819. Robert Southey to John Rickman, [7 August 1803]

819. Robert Southey to John Rickman, [7 August 1803] ⁠* 

I have long been in daily expectation of the works of Ambrosio Morales, [1]  the Resendius, [2]  the classical antiquary of Spain. when that arrives, I shall look with some confidence for news of Nicostrata. [3]  But may not the lines refer to the original invention of the Roman letters in Etruria – not to their introduction into Spain: “We Latins” would be the boastful expression of a Vandalo-Gothico-Alano-Suevo-Roman Bishop writing such Latin verse. – the Roman alphabet every where followed their conquests, & the written hand of those conquerors would be preserved by the clergy till Eugenius [4]  time – that is – till the Moorish conquest. then the Arabic language had well nigh won the victory. the Bishops used to complain that their clergy were critics in Hebrew & Arabic, & could not read Latin. as late as xx 1100 some of the royal wills are written in Arabic. the Roman <or French it is called> letter was introduced by force when the Gothic ritual, & the alphabet of Ulphilas [5]  were abolished together, by the influence of a French Queen. [6] 

Is there not a confusion between two Bishops of that name? the Ulphilas who was Bishop of the Visigoths in the reign of Valens, [7]  who converted & Arianised them, & the later author of the Silver MSS? [8]  the Danes were not Xtians till after their power declined – till after our Norman conquest. but the Arian Bishop was certainly the likeliest man to teach writing with religion – & so with the Visigoths it went into Spain, & Eugenius must speak of him before the existence of any thing like a manuscript in Denmark. Thex ομοιοτελευτα [9]  have in their physiognomies a sort of episcopal pedigree. they would first be used for inscriptions upon <tombs.> crucifixes, & over church doors – thence all their angles, & when they were transferred to parchment a pretty running hand they made! – These patterns were accessible to every body where one book served half a dozen convents.

You scandalize Vasco Lobeira [10]  upon grounds too metaphysical. upon the “could not be” xxxx species of proof. all Romances draw the same picture. Amadis presents an improved morality – as simple seduction is better than adultery. In the Round Table Romances, the two best xx Knight intrigues, one with King Marks xxxx wife (his own Uncle) [11]  the other with Q. Guenevor [12]  — the one seasoning his amusement with what was thought incest: the other with treason. History proves the truth of these pictures high born Bastards were always <generally> acknowledged & ennobled. the fact is that when Ks were christened they kept what pagan customs they liked best, & polygamy was not soon rooted out – & when it was, the plea of consanguinity allowed them to gratify their passion by a succession of wives. this familiarized xxxxxxx concubinage to the higher xxxx <class> of women, as it was xxxxxxx to the xxx middle ranks by the sort of left-hand-marriages – the wives-by-courtesy of the clergy, before the great point of celibacy was determined. I can find more causes – women would not keep strictly what they were always in danger of losing. every country was then the scene of war, & rape has been always the amusement of soldiers – the bonus granted by all generals down to the days of Edouard Mortier [13]  & Bonaparte. [14]  All this was yet farther helped by their religion. a promise of marriage was marriage bona fide, & only required a form of confirmation. there were half a score ceremonies for the great: first the palabras de futuro [15]  – the future tense espousals of two children – then the present-tense – the palabras de presente  [16]  from when they were fourteen; – well – even this might be set aside when the young K grew older if he changed his mind – & then at last came a regular church marriage. Catholick Amadis & Oriana [17]  are married in the forest.

So much for the causes of lax morals – & as I see what I have been writing are memorandums for history I may as well go on & look for the palliations. Religion imprimis  [18]  that made chastity a virtue quoad  [19]  mortification. but the main antidote seems to have been that general feeling of propriety & convenience which usually actuates the quiet majority of mankind. the worst plague never decimated Constantinople; so in the plague-period of morality I xxxx take it that the healthy have always far outnumbered the tainted. the high & the low classes may both be extremely depraved while the middle is out of temptation. It is said that there was formerly no middle class. Xxxxx xxxxxxx xxx it would be xxxxxxx <more accurate> to say there was no such class as what we mean by the low class – no poor – none who were made vicious by want – no middle class? – what were the yeomen, the franklins, the traders. – for traders there have always been in every part of Europe since it was civilized by the Romans. the assertion is only true politically – as it regards loans, elections, &c. – it means that there were no traders who rode in a coach; no monied aristocracy. Coleridge says there has never been a single line of commonsense written about the dark-ages. he was speaking of the knowledge & philosophy of that period, & I believe his assertion is true in a more extensive sense.

I have written all this in the idleness of disquietude – too uneasy to settle to any thing. Margaret is suffering sadly with teething, & we cannot employ the means which would benefit her, because they produce such passion & fear & agitation as more than counteract the good effect. her spirits & her appetite are gone – & she loses flesh daily. poor King who is our bleeder & purger in ordinary, keeps house with his wife [20]  who I fear is past all hope in a child-bed fever – so that instead of having him to help us I am obliged to go look after him & find a far worse house there than I have at home. & so you have the history why I have written a long letter! & I have been so taken up thus that I have let slip the opportunity of sending the books to Capt. Burney by Tobin.

Tom sails at last for the Cove of Cork, the best of the home stations. –



Sunday night.


* Address: To/ John Rickman Esqr
Endorsement: RS/ Augt 7. or/ July 31st/ 1803
MS: Huntington Library, RS 40. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 225-228 [where it is dated 31 July 1803].
Dating note: Although the endorsement indicates the possibility the letter may belong to late July 1803, the contents, in particular references to Tom Southey’s whereabouts, suggest that 7 August is a much more likely date. BACK

[1] Ambrosio de Morales (1513-1591), Coronica General de Espana, con las Antiguedades de las Ciudades de Espana (1791-1793), no. 3557 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[2] Andre de Resende (1498-1573), Portuguese historian and author of De Antiquitatibus Lusitaniae (1593). BACK

[3] In legend, Nicostrata (or Carmenta) was the daughter of Ionius, King of Arcadia. She and her son settled on the site of the future city of Rome, where she invented the alphabet used in Latin and taught it to the local people. Rickman and Turner had drawn Southey’s attention to a Latin verse quoted in Pietro Crinito (1475-1507), De Honesta Disciplina (1504), Book 17, which told this story and claimed that an alphabet was taught to the Goths by Gulfilas (c. 311-382), Arian bishop of the Visigoths, before they settled in Spain. In fact, Gulfilas invented a specific Gothic alphabet when he translated the Bible into Gothic. The Visigoths did not reject Arianism for Catholicism until 589 and their Kingdom in Spain lasted until the Arab invasion of 711-712. BACK

[4] Eugenius III (d. 657), Archbishop of Toledo 647-657. Some of his writings survive. BACK

[5] Gulfilas (c. 311-382), Arian Bishop of the Visigoths. BACK

[6] Alfonso VI (before 1040-1109), King of Leon 1065-1109 and Castile 1072-1109, abolished the old Gothic rite in the Spanish Church. He had five wives, and as many as four of them may have been of French origin, but Southey probably means Agnes of Aquitaine (d. c. 1078). BACK

[7] Flavius Julius Valens (328-378), Roman Emperor 364-378. BACK

[8] The Codex Argenteus, a 6th-century manuscript in the University of Uppsala Library, Sweden. The translation of the Bible into Gothic which it contains is by Gulfilas (c. 311-382). Because Southey believed the Codex must have originated in Scandinavia he assigns it a much later date and so believes there must have been a second Gulfilas. BACK

[9] ‘Things ending alike’, as in the case of words that rhyme. BACK

[10] Vasco de Lobeira (d. 1403), medieval troubadour who Southey believed had originated the story of Amadis of Gaul. BACK

[11] The story of Tristan, who fell in love with Iseult, wife of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. It was a staple of medieval romance. BACK

[12] Guinevere was the legendary queen of King Arthur. She fell in love with his chief knight, Sir Lancelot, according to Chretien de Troyes (late 12th century), Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart. BACK

[13] Edouard Adolphe Casimir Joseph Mortier (1768-1835), French general. BACK

[14] Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821, First Consul 1799-1804, Emperor of the French 1804-1814). BACK

[15] The Spanish translates as ‘words of [the] future’. BACK

[16] The Spanish translates as ‘words of [the] present’. BACK

[17] The hero and heroine of Amadis of Gaul. BACK

[18] The Latin translates as ‘in the first place’. BACK

[19] The Latin translates as ‘as far as’. BACK

[20] John King had married Emmeline Edgeworth (1770-1847) in 1802. BACK


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