- Textual Agency: Writing Culture and Social Networks in Fifteenth-Century Spain by Ana M. Gómez-Bravo
In this ambitious and meticulously documented study, Ana Gómez-Bravo asks readers to take an interpretive step back from “the book” and “the work” as units of meaning and, instead, consider the independent lives of loose papers. She observes that notwithstanding the valuable insights of the material turn in literary and cultural studies, focus on “the book” as the primary object of study has obscured one of the primary, yet volatile supports of literary and cultural production in the fifteenth century, loose papers (6). In the final analysis, however, Gómez-Bravo’s shift in focus comes back around to books as objects and books as works that not only function as archives, but also as strategies for showcasing authorial agency and retrospective self-fashioning.
Gómez-Bravo defines textual agency as “the agency of the paper … set in motion” by individuals writing within social and professional networks, paper that circulated and signified beyond authorial control (58). Textual Agency explores how the agency of the text conflicts and coincides with the agency of other actors in the communications circuit. Throughout, Gómez-Bravo engages questions that have long preoccupied scholars of literature, book history, and the sociology of texts, beginning with the dual nature of texts as objects in the world and as immaterial, intellectual entities, and moving to the related twofold constitution of authorship as individual and collective cultural expression. These by no means mutually exclusive concepts lead to questions concerning the relationships between literary and bureaucratic texts, which resemble one another due to their common material supports and the escribanos, letrados, and nobles who composed and copied both. Lastly, Gómez-Bravo turns to questions of the “relationship between the self and the written page” in the interstitial period between what are commonly called the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, an era that troubles traditional academic periodization.
Gómez-Bravo opens the first chapter, “Poetry, Bureaucracy, and the Social Order”, with a quote that ingeniously encapsulates many of the major themes in Textual Agency. Writing to Don Enrique Enríquez, who had been wounded in battle, Fernando de Pulgar remarked, “usando vuestra merced de su oficio y yo del mío, no es maravilla que mi mano esté de tinta e vuestro pie sangriento” [End Page 167] (15). Pulgar’s letter, a paper transaction between a letrero and a noble, alludes to the topos of arms and letters, implicitly affirming the social, identity-forming values of both. Like many of his contemporaries, Pulgar thematizes the tools of his profession, hand and ink. The analogy of the bloody foot and the ink-stained hand captures the complex relations among the socio-cultural, political, intellectual, and material facets of textuality while also drawing attention to the roles of the escribanos in the creation of written culture. In this chapter and the following, “Escribano Culture and Socio-Professional Contiguity”, Gómez-Bravo studies the official post of the escribano, or “pen professional”. The need for official record-keeping, with its concomitant professionalization of textual production, offered routes to social mobility, as individuals from different classes—nobles, hidalgos, medianos, and conversos—worked in the capacity of escribanos, mixing urban and court culture. Their composition of poetry, “the ultimate mark of social legitimation” and “a clear marker of social exclusion” (47, 49), reflects the changes undergone in traditional social hierarchies of the period. Pen-professionals not only had power over writing, they had power over self-generation demonstrated in the courtly poetry they wrote in addition to their bureaucratic productions. Further, language and images from one discursive register quickly began to appear in the other. The overlapping textual activities of the escribanos led, as Gómez-Bravo demonstrates, to the aestheticization of legal and administrative language in poetry.
Chapters three, “Pervasive Papers”, and four, “The Hands Have It”, focus on the single paper or small group of unbound sheets filled...