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  • Agency and Intention in English Print, 1476–1526 by Kathleen Tonry
  • Hilary Maddocks
Tonry, Kathleen, Agency and Intention in English Print, 1476–1526 (Texts and Transitions, 7), Turnhout, Brepols, 2016; pp. xv, 241; 15 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. €75.00; ISBN 9782503535760.

Kathleen Tonry argues that the first fifty years of early print in England is a neglected field of study, as it has been regarded by most scholars primarily as a prelude to the Reformation. In this book she offers a new reading of early print based on the individual agencies of the makers of books, such as printers. In so doing she takes issue with determinist approaches, such as Elizabeth Eisenstein's influential thesis that the printing press itself was the agent of change, a necessary precondition for the Reformation, as well as the view that the press developed primarily in response to economic or commercial imperatives. Rather, Tonry regards print as 'merely an instrument of agencies, and one among many' (p. 213).

Tonry's interpretation of the press during these years is nuanced and complex. She suggests that by recasting early print from the perspective of the agency, intentions, and personalities of the book producers — the printers — unexpected cultural structures are revealed, such as the emergence of usury as a crucial subject in religious literature for mercantile readers. As she notes, agency or the 'capacity for responsible individual action' (p. 13) is not usually used in describing early printed books, for there is a modern assumption that early printers had limited intellectual investment in the books they published. So how were agency and intention (the strategic action of agency) expressed by printers?

Tonry describes ethical discourses of book production within a notfor-profit framework, specifically the important concept of common profit or the common good, which she traces from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas, Reginald Pecock, and Robert Copland. Emerging from monastic practice where common profit was related to non-remunerative book production, in the era of print it acts as a legitimization of commercial exchange. A book printed for purposes of common profit relied on the moral purpose of a declared producer, identified in the colophon. A declaration of both the moral and technological responsibility of the printer for the book, the colophon became a standard and necessary feature. The personality of the printer was also stressed through added prologues and interpolated passages.

William Caxton was the first printer to state common profit intentions, declared in his prologue to the allegory The Game and Playe of the Chesse (1474). This was followed by similar statements by others such as Wynkyn de Worde in Orchard of Syon (1519), who emphasized spiritual common profits, which of course could be effectively promulgated through the dissemination of books. While a stated intention of profit for the common good served to justify commercial profit, it also deflected any accusations of usury or idleness directed at the mercantile class to which printers belonged. This was [End Page 264] in a political and social environment not always sympathetic to merchant autonomy, as attested by the Usury Act 1487, the Alien Merchants Act 1487 and other rulings.

While the Crown attempted to assert authority over the merchant community by control of the press, Tonry describes how printers demonstrated ethical agency through the production of religious books. Devotional works such as Caxton's translation and edition of the Golden Legend (1484) and Pynson's Kalendar of Shepherds (1506) were used to legitimize the merchant community. In the same vein, Caxton added a chapter to his 1487 translation and edition of the Book of Good Maners, which in emphasizing spiritual conduct and profits addressed the social state of merchants (including printers) and valorized trust between the merchants and the community. Tonry argues that this indicates the text was deliberately shaped for mercantile reading. Similarly, the prologue to the 1493 edition of Dives and Pauper, printed by Richard Pynson and the merchant John Russhe, indicates a mercantile readership. Translated French material, such as the Floure of the Ten Commandements (1521), was also deliberately shaped within the preface to represent the good intentions of English merchant readers.

Agency in relation to printers and readers of...


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pp. 264-265
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