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Text and their Contexts
Papers from the Early Book Society
John Scattergood & Julia Boffey, Editors



 
The Ricardian XI no 145, June 1999.
‘The ten essays in Texts and their Contexts started life as short papers at one or other of the series of biennial conferences that have been held by the Early Book Society in these islands over the past decade. A consistent feature of such colloquia has been the liveliness and good humour of the participants, most of whom, with one or two notable exceptions, have concentrated their research on texts, manuscripts and early printed books produced in Europe (usually England or France) before the middle of the sixteenth century.  Thus, although membership of the Early Book Society remains open to scholars from any discipline with an interest in the study of manuscripts and early printed books, it comes as no surprise that it is texts and their contexts in ‘English’ manuscript and print culture that provides the main theme for this handsomely-bound volume. The collection is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Horrall, who founded the Early Book Society with Martha Driver in 1987.
    All of the essays in this volume return to the important questions raised by the circumstances of the book production in the fifteenth and sixteenth century that the Early Book Society was originally set up to explore. The impact of printing technology on the content and appearance of texts and books during the extraordinarily protracted and complex transition from script to print is variously explored in the contributions by Linne R. Mooney (‘English Almanacks from Script to Print’), Martha W. Driver (Ideas of Order: Wynkyn de Worde and the Title Page’), Brian Donaghey (‘William Thynne’s Collected Edition of Chaucer: Some Bibliographical Considerations’) and Sue Powell (‘Why Quattuor Sermones?’). Other essays, namely Anthony S.G. Edwards, ‘Middle English Inscriptional Verse Texts’, Phillipa Hardman, ‘Windows into the Text: Unfilled ‘Fashion and Morality in BL MS Add. 37049’, are more directly concerned with the relationship between literature and the visual arts. The reader searching for ‘contexts’ in these essays quickly learns that the main features that have enabled the contributors to situate particular texts, manuscripts, early prints and other artefacts in the material culture of the period in which they were produced are, first, the content and visual appearance of written items in early books or as inscriptions, and, second, the presence (or, occasionally, absence) of certain types of accompanying material. At this point, it is worth mentioning that some of the illustrative plates in Texts and Their Contexts (which undoubtedly added to the cost of the volume), could certainly have been used to better effect; the apparent absence of Middle English ‘thorn’ from the modern printer’s repertoire is another regrettable and completely puzzling feature of the book’s production.
    But these are relatively minor irritations. One of the strengths of this volume is that its contributors usually operate in close focus when dealing with individual texts, manuscripts or prints, some of which probably represent outlandish or quirky survivals. While many of the essays concern themselves with situating a single item though the process of detailed codicological and textual scrutiny, the contributions by Mooney and Edwards offer more ambitious and wide ranging surveys if two quite distinctive batches of material – English almanacs and Middle English verse inscriptions, respectively – both of which, because of either the general intractability of their subject matter or other uncertainties linked to the manner of their survival, have probably been consigned for too long to the periphery of our modern literary-critical consciousness. The essays by Maureen Jurowski (‘The ‘Findern Manuscript’ and the History of the Fyderne Family in the Fifteenth Century’) and by John Scattergood and Guido Latré (‘Trinity College Dublin MS 75: A Lollard Bible and Some Protestant Owners’) also stand out. In each of these cases, the search to reconstruct the readerly expectations of historically identifiable early audiences and book owners has been profitably extended to include a trawl of the public records for the relevant documentary details. Scattergood and Latré are especially convincing when they argue from such evidence that the names recorded in TCD MS 75 gave this Lollard book iconic value and status for late Protestant readers and sympathisers, ‘as a kind of narrative of possession, which is also the discontinuous history of a movement,’ (p. 227). Finally, although perhaps the least codicologically-inclined of all the contributors, Helen Phillips takes the issue of readerly expectations to an entirely different, metafictional, level in her pursuit of ‘The Invisible Narrator of the Chevalier des Dames’.
    Despite some unevenness in the discussion of the methodological implications of the important socio-historical and codicological issues touched on here, the best and most original of these contributions are securely grounded in a mature historical understanding of the issues at stake. It is encouraging that such work often acknowledges that the intersections of the elite and popular culture (often observable because of the ambitions, fantasies and socio-political realities reflected in the informational and leisure-time reading material that became available for so many different listeners and readers in this early period) are much more difficult to contextualize than literary historians have traditionally assumes. One sign of the richness and currency of this potentially controversial topic is that it implicitly underpins the discussion of ‘audience’, reader response, and the related issue of ‘ownership’ found everywhere in the volume. For this reviewer, at least, the publication of a first ‘Proceedings’ volume for the Early Book Society signals that scholars of the early book are still not in a position to take any of the traditionally accepted borderlines of their study for granted. A decade after the society was founded, our sense of what might constitute the boundary between the centre and the margins of ‘English’ book production remains fairly insecure. Equally important is our continuing obligation to use every available scrap of material evidence from the period to test the matrices of pre-modern and early-modern ‘English’ literary culture’ John J. Thompson, The Ricardian XI no 145, June 1999.

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