A Birthday Present for Milton

December 9, 2013

Written by Gordon Campbell, co-general editor (with Thomas Corns) of the Oxford Complete Works of John Milton, and a member of the Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO) editorial board

On 9 December 2008 Milton turned 400, and Oxford University Press (OUP) hosted a birthday party in the Bodleian. Most of those present had at some point pledged not to kindle fire or flame in the Library, so our cake could not have candles.  We nonetheless had some presents for Milton, including the first volume of the Oxford Complete Works of John Milton and a new biography

Today Milton turns 405. Whereas children account their age in fractions, the elderly only attend to birthdays ending in a zero, so the celebrations of Milton’s 405th birthday do not include a party.  That said, we should acknowledge that Milton may have been a party animal in his youth. His nephew  Edward Phillips recorded that 'once in three Weeks or a Month, he would drop into the Society of some Young Sparks of his Acquaintance ..., the Beau’s of those Times; with these Gentlemen he would so far make bold with his Body, as now and then to keep a Gawdy-day'.  A ‘gaudy’ denoted general merry-making as well as specific festivals at a college or an inn of court. When Cleopatra promises her sad captains a gaudy night, she offers a drinking spree.  In short, Milton sometimes joined his foppish friends (the sense of 'Sparks') for some binge drinking, though his nephew liked to think that Milton's indulgences during these outings stopped short of whoring and brawling.  In old age, however, Milton's pleasures become more muted: they included, for example, the sensation of sunshine warming his face. His 'best and most precious possession' in the heady days of the Commonwealth and Protectorate had been the theological treatise on which he had worked for many years, but had to set aside unfinished when the catastrophe of the Restoration overcame him. 

Many years ago, when I stepped down as editor of an OUP journal, my leaving present was a bound set of the volumes that I had edited. This year’s present to Milton has taken a similar form, but with an added bonus.  His theological treatise, which is known as De Doctrina Christiana (which may or may not have been the title that Milton had in mind), has until now never enjoyed the honour of a scholarly edition. When it was discovered in 1823, the King commanded Bishop Sumner to edit and translate it for the nation. Sumner was chosen for his eminence rather than his diligence or his skills as a Latinist. His idea of editing was to scribble some pencilled corrections on the manuscript and then pass it to the printer; this is not a good model of scholarly practice.  Since that time the text has been much studied, but no-one has attempted a scholarly edition until now.

This year OUP published the first scholarly edition of De Doctrina, skilfully edited and translated by John Hale and Donald Cullington. This mighty edition sets a new standard for the editing of complex Latin manuscripts, and has rightly been reviewed with respect bordering on awe. The only limitation of this edition is that it is printed on paper, and so has no search facility. That shortcoming has been rectified by the appearance of the treatise in OSEO, where it is the brightest star in the firmament of seventeenth-century texts. A treatise that has always been difficult to use can for the first time be searched in all sorts of ways, and so can now be the subject of serious scholarly enquiry. This combination of the scholarly might of the editors and the electronic wizardry of the developers of OSEO has created an extraordinary resource, a gift to scholars, but also a gift to Milton on the occasion of his birthday.

The Complete Works of John Milton, Vol. 8: De Doctrina Christiana, Vol. 1


Discover more about the first modern scholarly edition of De Doctrina Christiana by reading a blog post by the co-editor John K. Hale: John Milton's Largest Manuscript.

Or view the Illustrations of the Manuscript (a free extract from The Complete Works of John Milton, Vol. 8: De Doctrina Christiana, Vol. 1) on OSEO now. This edition is part of the Restoration Prose module.


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