- Networks of the Pre-Modern Book
As the history of the book continues to flourish as a subject of inquiry both within and beyond medieval studies, it has proved to be an irrepressibly interdisciplinary field, accommodating scholarship in areas as diverse as literary studies, history, sociology, cultural studies, library and information studies, media studies, economics, and the history of technology. In his influential 1982 essay, “What is the History of Books?,” Robert Darnton attributed this diversity to his claim that “books themselves do not respect limits,” whether linguistic, national, or disciplinary.1
Some boundaries, however, have remained more resistant to permeation than others. Historians of the book, by and large, still consider the book to mean a printed text, thereby enforcing a divide between manuscript and print.2 While recent general surveys of book history have made efforts to incorporate manuscript studies within their purview—the seven-volume Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, for example, ambitiously plans to bring together scholarship in printed books as well as manuscripts, oral tradition, and other forms of inscription and incision such as maps, [End Page 97] music, and graphic images—in practice, manuscript studies are often placed at the beginning of such surveys to serve as a prehistory of the printed book rather than as a means of refining and challenging theories and assumptions about material texts established by the printed book.3 In response, medievalists have argued for the medieval book’s potential to galvanize and even redefine the field of book history. In particular, its “thickly meaningful particularity” as Alexandra Gillespie and Jessica Brantley have persuasively put it, and its “estrangement from the culture of print” can both reground a discipline whose work is too frequently untethered to bibliographical evidence as well as “reveal, exemplify, and interrogate modern theories of the material text.”4
At the same time, and perhaps as a result of these calls to action, a history of the medieval book as a coherent subdiscipline may also be emerging within the field of medieval studies. In 2005, Alexandra Gillespie observed that “disparate studies [of medieval books] do not constitute, or have not been taken up or even resisted as some sort of coherent approach to study of the book … [There is] scant evidence of a fully articulated, debated, and above all, converging definition of scholarly practice, and even less evidence that there is a relationship between medievalists’ work and ‘the history of books.’”5 Such recent publications in medieval studies as David McKitterick’s Print, Manuscript and the Search for Order 1450–1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), which seeks to re-evaluate modern misconceptions about the emergence of print and its relationship to manuscript tradition; a collection of essays edited by Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin, The Production of Books in England 1350–1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011), which deliberately situates its essays within the “history of the book”; and a growing corpus of scholarship that interrogates the development and influence of manuscripts within and alongside the emergence of fifteenth-century print culture indicate [End Page 98] medievalists’ increasing awareness of and interest in relating their work to the disciplinary concerns of the wider history of material texts.6
The three books under consideration in this essay, Julia Boffey, Manuscript and Print in London; Linne R. Mooney and Estelle Stubbs, Scribes and the City; and Arthur Bahr, Fragments and Assemblages, respond and contribute to this broadening field of scholarship. Their approaches are, of course, different: while each of the books studies late medieval texts produced in London, for example...