Communicants from the Sacrament: Any Persons Unordained may Lawfully Preach: The Lord’s Prayer Ought not to be Used by all Christians (1654), p. 18. BACK

[5] In the third volume of his History of the Anglo Saxons from the Earliest Period to the Norman Conquest (1799–1805), Turner discusses Beowulf, calling it a ‘romance’ and ‘the oldest poem in an epic form that now exists in any of the vernacular languages of Europe’ (p. 408). BACK

[6] In a note to Madoc (1805), Part 1, book 15, lines 48–49, Southey cites the Latin poem De Prima Expeditione Attila, Regis Hunnorum, in Gallias, ac de Rebus Gestis Waltharii Aquitanorum Principis. Carmen Epicum Saeculi VI (1780). See Madoc, vol. 2 of Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1793–1810, gen. ed. Lynda Pratt, 5 vols (London, 2004), pp. 342, 587. BACK

[7] Joseph Champion (dates unknown), The Poems of Ferdosi, Translated from the Persian (1788). BACK

[8] Heroes of the romances ‘Guy of Warwick’, ‘Childe Rowland’ and ‘Morte d’Arthur’. BACK

[9] Hero of the cycle of chivalric romances of which Southey had edited Amadis of Gaul (1803). BACK

[10] Two bare knuckle prizefighters: Henry Pearce (1777–1809), the ‘Bristol Game-Chicken’, the champion of England, and John Gully (1783–1863; DNB). The two men had a famous fight on 5 October 1805, won by Pearce when Gully was forced to retire. BACK

[11] The Tower of London. BACK

[12] Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. Translated from the Spanish (1807). The second edition was published in 1808; but its popularity dropped off once Southey’s authorship was known and a third was not called for until 1814. BACK

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