Bishop Tunstall: The man who survived the Tudors by calculating the odds

On the International Day of Mathematics, a post by Dr Elizabeth Biggs (Trinity College Dublin/TNA Postdoctoral Research Fellow) Dr Danielle Westerhof (Rare Books Librarian) and Gemma Lewis (Castle Curator).

How many of us who have lived, worked or explored Durham Castle have ever heard about the man who built the Tunstall Gallery and Chapel?

Cuthbert Tunstall (1474-1559), bishop of Durham from 1530 until his death, was a survivor.

After studying at Oxford and Cambridge, he received his doctorate from the University of Padua in canon and civil law in 1505. This degree was rapidly put to work for Henry VIII and then all of his children – first in royal administration at Westminster and as a diplomat, then as bishop of London and finally as bishop of Durham during the most turbulent years of the English Reformation and during a time of intermittent war with Scotland. But his first interests were always in theology and especially mathematics. 

Portrait of Tunstall by unknown artist. In the portrait his hands are clenched and it is believed that the rosary beads were painted over

Tunstall and mathematics

Five hundred years ago in 1522, he published the first printed mathematics book in England, which was printed in London by the king’s printer, Richard Pynson with an engraving on the title page by Hans Holbein, the famous portrait painter. Called De Arte Supputandi (On the art of counting) it was intended as an introduction to working mathematics.

It covers everything a bright young merchant would need from basic addition and subtraction through to simple geometry and long division, as well as the basics of accounting. It gives multiplication tables for reference and extensive examples so that the reader can absorb how to do the calculations. Although it was written in Latin, it was designed to be a first introduction to working mathematical principles. Mathematics for Tunstall and his contemporaries came after Latin in the school curriculum!

Tunstall’s book, however, was not the first of its kind. He based his work on that of the Tuscan author Luca Pacioli who had published his Somma in Italian almost thirty years earlier in 1494, which is considered to be the first work to set out the modern system of double-entry accounting, as used by Venetian merchants in this period. Tunstall’s version in Latin would be widely used across Europe as a textbook and would be reprinted many times in France and Germany in the following decades. The copy at Palace Green Library, which is shown here, is the second edition, which was published in Paris in 1538.

The 1538 titlepage showing that it was printed by Robert Estienne (in Latin Roberti Stephani), an important and well-known printer in Paris

Tunstall the scholar

Tunstall’s interest in mathematics did not appear in a vacuum. By the time De arte supputandi was published, Tunstall had for years been part of an international network of humanist scholars who wrote each other letters, read each other’s unpublished manuscripts for comment, and dedicated their books to each other in glowing words of friendship.

Tunstall gives lots of examples of addition to show readers how to do it themselves, going from short examples to very large ones

He was frequently described by his contemporaries as saturnine or melancholic, which in early modern medicine was associated with dedicated scholarship. However, as he told his friend Thomas More in the dedicatory letter to De arte supputandi, Tunstall was ready to give up his secular scholarship and devote his intellect to the Church when he became Bishop of London soon after publication. His only other major work, on the Eucharist, appeared twenty years later.

A multiplication table for reference, showing all the times tables from one to ten. Read along the bottom and right-most rows for the numbers you want to multiply and then see where the lines intersect for the answer

Friends with More since his Oxford days and with Erasmus since about 1507, Tunstall became acquainted with the Antwerp humanist Peter Gillis during his first diplomatic mission to the Low Countries in 1515-1517, forming intimate friendships with all three men. More praises Tunstall’s integrity and learning in Utopia, while Tunstall reciprocates the compliment in De arte supputandi. Meanwhile, Gillis was so taken with Tunstall that less than a year after the two first met, Tunstall became godfather to Gillis’ daughter. In 1519, Tunstall advised Erasmus on the latter’s Greek New Testament, correcting errors in the Latin translation for the second edition.

Among this close group of intelligent polymaths, Tunstall was clearly well regarded. In the words of Thomas More: “I will say nothing in praise of this man, not because I fear the judgement of a friend might be questioned, but because his integrity and learning are greater than I can describe” Utopia, ed. & tr. G.M. Logan and R.M. Adams, 3rd ed. (CUP: 2016), p. 8.

Tunstall’s method for long division, where he writes the number you want to divide above the parallel lines and the number he wants to divide it by next to it; here 2,915,410 is divided by 47 to give the answer 62,030

Tunstall in 2022

In 2018 we had a unique exhibition proposal from the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Durham University, proposing an exhibition on the first printed mathematics book in England. During lockdown we had various conversations about Tunstall and what we could do for the exhibition. These were lively discussions which made us all want to tell the story of this remarkable resident of Durham Castle. The overall aim was to extend the exhibition to look more widely at the legacy of Tunstall. Tunstall was a remarkable man who would be more well-known had he died with some of his friends and peers like Sir Thomas More. He was often cited as being incredibly clever, kind, and gentle with the gift of remaining impartial despite his own solid personal beliefs. However, historical sources show that Tunstall was also calculating, shrewd and unscrupulous. This was especially true when it came to saving his own neck.

Despite this, Tunstall did have a conscience. He never allowed blood to be on his hands, and no one was ever burned in the diocese of Durham under Tunstall’s rule. Not as well-known as many of his more infamous contemporaries, Tunstall may have become a more notable figure had he not kept his head and lived until the age of 85. Opening at the start of August in the Tunstall Gallery will be a unique temporary exhibition that marks a collaboration between Dr Elizabeth Biggs as our academic lead, University College, University Library and Collections, and the Department of Mathematical Sciences. The exhibition will explore the many aspects of Tunstall, from his relationships with Tudor Monarchs, his role as a scholar, and the impact he has had on Durham Castle and the wider city.

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