Copiousness, conjecture and collaboration in William Camden's Britannia

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Abstract

While William Camden's Britannia (1586) clearly is a copious text in both the Renaissance sense of the word and its modern meaning, the work's connection with the humanist rhetorical tradition of copia is far from straightforward. Camden focuses in this monumental antiquarian survey of Britain on copia rerum rather than copia verborum, thus adopting one half of the humanist concept, but essentially dispensing with the other. This new kind of copiousness, the article argues, is the consequence of both the Britannia's historiographical method, one that depends on conjecture to uncover linguistic, historical, and other origins, and its political project, what Camden in his prefatory epistle calls his desire to ‘restore antiquity to Britaine, and Britain to his antiquity’. Both these things put a premium on the assembling of examples: something that we can see in the work's prolix style and the accretions across the six editions published in Camden's lifetime. To encompass national heritage in all its manifestations in this manner, Camden relies not only on his own knowledge and research, but also on the collaboration of others – user-generated content that in turn further increases the work's voluminousness. The Britannia, this article suggests, therefore inhabits a pivotal place in the shifting history of copia: it is a work that looks back to Erasmus and the humanist sense of a trope primarily associated with the language arts, but that also anticipates the increasing orientation of copiousness towards compilations of matter, knowledge, and things.

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