Abridging the Antiquitee of Faery Lond: New Paths through Old Matter in the Faerie Queene*

By Wheatley, Chloe | Renaissance Quarterly, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview
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Abridging the Antiquitee of Faery Lond: New Paths through Old Matter in the Faerie Queene*


Wheatley, Chloe, Renaissance Quarterly


In book 2 of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, the knights Arthur and Guyon visit Eumnestes, the chronicler who inhabits the Room of Memory. While Arthur reads a dynastic chronicle entitled Briton moniments, Guyon reads "another booke,/That hight, Antiquitee of Faery lond," in which "whenas he greedily did looke; / Th'of-spring of Elves and Faryes there he fond, / As it delivered was from hond to hond" (2.9.60.1-5). (1) The chronicle that Guyon reads, presumably, is the extensive account compiled by Eumnestes that details the lineal succession of fairy kings. (2) However, the readers of The Faerie Queene are not provided with direct access to this text. The poem's narrator, running rapidly through the entire course of fairy history in a mere seven stanzas, instead presents an epitome, or abridgement, of his source (figs. 1-2). (3) This summary of Elfin Antiquitee draws attention to the distinct potential of the summary form, and marks Spenser's awareness of the role such redactions were playing in the dissemination of Renaissance history. Specifically, the abridged Antiquitee renders up what both detractors and apologists intuited about the epitome as a text that could reach a wider readership at the same time that it adapted or even replaced the meaning of its more expansive sources. (4) Spenser in effect invites the reader to treat the historical epitome as a form taking a rightful place next to the other historical forms--chronicle, chorography, genealogy, and prophecy--that enrich the historical texture of his poem and provide models both for action and understanding. (5)

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Through his seven-stanza Elfin history, Spenser gestures quite specifically toward those rhetorical and print practices associated with the creation of epitomes. Humanists understood the epitome as an important byproduct of those rhetorical techniques by which one gained mastery of texts by rewriting them. According to Roger Ascham (1515-68) in his work The Scholemaster (1570), epitome refers to a type of exercise--along with translatio, paraphrasis, metaphrasis, imitatio, and declamatio--that a student could use to supplement reading and encourage eloquence: "This is a way of studie, belonging, rather to matter, than to wordes: to memorie than to utterance: to those that be learned already ... Epitome, is good privatelie for himselfe that doth worke it, but ill commonlie for all other that use other mens labor therein: a silie poore kinde of studie, not unlike to the doing of those poore folke, which neyther till, nor sowe, nor reape themselves, but gleane by stealth, upon other mens grownds." (6) Although humanists emphasized the importance of having students produce their own summaries as a way to secure their understanding of a subject and to exercise their rhetorical flexibility, there is also evidence that teachers provided their students with readymade epitomes. For example, Sir John Cheke used upon his charge Edward VI "a tabular summary" summarizing the emperors and consuls of Rome. (7) A more general reading public was also increasingly targeted as a viable market for predigested texts. Some of the subjects printed in epitome before 1580 included rhetorical handbooks, legal digests, and redactions of moral philosophy, as well as works by authors ranging from Cicero and Galen to Vesalius. (8) By far the most popular printed epitomes were universal, national, and Roman histories. At the turn of the seventeenth century writers sought out various strategies of summary, abridgement, and verbal compression to feed a growing taste for history books, producing prose summaries, broadside lists of rulers, pictorial summaries, versified accounts of important events, and even books of devotion that helped the reader commit key historical dates to memory. In fact, it is possible that between 1572 and 1583 Spenser himself contributed to this trend by working with the publisher Henry Bynneman to produce a compendium of English chronicles entitled De Rebus Gestis Britanniae.

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