Print Culture and the Medieval Author: Chaucer, Lydgate, and Their Books, 1473-1557

Print Culture and the Medieval Author: Chaucer, Lydgate, and Their Books, 1473-1557

Print Culture and the Medieval Author: Chaucer, Lydgate, and Their Books, 1473-1557

Print Culture and the Medieval Author: Chaucer, Lydgate, and Their Books, 1473-1557


Print Culture and the Medieval Authoris a book about books. Examining hundreds of early printed books and their late medieval analogues, Alexandra Gillespie writes a bibliographical history of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer and his follower John Lydgate in the century after the arrival of printing in England. Her study is an important new contribution to the emerging "sociology of the text" in English literary and historical studies.

At the center of this study is a familiar question: what is an author? The idea of the vernacular writer was already contested and unstable in medieval England; Gillespie demonstrates that in the late Middle Ages it was also a way for book producers and readers to mediate the risks--commercial, political, religious, and imaginative--involved in the publication of literary texts.

Gillespie's discussion focuses on the changes associated with the shift to print, scribal precedents for these changes, and contemporary understanding of them. The treatment of texts associated with Chaucer and Lydgate is an index to the sometimes flexible, sometimes resistant responses of book printers, copyists, decorators, distributors, patrons, censors, owners, and readers to a gradual but profoundly influential bibliographical transition.

The research is conducted across somewhat intractable boundaries. Gillespie writes about medieval and modern history; about manuscript and print; about canonical and marginal authors; about literary works and books as objects. In the process, she finds new meanings for some medieval vernacular texts and a new place for some old books in a history of English culture.


How can one reduce the great peril, the great danger with which
fiction threatens our world? the answer is: One can reduce it
with the author … the author is the principle of thrift in the
proliferation of meaning … the author does not precede the
works, he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture,
one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes
the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition,
decomposition, and recomposition of fiction.

For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.

(The Canterbury Tales, I 293–6)

Chaucer's Clerk of Oxford has an intimate relationship with books. a well-stocked shelf is his idea of material comfort—a better way to shut out a cold night or the sounds of the world than rich garments and elegant instruments. in a way, the book is a kind of model for the man. It is not to be judged by its cover: however splendidly it is 'clad', its binding tells us no more about 'philosophie' than a bedchamber or robe tells us about a philosopher. Chaucer's point here is commonplace and subtly satirical, in that he suggests one should eschew the sensory pleasure afforded by surface impression in favour of substance. the satire works bibliographically: the surfaces are those of books. in a world in which twenty volumes was a 'riche' collection, the materials in which books were clad were liable to be rather empty and uninformative. It would take the Clerk some time to save enough money to buy and bind

Foucault, 'What is an Author?', 158–9.

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