bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

In Our Time: more outtakes

Posted in Incunabula by bonaelitterae on 20 October, 2012

L’esprit d’escalier – the art of thinking, as you walk down the stairs, of the bon mot you should have said in the drawing room. Or, in this case, the studio. On Thursday, after recording In Our Time, we were escorted down in the lift, but since then it is as if I have been on a staircase where the steps are never-ending. I am continually conjuring up in my mind the things that should have been said. So, here are some more ‘outtakes’ from the programme on Caxton and the printing press.

For me, the most interesting question Melvyn Bragg asked was one that was unscripted: did print increase the authority of the written word? Both myself and Julia Boffey gave answers to the question, pointing out the limited literacy rates and the continuing significance of the hand-written word. But the answer I would now like to have given would run something like this: the written word was in no need of having its authority improved, thank you very much. Print was not ‘the coming of the book’ – the book had arrived and had its feet well under the table long before the new technology was on the scene. On occasion, it had a mystique, a sacred aura to it which may even have been weakened by the products of the printing press, with the broadsides, the newsletters and the cheap prints making it difficult not to realise for what ephemeral purposes the written word could be used.

A separate issue that is going around in my mind is an heretical thought that I mooted in conversation with my fellow participants after the programme had finished. I mused whether Caxton’s engagement with print was a successful businessman’s retirement project. He was in his fifties when he began to show interest in the new technology. His first major publication in the Low Countries was his own translation of Raoul Lefèvre’s History of Troy, a text that, by his own admission, he had worked on intermittently for several years – it sounds very much like a pet pastime. His early printings may have made him suppose that his new-found hobby might be financially viable as well as enjoyable. But his choice of texts when he finally returned to his homeland, after his long career abroad, was not necessarily the most obvious ones from which to make money – perhaps his interest in the vernacular works was, in fact, a reflection of personal taste rather than any shrewd judgement of the market. That is not to say we should revive the erroneous image of him as a printer-scholar: it was clear that he did have an eye to what would be profitable, but those products were perhaps less often the vernacular texts in which he took a personal delight than the ephemeral prints he was commissioned to produce, or the sure-fire best-sellers of liturgical texts. An implication of what I am saying is that we may want to think further about how he considered the finances: did he see it less as a matter of making his fortune but, rather, as a way of spending some of the money he had already amassed. Of course, business acumen may not have deserted him: he may have allowed himself some self-indulgences – paid for by selling indulgences. In other words, maybe he worked to minimise any losses his personal predilections may have caused. And, perhaps for that very reason, he made a better fist of print as a business than others – like Gutenberg himself – who perhaps thought that it could be a source of wealth, only to find instead that it could be a fairly quick route to bankruptcy.

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3 Responses

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  1. Tom Dawkes said, on 22 October, 2012 at 11:14 am

    On the matter of whether print increased the authority of the written word, I’m reminded of C S Lewis’s comments on medieval culture in “The discarded image” (Cambridge UP, 1971). “What both examples illustrate [he has quoted two medieval authors] is the overwhelmingly bookish or clerkly character of medieval culture. … Every writer, if he possibly can, bases himself on an earlier writer, follows an ‘auctour’: preferably a Latin one. …… They [mediaeval authors] are bookish. They are indeed very credulous of books. They find it hard to believe that anything an old ‘auctour’ has said is simply untrue.”

    And more recently there is Umberto Eco’s “The name of the Rose” William de Baskerville, having found the abbot’s horse, explains to Adso that “a monk who considers a horse excellent, whatever his natural forms, can only see him as the auctoritates have described him …”

  2. Ian Gadd said, on 25 October, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    I agree: I think Caxton’s age and financial security are key to understanding why he did what he did, when he did, and–crucially–how he did it. Yes, he was a smart businessmen, presumably one of the best of his generation, but I think the decisions he took, and the apparent decisiveness with which he took them, reveal a different motivation from those who looked to printing and publishing to make (rather than spend) their fortune.

    Great programme by the way, and I really enjoyed your contribution to it. Were you briefed on whether you could address the great man as merely Melvyn?

  3. bonaelitterae said, on 25 October, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    Thanks, Ian — it’s good to have your expert opinion. Though, at the same time, you make me worry I committed lese-majeste. Unwittingly, of course.


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