- The Production of Books in England 1350-1500 ed. by Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin
This useful and beautiful book is intended as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, the great 1989 Griffiths-Pearsall collection Book Production and Publishing in Britain 1375-1475, and it succeeds admirably. Its major strength is its provision of expert advice on methodologies that often perplex the outsider. What were medieval English books made of? Orietta da Rold's 'Materials' tells us. How can we penetrate the complexities of dialectology? There is no better place than Simon Horobin's chapter 'Mapping the Words' to find out. The other topics include scribal practices, ordinatio, decorating the page, compiling the book, bookbinding, commercial organization, vernacular literary manuscripts, non-commercial book production, censorship, books beyond England, and English books and the continent.
While each chapter dutifully surveys the major critical issues, most contributors show how their topic opens windows onto later medieval English culture and society. Da Rold's chapter concludes with a compelling treatment of the distribution of paper stocks in the Winchester Malory, which suggests 'that the scribes were working with loose tales, coming from separate manuscripts', a claim of no little consequence for the interpretation of Le Morte Darthur (p. 32). For Daniel Wakelin, the variety of letter forms in which even a single scribe's hand might be found is an index into the 'the social world in which writing unfolded' (p. 45). Deep into Jean-Pascal Pouzet's treatment of non-commercial book production, one finds a fascinating theorization of 'the creative importance of otium', manifested in Hoccleve's characterization of the 'trauaillous stilnesse' of the Privy Seal (pp. 234, 237). And Alexandra Gillespie's 'Bookbinding' polemically argues 'that binding research should not be the preserve of specialists, and that this is an ideal moment to make new connections between binding and the broader history of the book' (p. 158). These are just some of the exciting, large-scale claims hidden beneath the rather anodyne, and thus misleading, chapter titles.
Indeed, one theme cautiously developed is the danger of granting too much heuristic force to any of the topics signalled in those titles. Fiona Somerset's study of censorship pushes this to the limit in its interrogation of 'censorship' as a definable critical category. Alteration such as erasure 'can be a form of secondary censorship in response to the threat of censure', she notes, 'but more generally it is a form of reader response (or authorial [End Page 245] reconsideration) with a wider range of possible causes' (p. 257). Two chapters later David Rundle, having catalogued continental scribes' stints in England, provides the 'salutary reminder that the provenance of a manuscript can be more complex than hasty assumptions suggest' (p. 284), echoing Simon Horobin's point about 'just how misleading' certain dialectal data sets can appear (p. 76).
Not all is negative, of course. Throughout the collection enterprising readers will find concrete suggestions for further research. Da Rold points to the variation in parchment types and in inks in manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales (p. 21); Gillespie, to the archival records that might reveal more about later medieval binders, including women, who otherwise are few and far between herein (p. 159); Somerset, to the need for 'many more stories about shifts in book production in the fifteenth century and their causes' (p. 252); and Wendy Scase, in the volume's afterword, to the question of why it was 'that bureaucratic infrastructure, material and personnel met the needs of vernacular book production' (p. 297).
A welcome antidote to one of the few qualms I had about The Production of Books in England 1350-1500 appears in Stephen Partridge's chapter 'Designing the Page', which concludes: 'The methods of textual criticism may have much to offer book history's consideration of page design' (p. 103). It is no surprise that codicology and book history must rely on extant...