bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

In Our Time: the outtakes

Posted in Incunabula by bonaelitterae on 18 October, 2012

So, if everyone is allowed fifteen minutes of fame, I must now be overdrawn from the fame-bank to the tune of 25 minutes. I have just walked away from Broadcasting House where Richard Gameson, Julia Boffey and myself were discussing with Melvyn Bragg ‘Caxton and the printing press‘. Of course, there are, in fact, no outtakes from BBC  Radio Four’s In Our Time, as it is broadcast live — a fact that yesterday I was facing with equanimity until a friend pointed out that it has an average audience of 1.5 million (thank you, Jonathan). But it would be unnatural not to rewind in one’s mind what was said and, more importantly, what we did not have time to say. As I think any listener would have discerned, the participants all enjoyed the conversation and could not stop discussion afterwards, so in some way this is a little insight into what happens in the interview room over tea and croissants after the programme is done.

There is so much I would have wanted to say: I talked about Caxton working with a printing press in Ghent or Bruges and made the point that Bruges is a more significant commerical city than London in these years, but I did not have chance to expand that further. It would have been useful to explain more fully how ships from the Mediterranean travelling north might stop off at Southampton or London but there final destination was usually Bruges; that this traffic made the Channel and the North Sea a thoroughfare rather than a barrier; and that books crossing from the Low Countries to serve an English market were no new thing with print, since there were manuscript Books of Hours made in Bruges speculatively for potential owners in the British Isles.

We also talked about Caxton’s rivals printing in England — Theoderic Rood in Oxford, John Lettou and later Richard Pynson in London — as well as Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton’s protege and successor in Westminster. But perhaps we did not draw out clearly enough that Caxton is unusual for being English: in most countries, the first printer was a German, and in England the print market was dominated by immigrants, into the sixteenth century. This was not an entirely new phenomenon, as I explained in my chapter in The Production of Books in England edited by Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin, but the intensity of English debt to continental expertise was increased by the intervention of print.

That continental expertise was also increased by print’s preference for paper over parchment — here was a technology that helped make print possible, and that was known across Europe, with paper being used in England. But, apart from ten years at the end of the fifteenth century, there was no paper-mill in England: in other words, the vast majority of paper used in books was imported. That includes every page printed by Caxton. Without continental materials, there would have been no printing in England in the 1470s or 1480s. Nor was this a passing phenomenon: after the closure of that first mill, there was not another until well into Elizabeth’s reign and even then the import trade remained the main supply.

And I am sure I used the ‘b’ word live air: England was a backwater. Of course, in other of my studies, I am emphasising the contrary — the engagement of England in humanist activities suggests cultural proximity within a shared civilisation, not unbridgeable distance. But, in terms of print, and partly through Caxton’s idiosyncratic choice of texts, England was certainly at the periphery, with many of its leading scholars, like Thomas More or Richard Pace (let alone visitors like Polydore Vergil), preferring to have their major works printed on the European mainland.

What a good interview I could have given! But, then, if I had said all this, the programme would have had to have been so much longer, and consequently I would be in debt to the fame-bank to such a degree I would be as likely to go bankrupt as many early printers were — excepting Caxton.

What is the point of a library?

Posted in Libraries by bonaelitterae on 10 November, 2010

Saturday saw me in the stunning setting of Durham’s Castle, for a conference on the Medieval Library. It was organised under the aegis of the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, the publishers of Medium Ævum. The papers took us from the classical precedents (an excellent paper by Matthew Nicholls) to the arrival of print (James Willoughby on characteristically learned form), but through them I sensed some persistent questions.

Later modern societies might conceptualise ‘the library’ as an independent building, a specific pin-point on the map. But for centuries up to, perhaps, the eighteenth, the library was defined rather by its physical or conceptual proximity to other rooms. As Matthew Nicholls mentioned, a classical library might stand next to a mousieon where learned conversations could occur. In the medieval monastery, a library would take upper floor space; below might be the refectory in which the books themselves came alive by being read (as they did in Medingen, as described by Henrike Lähnemann). Similarly, academic libraries – like those in Cambridge about which Peter Clarke talked lucidly – would hold collections which may be useful for study, the focus of which was the lecture hall. For princes (a subject in which the conference’s speaker, Hanno Wijsman, is such an expert), there may be a place in their palace where their books were kept, as in the tower of the Louvre for the codices of the French kings, but the manuscripts would also be seen in the great hall or chamber, where acts of presentation are usually depicted as happening. In other words, we associate books pre-eminently with libraries but their lives were not confined to that specific space. To take this further, it could be said that the library was the place where the book went to rest, the busy-ness of its life occurring elsewhere in the building.

So, the papers at the conference made me think about the limits of libraries, their particular purpose and place in the odyssey of a book. The pre-eminent intention of a library was – as was clear from the discussions like Richard Gameson’s bravura review of images of libraries and their furniture – the safeguarding of knowledge through the protection of books. Yet, as Matthew Nicholls pointed out, this could be self-defeating: a library could itself succumb to fire, flood or other disaster, leaving us with only the titles of its books, not their contents. As Matthew put it ‘libraries can be bottlenecks rather than thoroughfares in the circulation of knowledge’. Presenting your work to a library-owner might gain you prestige and patronage, but not posterity. Thomas Bodley, famously, boasts in the motto of his Library quarta perennis – the fourth will last forever – and libraries now have an institutional certainty that is alien to their predecessors. Yet, that of the earlier Libraries of Oxford University, two died and one (that of Alfred) never existed, might give us pause for thought and remember that even libraries should have a memento mori perennially before them.

But if libraries are designed, however much they fail to do so, to safeguard knowledge – what knowledge? There seems to have been a long association of three concepts: the bibliotheca, religio and sapientia. The libraries are repositories for particular sorts of wisdom and what is interesting is what is excluded from the definition. Ovid complained that his books were banned from Rome’s libraries (which was to their advantage, as they now survive). The collecting of medieval libraries was – as the Cambridge examples discussed by Peter demonstrated – necessarily haphazard: even if there was an original rationale, that could be undermined by the addition of new gifts, and if a donation itself had a special focus, it would often join a collection that worked by different rules. There were also practical limits to a library – a physical space can only take so many books. In my experience, a large library in the later medieval England would include 500 volumes, a very large collection perhaps 800 – 900. The great challenge – as James Willoughby showed – came with print and the exponential increase in the number of books available at a cheap price. That, of course, made the limits of the library an all the more insistent issue. And so began the quixotic early-modern project to reverse Babel and gather together universal knowledge in one place. But, even then, the basic truth remained: whatever the quasi-religious status of learning with the library its temple, the bibliotheca was never the repository of knowledge, but of some knowledge. In that sense, at least, the medieval library may have the advantage over its latter-day successors: it was conscious of its own limits.