- Printing the Middle Ages
Printing the Middle Ages examines the medieval narratives, images and symbols that were the building blocks of British book culture. Through their repeated printing, as either stand-alone imprints or supplementary illustrations, it became impossible to imagine the world of British books without them. Siân Echard follows the journeys of a number of texts from manuscript, into print and then continuous reprinting up until modern times. She methodically demonstrates the changes in form these texts have undergone that have enabled them to maintain a continuous presence in the popular imagination, from the fifteenth century until the present. Echard compellingly explains how they survived the test of time, becoming foundation stones of English culture.
On the surface, the author’s interest focuses on the medieval motifs that were immortalized by print, however, in order to adequately address this topic, Echard finds she is compelled also to deal with the ‘History of the Book’. Thus, this study is interdisciplinary, dealing with literary readings, historical processes, as well as economics, art and technology. However, the creation of repeated facsimiles of a text is, in itself, an interesting phenomenon and a story worth telling; the printing and reprinting history of a book is as, if not more, interesting than the book’s content. Indeed, despite a seemingly tame topic of research, Echard manages to mould it into captivating drama. She solves the mystery of the Plowmen, following the recurring motif of Piers, she explains how certain typefaces served as indicators of the text’s authentic [End Page 168] ‘Englishness’ and ‘medievalness’, and she discusses the transformation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales into bedtime stories.
In all of the scholarship dealing with the impact of print after its initial establishment period (that is, from the beginning of the sixteenth century) two distinct trends can be discerned. One sees print as a tool for the preservation and immortalization of earlier texts, and the other sees it as a means for the dissemination of contemporary works that served as catalysts for cultural and social change. Chapter 2 of Printing in the Middle Ages, following the 300-year-long history of the reprinting of texts and images of the two legendary figures, Guy and Bevis, illustrates the ambiguous relationship between these two trends.
The chapter dealing with Gower’s multilingual poetry is especially impressive. Here, Echard presents an impressive reconstruction of a text, beginning with the discovery of a damaged manuscript containing all of Gower’s poetry. She follows the manuscript’s fate at the hands of Granville Leveson Gower, the second Earl Gower, whose motives stemmed from a complex mix of political interest and snobbery, up until the text’s eventual printing by a book club, a curious assembly of both aristocratic and middle class bibliophiles who published small, enumerated editions of selected texts.
In the fourth chapter, which deals with the transformation of the Canterbury Tales from medieval verse into bedtime stories, Echard emphasizes the role of illustrations within nineteenth- and early twentieth-century imprints. She focuses attention on the women who are depicted in these stories and the transformation their images underwent to become suitable for children’s books. Echard notes that the reproduction of text using different graphical elements facilitates its reception by different reading audiences and allows its medieval nature to be preserved.
There are many factors – typographical, economical, artistic and political – which affect the ‘bringing of a book to print’, but often it has been the decisions of the owners of the printing houses that determined a text’s destiny, causing some to disappear and some to become immortalized, ubiquitous within a certain culture. However, Echard ignores the activities of the printing houses almost completely, leaving it unclear whether she has indeed ‘cracked the code’ for explaining the longevity of certain medieval texts and images. [End Page 169]