- The Book as Cultural Actor: Introduction
The history of the book as a discipline took shape in the 1980s around the concept that physical texts represent historical, social, cultural, and literary phenomena. A statement from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP) captures the field’s ambitious scope when describing related research as comprising “the composition, mediation, reception, survival, and transformation of written communication in material forms from marks on stone to new media.”1 As Robert Darnton tersely observed in his 1982 essay “What Is the History of Books?,” it is a “large undertaking” for a book historian to demonstrate successfully that “books do not merely recount history; they make it.”2
Few scholars have so masterfully answered the field’s demands as Cynthia J. Brown, whose scholarship on French literature between the fourteenth and the first half of the sixteenth centuries has resisted viewing the codex as the byproduct of events, revealing instead its status as a cultural actor capable of influencing relations, practices, and beliefs. Whether focusing on the “crisis of authority” instigated by the arrival of print in France, the “cultural and political legacy” of powerful women patrons, or the “political image making” that transpires on both page and stage, Brown has positioned books as actors that “shape history and poetry” as much as they make, refashion, and alter participants in the book network of authors, bookmakers, patrons, and readers.3 Brown’s research also focuses on an often maligned and chronically understudied period, one that is typically overlooked when scholars are subdividing premodern France into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. She pro-ductively [End Page 167] destabilizes those temporal boundaries to reveal a new critical geography in which this in-between period emerges as a pivotal moment in the history of the book.4
Using Brown’s map of premodern France and sharing her view that books are cultural actors, all of the contributors to this special issue engage with her important scholarship. The issue is organized into three sections that spotlight the direct engagement between this new scholarship and Brown’s writings. The opening section, “Text-Image Relations,” features three articles that pursue questions and methodologies central to Brown’s Poets, Patrons, and Printers: Crisis of Authority in Late Medieval France, which received the MLA Scaglione Prize in 1996. This monograph is an in-depth study of the seismic changes in book dynamics that resulted from the introduction of print culture in France. Faced with the competing claims of authority from patrons and printers, authors developed new strategies for asserting their authority in print; and the paratext—that is, title pages, dedications, rubrics, illustrations, and acrostics—emerged as their primary textual battleground. Brown’s study unearths rich metatextual evidence in this borderline matter that points to the conflicts and negotiations among authors, patrons, and printers over control of the physical artifact.5 In his related essay in this issue, “When Foxes Rove: Jean Bouchet’s Regnars traversant, Basel–Paris–Brussels–Frankfurt–Dresden,” Adrian Armstrong expands the horizons of her work on poet-printer relations by moving outside the French kingdom to study the practices of publisher-editors in different European cities. Examining the woodcuts that accompany early print editions of a text as it travels across linguistic borders, he investigates how “the cross-cultural transmission of complex multimodal texts” encourages us to think of translation as concerning not just works but also images. In the section’s next essay, “Illustrating Tristan: Vérard and His Artists, c. 1496,” Mary Beth Winn and Isabelle Delaunay share Brown’s view that illustrations function as a form of translation, examining artists’ interaction with image instructions as well as the main text across four related printed copies of the Prose Tristan romance. Rounding out the section, Anneliese Pollock Renck’s essay “(Christ’s) Blood as Ink: Affective Secular Reading in Late Medieval France” examines how authors and illuminators co-opt the metaphor of Christ’s-blood-as-ink in secular texts as a means of encouraging owners’ physical and imagined engagement with their books.
The issue’s second section, “Page to Stage,” engages...