- Reading and Literacy in the Middle Ages and Renaissance
This collection of essays, most of which were presented at the 2002 joint meeting of the Renaissance Society of America and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Scottsdale, Arizona, provides important access to extensive recent scholarship on reading and literacy. Each essay provides medievalists and scholars of early modern literature and culture an overview of scholarship relevant to the particular topic and new contributions to our understanding of reading and literacy in the past and present. Reading the essays — especially Burt Kimmelman's "The Trope of Reading in the Fourteenth Century" — in the context of the 2004 Democratic and Republican presidential primaries caused me [End Page 729] to think about similarities between our contemporary world and its problems and at the same time be aware of troubling differences.
Kimmelman opens with the statement, "Buried within our concept of what constitutes modern civilization there lies a basic presumption, one so elemental that it can go unnoticed: any 'modern' human society is defined by and utterly dependent on widespread literacy" (25). He concludes his opening paragraph: "Reading in later medieval times, to be sure, came to be the vehicle for self-realization and self-enunciation as well. To read was not only to be empowered, but also to be distinguished as a singular person possessing a unique point of view. This development, in the later Middle Ages, anticipated the modern world's prizing of individualism" (26). All the essays in the volume provide insight into medieval and early modern "self-realization and self-enunciation" and "prizing of individualism" — whether through examining marginal annotations as evidence of reading practices (Martha Dana Rust and Brian Richardson); fifteenth- and sixteenth-century translations of French verse into English (A. E. B. Coldiron) and seventeenth-century modernizations of Chaucer and Lydgate (Michael Ullyot); women's transgressive reading practices (Kathryn DeZur); the evidence of reading in Renaissance drama (Frederick Kiefer); evidence that masques were widely known in textual as well as performative modes (Lauren Shohet); or even evidence that people usually categorized as illiterate could be part of reading communities and be targeted as a potential buyers of books (Heidi Brayman Hackel).
Every essay in the volume is valuable in its own right. For example, readers can look forward to learning from Kathryn DeZur about transgressive reading and writing practices of three women, Anne Corwallis Campbell, Countess of Argyll, Elizabeth Clarke, and Lady Anne Southwell. While biographical information about Campbell and Southwell is available from other sources, Elizabeth Clarke is only known because she owned, signed, and copied a poem into a manuscript book filled with pornographic jests. A. E. B. Coldiron's essay invites readers to puzzle why between 1476 and 1557 thirty percent of printed verse was translated from French while only five percent was translated from Italian, and wonder whether the literary-historical emphasis on the influence of Italian on early modern English verse is appropriate. Lauren Shohet's essay alerts readers to the reality that as a seventeenth-century print genre masques often were an incipient news medium, even if the performance of the masque had seemed to be straightforward court propaganda: "Even the most ideologically motivated of absolutist masque spectacles . . . contain more information of potential political interest when we acknowledge that receivers may reflect upon the ideological performance, rather than be assumed to be merely subject to it" (149).
Frustrations with this collection relate to editorial decisions. Copyeditors missed multiple typos, and greater care by the editors could have caught stylistic infelicities in a number of essays. A list of works cited for the volume would be nearly as valuable as the essays themselves for scholars and teachers new to the subject. Nevertheless, the book offers nonspecialists interested in reading and literacy in the early modern period an engaging way into the specialty, and it alerts [End Page 730] specialists to more recent studies that will change our thinking...