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ATG Quirkies: John Donne’s Listicle For the Well-Prepped Courtier

by | Dec 20, 2022 | 0 comments

John Donne’s Listicle For the Well-Prepped Courtier appears in JSTOR Daily and is by Matthew Wills who is “has advanced degrees in library science and film studies and is lapsed in both fields. He has published in Poetry, Huffington Post, and Nature Conservancy Magazine, among other places, and blogs regularly about urban natural history at matthewwills.com.”

(“The Courtier’s Library” is a list of books every courtier should know about, a cheat sheet for name-dropping in society. The trouble? Its books are imaginary.)


John Donne, after Isaac Oliver
via Wikimedia Commons

John Donne’s Listicle For the Well-Prepped Courtier

“In 2016, the Keeper of Muniments (archives) at Westminster Abbey discovered a previously unknown manuscript of John Donne’s, dating to 1603–1604. The Catalogus librorum aulicorum incomparabilium et non vendibilium, or “Catalog of Incomparable Courtly Books, Not For Sale,” better known as “The Courtier’s Library,” is a list of books every courtier should know about. It’s a cheat sheet to prepare would-be wits for name-dropping in society.

Only, the books were imaginary. Donne made up the thirty-four entries, parodying and satirizing contemporaries.

In her lively new book on Donne, Katherine Rundell describes the Catalogus as “an assassin’s hit list: of intellectual sloppiness, of two-faced hypocrisy and ethical ugliness in religious debate, of the pliancy of the law and of lazy humanist scholarship.” It’s no wonder it wouldn’t be published until nineteen years after Donne’s death.

Reading the list four centuries later, it takes a battery of annotations and footnotes to get much of the satire in the Catalogus. But not always. Scholar Piers Brown’s translation of a previously known version of the manuscript includes the following (comprehensible) highlights:

10. The Hercules of John Harington, or Concerning the method of emptying the dung from Noah’s Art.

23. Cardano, On the nothingness of a fart.

28. The Lawyer’s Onion, or the Art of Weeping during trials…

32. What not? or a confutation of all error in Theology as well as in the other sciences and mechanical arts, by all men, dead, living, and to be born, put together one night after supper, by Doctor Sutcliffe.

Donne named names. Dr. Matthew Sutcliffe, the Dean of Exeter, was unlikely to have been amused. …”

Please click here to continue reading the entire article.

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