Printing the Middle Ages

Printing the Middle Ages

Printing the Middle Ages

Printing the Middle Ages

Synopsis

In Printing the Middle Ages Si¢n Echard looks to the postmedieval, postmanuscript lives of medieval texts, seeking to understand the lasting impact on both the popular and the scholarly imaginations of the physical objects that transmitted the Middle Ages to the English-speaking world. Beneath and behind the foundational works of recovery that established the canon of medieval literature, she argues, was a vast terrain of books, scholarly or popular, grubby or beautiful, widely disseminated or privately printed. By turning to these, we are able to chart the differing reception histories of the literary texts of the British Middle Ages. For Echard, any reading of a medieval text, whether past or present, amateur or academic, floats on the surface of a complex sea of expectations and desires made up of the books that mediate those readings.

Each chapter of Printing the Middle Ages focuses on a central textual object and tells its story in order to reveal the history of its reception and transmission. Moving from the first age of print into the early twenty-first century, Echard examines the special fonts created in the Elizabethan period to reproduce Old English, the hand-drawn facsimiles of the nineteenth century, and today's experiments with the digital reproduction of medieval objects; she explores the illustrations in eighteenth-century versions of Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton; she discusses nineteenth-century children's versions of the Canterbury Tales and the aristocratic transmission history of John Gower's Confessio Amantis; and she touches on fine press printings of Dante, Froissart, and Langland.

Excerpt

Between 1902 and 1905, the Ashendene Press printed a three-volume quarto edition of Dante’s Commedia. the press, which produced fine limited editions from 1895 to 1935, was the consuming passion of C. H. St. John Hornby (1867–1946), the businessman responsible for the expansion of the W. H. Smith chain. the 1909 Ashendene edition of Dante’s complete works is one of the press’s most famous books, revered as part of the “triple crown” of early twentieth-century fine press printing. But I begin this study of medieval writers in later print with the colophon from the lesser-known 1902 Inferno (figure 1) because that colophon so neatly illustrates the focus of this book. This is a study of the postmedieval life of medieval texts, as those texts are embedded in their many material forms. D. F. McKenzie has observed that “Every society rewrites its past, every reader rewrites its texts, and, if they have any continuing life at all, at some point every printer redesigns them.” What I will argue, in the pages that follow, is that there are particular imperatives at work in the redesigns of medieval texts. Chief among these is a persistent claim to authority and authenticity; and this claim is linked to a persistent attempt, through various kinds of bibliographic coding, to present a book as authentically medieval. the Ashendene colophon contains many references to those elements of the book that connect this new Inferno to its past. Some of these are visual signs; some are gestures toward past book practices; all are what we might think of as the mark of the medieval. At the same time, the colophon points toward ways in which the Ashendene Inferno belongs to its own period. Even as the book is stamped with the aura of the past, it profoundly reimagines that past. the colophon speaks to the longing for direct connection, as well as to the inevitable mediations, of both mind and matter, which must always intervene.

A colophon is a convention of both manuscript and, later, print production. in a typical early print colophon, the printer names himself and says something about the production of his work. the simple presence of a colophon in the Ashendene Inferno functions as a kind of quotation which deliberately links these modern hand printers to the early modern artisans they saw as their spiritual ancestors. Hornby’s day job . . .

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