The Book of the Incipit: Beginnings in the Fourteenth Century

The Book of the Incipit: Beginnings in the Fourteenth Century

The Book of the Incipit: Beginnings in the Fourteenth Century

The Book of the Incipit: Beginnings in the Fourteenth Century


In the first book to examine one of the most peculiar features of one of the greatest and most perplexing poems of England's late Middle Ages -- the successive attempts of Piers Plowman to begin, and to keep beginning -- D. Vance Smith compels us to rethink beginning, as concept and practice, in both medieval and contemporary terms.

The problem of beginning was invested with increasing urgency in the fourteenth century, imagined and grappled with in the courts, the churches, the universities, the workshops, the fields, and the streets of England. The Book of the Incipit reveals how Langland's poem exemplifies a widespread interest in beginning in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, an interest that appears in such divergent fields as the physics of motion, the measurement of time, logic, grammar, rhetoric, theology, book production, and insurrection.

Smith offers a theoretical understanding of beginning that departs from the structuralisms of Edward Said, the traditional formalisms of A.D. Nuttall, and most medievalist and modernist treatments of closure. Instead, he conceives a work's beginning as a figure of the work itself, and the inception of language as the problem of beginning to which we continue to return.


[It begins, from capio, take or seize, a purposive action,
an “arbitrary” beginning, the beginning of a text]

I am measuring the “too much” of the
beginning of the fable

—Michel Serres, The Parasite


Much of the writing in medieval London began in three streets next to Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The ambiguity of the English past tense “began” in this beginning, the incipit of this book, shows already the difficulty we have in talking about beginning, in deciding whether we are talking about the origin of writing itself or individual acts of writing, what happens whenever pen is put to parchment. If this writing that begins in medieval London is not a uniquely original event, then we have to decide how to imagine those individual acts of beginning to write. They must be habitual to some extent, or we would not recognize them, yet they must be unique, or they would not be acts of beginning. The beginnings of writing in London in the fourteenth century might help us to answer this question, or to appreciate its complexity.

Many, if not most, of the books produced in London were copied and compiled in the district to the north and west of Saint Paul’s, in three streets occupied by stationers, illuminators, and parchment makers. It is remarkable that by the fourteenth century none of these streets was known by its original name nor directly by the occupations of bookmaking so prevalent there, but by names that come from the beginnings of texts. Paternoster Row, the center of the book trade, was named after . . .

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