- Printing the Middle Ages
Toronto book historian Scott Schofield recently published an article in the Halcyon on a fascinating book in the University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. It is a 1554 edition of John Gower's poem Confessio Amantis, which was written more than 150 years earlier. The book is interesting for the part it played in the formation of the English literary canon; in the post-medieval transmission of medieval literature; and in the rise of commercial book production in England after the advent of print. But as Schofield points out, the book has other stories to tell. For example, it contains - handwritten in a seventeenth-century hand on flyleaves - elaborate genealogies for Gower. The clergyman who added these family trees takes pains to show that the medieval poet was a member of the aristocratic family of Gower from Sittenham, Yorkshire. Schofield cites Siân Echard's Printing the Middle Ages to explain how the noble Levenson-Gowers laid claim to the poet between the mid-seventeenth and nineteenth centuries: by gathering his manuscripts, by attracting dedicated copies and studies of his work, and by arranging a Roxburghe Club edition of Confessio Amantis in 1818. It turns out John Gower was not from Yorkshire - but the faux family history was in place, a confection not of blood ties but of medieval books.
It is the strength of Echard's 2008 study that it makes such good sense of artifacts like the Fisher's 1554 Gower. Echard devotes a whole chapter to the reception of Gower's works in print, from Caxton's to those of the Medieval Institute in present-day Kalamazoo. Her focus in this chapter, however, is a medieval manuscript: the trilingual 'Trentham' copy of [End Page 337] Gower's poems, British Library Add. MS 59496. The Earls Gower of the 1700s focused much interest and activity upon this book, and Echard argues persuasively for the far-reaching impact of its scribal forms in an age of print. It was from a transcription of Trentham made for the second Earl Gower (1736-1810) that a future Earl (1786-1861) had the Roxburghe Club edition set. That edition's stress on Gower's English poems at the expense of his French and Latin work still influences editors and scholars today, Echard suggests.
Printing the Middle Ages is built from just such meticulously researched and engaging case studies, and it promises to stimulate further work from a great many book historians. In printing medieval texts, Echard argues, book producers from early to modern times have sought to recreate what theorist Walter Benjamin calls 'aura': the trace of the originary. In Benjamin's account of pre-modern culture, the origin is God, or at a pinch the author. From Echard's invigorating perspective, the aura of a printed medieval text is what remains - or what is made to seem as if it remains - of the medieval object itself. Echard is interested in the 'impulse to facsimile' evident in the modern history of medieval English literature. She writes about the 'mark of the medieval' in printed books' fonts, layouts, and in later additions such as the Gower genealogy. She also identifies this 'mark' with centuries of antiquarian and scholarly writing about the Middle Ages, which constitute another kind of 'printing' of the medieval past.
Echard's first chapter deals with antiquarian treatment of Old English, especially that of the influential Elizabethan circle of Archbishop Matthew Parker and the printers (and scribes and punch-cutters) who enabled Parker and his men to produce the first printed Anglo-Saxon texts, using the earliest Anglo-Saxon type. The inaccessible but authentic 'letters' of early English Christian texts were as important to these Protestant reformers as were their accessible translations of 'darke' Anglo-Saxon 'speech' (27).
A chapter on the divergent printed histories of the romances of Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton follows and encompasses everything from woodcut illustrations of the earliest editions to a 1784 engraving of an illustrated medieval drinking bowl. After her chapter on Gower is...