- Printing The Middle Ages
Books are bricolage like the past itself, a patchwork of old and new presenting a brave face of artifactual unity. The fixedness of these physical and conceptual objects, whether the Bible on which witnesses swear or the critical edition to which students apply their highlighters, has always been an [End Page 160] illusion betrayed by busy hands shifting text and rearranging images. Siân Echard's Printing the Middle Ages takes on an ambitious range of social spaces from the early modern to the digital that reproduce medieval books in the shifting paratextual codes of print. Among the many surprises are two dominant themes of the book that build important new foundations for studies in medievalism: early modern printings of medieval poems have a pervasive role in our encounters with medieval books; and the visual reception of medieval books shape our constructions of the period in problematic relationships with the texts we presume to be our ultimate authority. What Echard calls the "mark of the medieval" is inscribed on modern books in graphic terms, assertions of authenticity that call for translation theory grounded in "the delicious materiality of books" (xi).
This point is made sharply in Echard's first chapter on images of the medieval plowman, shifting from Piers Plowman to pastiche due to a single persistent miniature of plowmen, plow, and oxen drawn from Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.3.14. In early printing this illumination quickly becomes an interchangeable icon for the medieval plowman whatever the text, and eventually is absorbed into the kind of iconographic pastiche beloved of Victorian gothic revivalists—the clear favorite example (appearing on the cover) substitutes a putto for the plowman, dogs for the oxen, a chaise for the plow, and monkeys all around to end Passus 5 of Piers in an 1813 edition (15). This 'medievalish pastiche' apparently suits just fine the "black-letter men" of the time, antiquaries who also insist on early print fonts as an authenticator for medieval scribal culture. Echard eventually invokes the Freudian uncanny to argue for our continuing reliance on "opaque simulacra" like black letter and gothic fantasy to stand in for medieval artifacts (215). We may believe that scholarship has put academics, if not popular culture, beyond such substitutions; Echard's report on recent trends in digital facsimiles of medieval books argues that a long history of culturally repressed strategies still gets projected onto these up-to-date simulacra.
For all its ambition Printing the Middle Ages stays almost exclusively in England, so the title is a bit misleading. Nationalist agendas are a familiar part of England's reinvention of the medieval, and thus the focus is appropriate. Echard's attention to British nationalism forms a subtle part of the background throughout, as does the idea of the vernacular moving through the multiple Protestant reformations that had so many uses for medieval authors. Matthew Parker (1504-1575), Archbishop of Canterbury, was a leading figure in the recovery of Old English explicitly in the interests of the Church of England. In Echard's hands that project serves as context for a discussion of the emergence of Old English fonts, their relationship to black-letter [End Page 161] and humanist fonts in graphic terms on the pages of encyclopedias and dictionaries, and the impulses toward "normalization" which hamper our attempts to present medieval texts to this day. These gestures toward the authenticity of manuscript sources and hands, print strategies that yield intermediary graphemes and page designs, are as crucial a cultural problem as translating the Bible and are justified by early Anglo-Saxonists like Parker and John Foxe (1517-1587) in much the same terms.
With Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton Echard moves to a more overt semiotics: illustrations from early print editions that create Guy as a national hero and Bevis as a curiosity of orientalist romance, a "visual overwriting" of the medieval texts (68). Stock images were a commonplace feature of incunabula, but Echards decision—to trace the reception of one related nexus of...