Friday, January 20, 2017

Greenblatt’s “The Swerve”: A Review

A number of my medievalist friends have written more or less extensive reviews of their problems with Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. For the most part, their comments decry how Greenblatt, perhaps the most widely known historicist critic, deploys almost the full barrage of over-simplistic caricatures of the Middle Ages that have been in circulation since Poggio Bracciolini’s day in the fifteenth century.

And it is certainly true the Greenblatt offers only a one-trick middle ages for our view: he, like the humanists the book is primarily about, unsubtly presents the middle ages as the dark ages, no matter how clear the evidence is that the ninth-century Carolingian copies of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura were as crucial to the ultimate re-discovery of the poem as was Poggio’s 1417 copy.

But Greenblatt is, after all, telling a story: and nuance in discussing what happens off-stage in Greenblatt’s story isn’t really useful to him. For the most part, Greenblatt wants his story to say that from the end of the Roman empire to 1417, Lucretius’s poem was unread, unknown, and essentially lost: the effect is to make Poggio’s discovery all the more important. To get there, he pretty much has to say that the Carolingian scribes who copied the poem were careful not to read it: nor does he really ask why they would have invested their precious time and vellum in the work, if it weren’t important to them. The Carolingian Renaissance, after all, is not the one Greenblatt is writing about.

But then again, neither does Greenblatt ever say clearly what he means by the term “modern.” Instead, he hopes that his readers will recognize something of themselves in the things he believes are “modern” (which boils down, more or less, to a scientific worldview, untroubled by Christian orthodoxy; what many “modern” Christians might think isn’t really in Greenblatt’s sights at all: one suspects that he sees them as medieval, too, and thus worthy of caricature).

In the end, the book was not at all what I had expected. I had expected a tale of the recovery of a lost Latin poem, and an account of how that poem had changed the world: made it “swerve” into a new path. But the book is mostly a kind of focused biography of Poggio Bracciolini, which gives Greenblatt a lot of room to tell various compelling stories: of Jan Huss, the Great Schism, and of political and literary wranglings in and around the papal court . The book’s thesis is about the “swerve” into modernity, but only one or two of the chapters really address it.
And maybe it is too much for me to quibble about what I’d have done differently, but Greenblatt repeatedly describes Poggio as a “book hunter,” and one whose efforts preserved more than Lucretius. So Greenblatt gives us a fine recreation of the scene when Poggio finally finds the book of Lucretius's poem in an unnamed German monastery (imagined as Fulda), and pays to have a copy made. From that copy, another copy is made by Niccolo Niccoli.

Greenblatt acknowledges, at one point, that both the Carolingian copy Poggio found and the first scribal copy he had made from it have now both disappeared from view. Poggio, I would say, is a text hunter, not a book hunter, and it might be just as useful to conclude that his concern with preserving the poem seems to have involved no equivalent concern to preserve the older manuscripts. The destruction of the merely “medieval” copy, after all, is of a piece with a fifteenth-century worldview that would soon result in the phenomenon of printed books: the poem lives not in its physical copies, but in an ideal realm, and our job (especially as Renaissance editors) is to restore it to its most correct and proper form. With its beautiful letters, Niccoli’s copy was certainly superior, in Poggio’s eyes, to any medieval copy: Greenblatt seems to accept such a view without demur. The destruction of the “medieval” copy is of a piece, too, with Greenblatt’s unnuanced (though modern!) treatment of the middle ages as a time of unrelieved darkness.

The disappearance from our view of men like Poggio Bracciolini is, of course, as potentially distressing as the disappearance, for a time, of Lucretius’s poem. In that sense, Greenblatt, too, is reviving for us an unremembered tale from the past. But the chance survival of Lucretius’s poem tells us that we build our stories of the past out of chance survivals, with no hope of completeness or even accuracy—and I am not sure it does us any favors to suggest that this one chance survival has, in fact, made us what we are today. To tell a story as if it were so may well be a feature of modernity: but I’m not at all sure it’s Lucretian.

Monday, January 16, 2017

New Mini-Catalogue 171: early printing, manuscripts, poetry

Trying to get 2017 off to a good start, here at Chancery Hill Books!

A printed leaf from 1496. 
For the middle of January, I am happy to have put together a little catalogue of some interesting books and other items I've picked up over the last few months, everything from some incunabula fragments to books (and a couple small manuscripts) of modern poetry, including books signed by E E Cummings and Sara Teasdale.

When I was at the Texts and Contexts conference last fall, I heard an interesting paper about "tree-structure" marginal notes in medieval manuscripts, and though it is small, I was glad to come across an example of such marginalia, as can be seen in the lower margin of the leaf in my image here. 

I was especially interested, of course, because of my recent interest in two-dimensional textual structures: these diagrams make meanings through structures than cannot be readily reduced to linearity. 

Crazy, I know, but that's the kind of thing I find interesting.

As always, if you see something of interest, the catalogue should give you all of my contact information.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Will Eisner's A Contract with God, 1978

Eisner's Contract with God,
limited first edition.
Will Eisner's A Contract with God is sometimes described as the very first graphic novel, and for a long time I've kept my eyes open for a hardcover copy of the first edition. Over the holidays, I was able to find a copy in one of the bookstores I frequent, and the price was right, so I picked it up.

The hardcover issue, as far as I know, consisted of only the fifteen hundred copies signed by Eisner as a limited edition; the remainder of the first edition was a trade paperback, which can occasionally be found signed but is itself somewhat difficult to find at all (at the moment, on ABEbooks, there are six copies of the hardcover available and five of the trade paperback). 
First Edition,
trade paperback issue

Interestingly, I don't believe the words "graphic novel" are used on or in the hardcover edition at all, appearing only on the front wrap of the trade paperback issue. Although the words "graphic novel" didn't really originate with Eisner or this book, A Contract of God is often cited as breaking ground in using this term as a description of its genre right on the cover. In a prose preface inside, of course, Eisner does try to offer an early defense of the graphic form as a unified, rather than hybrid, entity.

Both varieties of the first edition, I might note, read "First printing, October 1978" on the copyright page, and there doesn't seem to be any real reason not to treat both issues as true first editions. But I find it curious or amusing to note that only one of the two issues actually uses the words "Graphic Novel."

Perhaps it is a foolish delusion of mine, but I always imagine that there must be fewer bibliographic surprises or curiosities among modern books than we might find in older books. Examples like this one, though, remind us that sometimes even modern books may differ in details that actually are--or may become--important. 

Decorated endpapers, with Eisner's signature and limitation number.
Note that the trade paperback issue does not use these endpapers.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Written on Glass

Cranberry-cut-to-clear flask.
Given my interests in glass and in the history of writing, it has often crossed my mind that I should tackle a project that combines the two things: a study or collection of writing on glass. 

Unfortunately, such a study must have an incredibly broad scope, covering at least several hundred years (and there certainly are also Roman examples, and perhaps Greek ones as well), and with examples executed in a variety of modes.

Indeed, it seems important for me to at least note that I am accustomed to thinking of various materials as what have been called "writing supports"--the substrates or surfaces upon which writing appears: paper, vellum, wood, stone, metal, chalkboards, and so on. In my simplistic mind, I usually think each writing support has a more or less natural writing technology that suits it: ink is used on paper and vellum; stone and metal are inscribed or engraved; chalkboards take chalk. 

In the case of glass, however, words and characters may be present in the mold that shapes the glass in the first place (for pieces that are molded); they may be etched into the surface with acid; they may be painted or enameled onto the surface; they may be engraved or cut by a stone or metal wheel. 

In the glass I know best, nineteenth- and twentieth-century American tableware and art glass, all of these are actually quite common, and they may be seen in varying degrees of artistry and execution: an attempt to collect examples of writing on glass might quickly grow very large indeed. 

For today's blog post, I just wanted to share one recent acquisition that features two letters in the form of a monogram. The piece of glass is a cut and engraved glass flask, about 6 inches in size. It is cranberry (or gold ruby) in color, and it probably dates, I would guess, to the 1880s, based upon the nature of the piece and the style of decoration.

My first instinct is to suspect this flask is American in its origins, because flasks of this basic size and shape were a very common American production item in the middle nineteenth century, often very colorful and attractive. This example, if I am right about the date, comes from the very end of that tradition, and at the auction where I purchased it, it was tentatively attributed to the Dorflinger cut glass factory, in White Mills, PA (east of Scranton). It's a perfectly plausible attribution: this piece has all the quality that one would expect out of a piece of Dorflinger, and there aren't all that many other candidates for the manufacture of a piece of this quality from this period.

Unless the flask is British or European, that is. Seeing the monogram reads RV or VR, one of my other first instincts was to imagine that one candidate for the person referenced in the monogram might be Victoria Regina, England's Queen Victoria. I would hesitate to suggest that Queen Victoria herself would have needed a monogrammed flask for her liquor, but it is at least possible that this might have been cut as a souvenir of her Golden Jubilee in 1887.

One form of Victoria's VR monogram.
One might compare the form of this monogram, for example, with the monogram found embroidered in the example shown at the left, which is apparently accepted as Victoria's.

Without a crown being present on the flask, it is probably not possible to be certain about attributing the monogram to Victoria, even as a Jubilee souvenir. But the possibility is intriguing, and I should probably add that if VR does stand for Victoria Regina, it is still possible that the flask was made and decorated in America: there has long been a market here for English royal memorabilia.

Perhaps as readers of this blog has come to expect, there are yet-unanswered questions here: but that's part of the fun, I always think. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

William L'Isle, A Saxon Treatise Concerning the Old and New Testament, 1623

L'Isle, A Saxon Treatise, 1623
Often enough, an interesting old book is found in an unprepossessing binding. In this case, the book in question is William L'Isle's 1623 printing of an Old English text by Ælfric of Eynsham, which L'Isle printed under the title, A Saxon Treatise Concerning the Old and New Testament.

As luck would have it, this copy includes only the front matter and Ælfric's piece; the full-sized book ought to also have a reprint of the older A Testimonie of Antiquitie as well as some additional materials, as described (in brief) on the title page of the present book.

But even a quick glance at the binding suggests that the book has been its current size at least since the middle 1800s. More, the pebbled cloth that now covers the boards looks like it may lie overtop of an older brown calf covering: the boards, at least, may belong to an even older binding, though whether that older binding included only the present pages or once included the whole of the original book may no longer be determinable. It is possible, of course, that this copy of this book provides evidence for an early independent presentation of just the initial Ælfric material, but the most we can be sure of, I think, is that the book has stood in its present form for some 150 years or so.

My academic interest in Old English, of course, makes printed books with Old English texts an area
Title Page; a pencil note beside the
final section of the title reads "Not Here"
of special interest for me. L'Isle, with the publication of this book, really set in motion the seventeenth-century project of publishing Old English texts (some had been printed in the 1500s, but not many), and before the century was out, a good many of the familiar Old English prose and verse works would have been set into type at least once.

During all the time I worked as an academic, I never had occasion to consult L'Isle's book, I am sorry to say. My long-standing project of reclaiming Ælfric as a poet or versifier might have led me here, though, as this Ælfrician composition is, indeed, in his characteristic rhythmical style. This alliterative style has (in my opinion) long been misunderstood and mischaracterized as prose. L'Isle, of course, seems to have had no notion that the work he was printing was in verse, and his error has been repeated now for almost four centuries.

As is the way of things when I encounter a new old book, I took the time, of course, to glance through this new one, and I was surprised to encounter the following passage in the final section of the Preface:

The bottom of leaf f3 [verso]; the typesetter
appears to have misunderstood L'Isle's "son,"
printing "same," giving "Woden, which was
the same of
Frealaf, &c." (left margin)

Here, L'Isle imagines King Alfred reflecting on the present [i.e., 1623] state of learning about the Anglo-Saxons, and lamenting it in terms clearly influenced by Alfred's own Preface to the Pastoral Care, which had been printed (the Preface, that is), in the 1574 edition of Asser's Vita Alfredi. In part, of course, I am interested in the alliterating genealogies as they are also another unrecognized type of Old English verse.

Seeing this passage, I immediately thought it would be a fun project to try to track down which manuscript L'Isle might be taking the genealogies from: with a West Saxon and a Mercian genealogy, a manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle immediately seems a possibility.

Interestingly, as L'Isle prints it, the genealogy of Ine (or "Ina") includes the reading "Ceolwald Cuþulfing,"which is present in copies of the West Saxon Regnal Table (in the copies associated with both A and B Chronicle manuscripts), but not in the Chronicle proper. Unfortunately, here I've run aground, and I have not--yet, at least--been able to trace where the unusual forms "Þinferð" and "Ænwulf" come from, neither of which seems to turn up in the Chronicle manuscripts. David Dumville's edition of the genealogies found in Cotton Vespasian B vi, CCCC 183, and Cotton Tiberius B v likewise indicates that none of those is the source for these spellings ("Anglian Collection," Anglo-Saxon England 5, pp. 23-50). Attempting to trace these genealogies has given me, I must admit, a kind of fun puzzle to work on, and even if I haven't solved it all, it has indicated the real breadth of manuscripts and texts that L'Isle must have known. 

And, of course, if any of my readers can pin down L'Isle's source or sources for these genealogies, I'd be eager to hear about it.