Bound to Read: Compilations, Collections, and the Making of Renaissance Literature

Bound to Read: Compilations, Collections, and the Making of Renaissance Literature

Bound to Read: Compilations, Collections, and the Making of Renaissance Literature

Bound to Read: Compilations, Collections, and the Making of Renaissance Literature


Concealed in rows of carefully restored volumes in rare book libraries is a history of the patterns of book collecting and compilation that shaped the literature of the English Renaissance. In this early period of print, before the introduction of commercial binding, most published literary texts did not stand on shelves in discrete, standardized units. They were issued in loose sheets or temporarily stitched--leaving it to the purchaser or retailer to collect, configure, and bind them. In Bound to Read, Jeffrey Todd Knight excavates this culture of compilation--of binding and mixing texts, authors, and genres into single volumes--and sheds light on a practice that not only was pervasive but also defined the period's very ways of writing and thinking.

Through a combination of archival research and literary criticism, Knight shows how Renaissance conceptions of imaginative writing were inextricable from the material assembly of texts. While scholars have long identified an early modern tendency to borrow and redeploy texts, Bound to Read reveals that these strategies of imitation and appropriation were rooted in concrete ways of engaging with books. Knight uncovers surprising juxtapositions such as handwritten sonnets collected with established poetry in print and literary masterpieces bound with liturgical texts and pamphlets. By examining works by Shakespeare, Spenser, Montaigne, and others, he dispels the notion of literary texts as static or closed, and instead demonstrates how the unsettled conventions of early print culture fostered an idea of books as interactive and malleable.

Though firmly rooted in Renaissance culture, Knight's carefully calibrated arguments also push forward to the digital present--engaging with the modern library archives where these works were rebound and remade, and showing how the custodianship of literary artifacts shapes our canons, chronologies, and contemporary interpretative practices.


I Compyle: I make a boke as an auctour doth.

—From the table of verbs in a 1530 translation dictionary

William Thomas’s Historie of Italie is one of the more important surviving documents of the literary and political culture of the Renaissance in Europe. Written by a clerk of England’s Privy Council and published in 1549 by the royal printer, the book offered a pragmatist’s guide to governance through firsthand accounts of Italian social organization. It passed through multiple reissues and remained popular into the 1590s; modern editions of Shakespeare often include excerpts and references that conjure an image of the playwright mining Thomas’s book for characters in The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and The Tempest. But if you call up the sole copy of the Historie at St. John’s College Library in Cambridge, the text that arrives on your desk will come as some surprise. Instead of one book, you will find three books bound together: a pamphlet entitled Information for pilgrims into the Holy Land (1524), the Historie, and the medieval story collection Gesta Romanorum (1517). Also bound in the volume, between printed items, is a manuscript on London churches written by the sixteenth-century physician Myles Blomefylde, who owned this eclectic group of texts and whose handwriting is present throughout the compilation. For Blomefylde, it seems, The Historie of Italie had little value as a reflection on Italian politics or character. in the margins, he signed his initials to the names of the Venetian tourist sites he had visited (or imagined himself visiting) on a trip to the city. On a blank sheet preceding a section on “The Venetian Astate,” he gave Thomas’s work a new, more appropriate title: Myles Blomefylde in Venice (Fig. 1).

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