media transitions

This is a post I put together as part of an ongoing conversation with a group of folks who aren’t early modernists but are interested in media. I thought I’d look back at some examples of early print that disrupt our sense of what was typical. In the back of my head I was thinking about Matt Kirschenbaum’s work in Mechanisms and the sorts of tensions between how we perceive media and how it manifests itself—I’ve written about some of those ideas here, too, in my continuing curiosity about the distance between how we imagine early print and how it was experienced. But I’ve not added to that writing here, and have instead just collected some pictures of things that struck me (well, I did include captions). So let your imagination run wild in exploring what we might see or not see in these things. Use the slideshow to navigate through the images; click on any individual picture to be taken to it in the Folger’s digital image collection and to full identification of what it is. Feel free to leave comments with your thoughts or links to more images.

Enjoy!

multivalent print, or, learning to love ambiguity in three easy lessons

Below are the slides for and the approximate text of a talk I gave at the 2013 MLA convention as part of a panel on “Convergent Histories of the Book: From Manuscript to Digital” organized by Alex Mueller and Mike Johnston. I spoke ex tempore, so my text here won’t precisely line up with what I said at the MLA, but the gist should be the same. I’ve indicated where the slide changes are and after each change have inserted a footnote linking to source and, where available, a link to the image. I’ve also indicated my indebtedness to other scholars, particularly Jeffrey Todd Knight and Adam Smyth, in the notes.


I want to talk today about how early print complicates any trajectory from manuscript to digital, focusing on some common mistaken assumptions that are made about early print. The first assumption we make is that print replaced manuscript, that once the printing press was invented, writing by hand withered away. [slide 2] But print is not the opposite of manuscript. Indeed, we might understand print as having spurred on an increase in handwriting. When people think of the first printed work, they usually think of the Gutenberg bible. [slide 3] But Gutenberg’s first printed work was an indulgence, printed in 1454 and, as you can see, filled out by hand on 27 February 1455. Gutenberg wasn’t the only early printer to print indulgences. [slide 4] This is an indulgence printed in 1498 by Wynken de Worde. It hasn’t been filled out; in fact, it wasn’t ever cut into individual indulgences to be sold. What you’re looking at is a sheet of indulgences and the only reason it survived is because it was used as part of the binding of a book. Other categories of printed forms were popular aside from indulgences. [slide 5] This is a legal document, a summons from the Exchequer filled out on 1 August 1622. [slide 6] And this legal document from 1677 makes Francis Read of Giggleswick Bailiff of the Wapentake of Ewecross.

All of these documents were designed for the insertion of handwriting. But writing flourished on texts even when the print wasn’t inviting it. [slide 7] In this copy of Polychronicon, printed by Caxton in 1482, an early user has supplied the missing final leaves with his own manuscript copy. Is that book manuscript or print? It seems pretty clearly print: the bulk of the volume is print and the manuscript provides access to missing print. [slide 8] This copy of Aristotle’s Ethics was so  heavily annotated by its owner that the margins of the pages were not enough: he added in blank leaves to give himself more room for his notes. Is this book print or manuscript? We value it for the manuscript additions, for the dialogue between print and hand.

[slide 9] As these books make clear, print is not closed, finished, done at the moment of printing. [slide 10] We all know that print wasn’t fixed; books were printed with errors all the time, and errata notes calling attention to them. This 1624 example is one of my favorites: “There are many other errors, which being but small, I entreat the courteous reader to correct as he findes them.” [slide 11] In this 1673 book, a user has gone through and made the corrections the errata list invites him to, here crossing out “company” and writing in “presence.”

But not all marginalia responds in the way that a book invites. [slide 12] In this copy of Caxton’s 1483 printing of Confessio Amatis, a mid-sixteenth-century owner has gone through and crossed out “pope” and, in this instance, cleverly substituted “abominable” for “honourable.” But not all of the marginalia in this book responds to the text, or even works against the text. [slide 13] In the blank space on this leaf is recorded the date of the writer’s marriage: “Chrystofer Swallowe was marryed the 12th day of July in the yere of oure lorde 1553 whiche was the seventhe yere of the Reigne of kinge Edward the Sixth …. and in the firste year of the Reigne of our most Excellent and worthie princes Queyne marie the fyrst.” [slide 14] And across the bottom margins of another opening is a deed of land involving Swallowe and “Dorithe his wife.”

[slide 15] Early readers also used print for their own purposes in other ways, taking books apart and reassembling them to make their own meaning. A famous example are the Little Giddings bible concordances (here showing one at Harvard). The Little Giddings community wove together the four different gospels to produce one narrative of Christ’s life, cutting words out of the gospels and pasting them together in their harmonies. If you look closely at this image (or follow this link to see other pages from Harvard’s copy), you’ll see the small slips of paper that have been carefully rearranged and glued to make a new text.

The Harmonies are a particularly famous example of this reworking of texts, and are often discussed by later readers as shocking: Can you imagine cutting apart your bible and remaking it? [slide 16] But there are other examples of what Adam Smyth calls “reading with scissors” in this period. John Gibson’s commonplace book, put together while he was imprisoned in the 1650s, cuts out and repurposes print material with his manuscript additions. [slide 17] Gibson is not the only one to remix works. This copy of Mary Sidney’s translation of Philippe de Mornay’s A Discourse of Life and Death (1600) has been supplemented an early user with images cut from Richard Day’s A booke of Christian prayers, hand colored and pasted in, and with manuscript couplets.

It didn’t always take wielding scissors to remake texts. [slide 18] Since many early books were not sold bound, buyers could choose how and when to bind them, sometimes bringing together multiple works within one binding. In this case, a seventeenth-century reader created a compilation of verse works, ranging from narrative poetry to love lyrics and epigrams and binding together five printed works and one manuscript. As the work done by Paul Needham on Caxton and Jeffrey Todd Knight on Renaissance sammelbände shows, sometimes the books early modern readers created are surprisingly different from what we expect.

One of the reasons for our surprise is that we don’t often encounter early modern works in the same manner in which early modern readers would have. [slide 19] Our notion of what is important, of the difference between print and manuscript, of what readers do with texts, has been shaped by the assumptions and practices of collectors and curators in the nineteenth century. The questions that I asked about whether we consider a specific work print or manuscript are not questions without important implications for researchers. In most libraries, print and manuscript are cataloged separately, often with different curators in charge and with different policies and grants in place. Early modern readers might not have differentiated between print and manuscript, but nineteenth-century caretakers of those books did, and often remade them according to their notions of what was appropriate, assumptions that continue to govern how we treat and encounter early books.

[slide 20] As we just saw, binding together different works into a single volume was one way early readers made and encountered their books. It was a particularly handy way of treating plays, which were slim works that didn’t always need to be bound individually. This list shows the contents of one such volume, a collection of thirteen plays and interludes housed in one binding. But this is no longer how we encounter this volume. [slide 21] In 1961, these plays were separated from each other and rebound individually. The binder’s note in the back of each play records what it once was; the original table of contents remains with the first play in the collection. But the sense of the plays as a gathering is gone. [slide 22]  What we see are slim, tidy playbooks, not the heterogenous collection they once were.

[slide 23] Sometimes we are lucky and we catch a glimpse of what was. [slide 24] But more often we encounter early works through the interventions of later assumptions about what they were, our view of the seventeenth century shaped by nineteenth-century lenses. What we think we know about early print—that it is distinct from manuscript, that it is fixed and stable—are mistaken lessons that obscure the ambiguities and complexities of what print was and can be.