Monday, June 19, 2017

Micro-Catalogue of Manuscripts

Ca. 1845 French textbook for
readingmanuscript writing.
After an exceptionally busy May, I've found it hard to do much in June, either. But I have been able to pull together a tiny little list of eight items in the general category of Manuscripts, with two bonus items. 

The eight manuscripts include only two fragments, with the rest being (more or less) complete in themselves, and they span in date from 1210 to the 1750s. 

The bonus items are school books from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, intended to teach the skill of reading manuscript writing to students.

The earlier, French example appears to take the task even more seriously, and the dozens of examples of script are seemingly arranged in increasing degrees of difficulty: the student who makes it through the entire book, presumably, will be able to read any of the difficult scripts that life in 19th-century France could throw at one. 

Intriguingly, this little French schoolbook also includes an example of handwriting that seems to be explicitly derived from late medieval Gothic script: though I've encountered more than one nineteenth-century French manuscript that was intended to look like a Gothic manuscript, I ever expected that such writing might have been current, to the point of being taught in schools.



Monday, May 22, 2017

Mini-Catalogue 174: Mostly Fragments and Leaves

It was interesting over the past several weeks to see news stories crossing my Facebook-desk about recent discoveries in the field of incunabula fragments: a fragment of the Gutenberg bible still in place as a binding wrapper and a new Caxton leaf. 

Just as I pick up medieval manuscript binding fragments when I can, I also pick up recycled incunabula fragments when I can, though I've never found a Caxton or Gutenberg leaf--and perhaps I never shall. 

But among my recent acquisitions have been a number of interesting recycled fragments, both manuscript and print, and my new little mini-catalogue 174 describes them in some detail. 

4 early English printed leaves, 1530-ca. 1553. Note the
acidic paper frames on the two rightmost leaves, and the
remains of a similar frame on the second leaf. These frames
are evidence of long association of these leaves.
Readers will see, also, that I've included some early printed leaves that show no clear sign of having been recycled in bindings: like medieval manuscripts, early printed books were (and sometimes still are) often enough cut up for the market. I generally try to steer clear of such items, but now and again, I come across some leaves that were probably dispersed the better part of a century ago. It seems to me that such leaves should not be spurned: they, too, sometimes have something important to tell us about the history of books. 

One lot in the catalogue involves a big lot of twenty such leaves, which seem to have travelled together for a long time now. Another lot includes two leaves, probably from the same English book, that I have been able to bring back together.

Such leaves are out there: it is our task to do good for them, when we can.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Back from the 'Zoo (and a Recent Acquisition)

I had a long weekend at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, where I got to feel like both an academic and a bookseller, all at the same time. I saw old friends and met some new folks, and made a few sales. It was just what I wanted from the Congress.

Tiny little leather-bound book. 
Oh, and I want to the dance, and I did not dance.

Arriving back home, I had no fewer than four packages in the mail waiting for me. With a little concentration, I finally remembered what three of them were before I opened them up, but one didn't ring any bells. A week out of the house, and I can't remember what I spent money on a week before.

Rather than a package shaped like a book, this was a small cardboard box, the kind of thing I'd ship a glass toothpick holder or salt shaker in. I had no idea what was in it.

When I opened it up, of course, I found a tiny little book. 

I measure the height of this book to be 3 9/16". According to the website of the Miniature Book Society, American collectors would find this too large to be counted as a true miniature book, although European collectors, apparently, would consider it a miniature: their defining size appears to be ten centimeters.

Regardless, it is, I am certain, the smallest manuscript I've had the pleasure to own.

Inside, there are 252 numbered paper pages, although the scribe seems to have finished his or her work on page 203. It seems to be a book of private devotion, written entirely in Latin, and probably deriving from Bohemia, as the reference on the first page to "S Johannes Nepomuc[eni]" about half way down the page perhaps suggests. 

Most written pages seem to have between 17 and 19 lines of writing; that's about 6 lines of writing per inch. Even so, the script is generally clear and legible, and the book as a whole probably dates from sometime in the 1700s. 

A book this size, it seems to me, is a very personal item: although neither the scribe nor owner (if they weren't in fact the same person) seems to have left a name for us to find, but the contents and the size together, somehow, give us a sense of a real human being. 

Miniature it may be, but of greater importance or significance, it somehow seems, for all that: it feels like it tells us something about its early life in a way a larger size book would not. 

What a delight it was to pull such a little gem from a box when I came back home.


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Off to the 'Zoo (Kalamazoo, that is!)

Every May, medievalists gather for the big Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It is an academic conference, primarily, and I always love to go, since I have a lot of friends I sometimes only get to see at Kalamazoo.

A small charter from 1210
In recent years, I've also set up a booth in the book room, where I've tried to offer a selection of medieval materials of interest to individuals and sometimes even institutions trying to build or strengthen their teaching collections. 

It's a lot of fun, trying to find good homes for wonderful items, and for me at least, it's always been a great thrill to own medieval materials. I have always been fascinated with old books and manuscripts--all old things, really--and there is no substitute for holding something in your hands, and even owning it, to help you learn about it and learn from it.

It also makes me feel personally involved in helping to pass these things along to future generations: and it's something anyone can do. It's a reminder that we are all, always, in a position to help transmit our cultural treasures to the future: this is not work for libraries and museums only. 

Of course, some medieval manuscripts are very expensive, but there are many college textbooks that cost more these days than some medieval manuscript or printed incunabula fragments. It's an interesting statement about how academics (and others) value books, both old and new. 

My image here shows one item that I'll be taking to Kalamazoo, a new acquisition, it is a cute little charter from France, written in 1210. I think it's the oldest charter I've been fortunate to have, and while I'd love to find a good home for it, I certainly wouldn't mind hanging onto it for a while myself, either.

If any of my readers out there are medievalists going to Kalamazoo, I very much hope you'll stop by my booth in the book room!


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Eastern National Antiques Show, Carlisle, PA, May 5-6

The truck is all loaded up with boxes again for the Eastern National Antiques Show in Carlisle. This is a twice-a-year show with something like sixty years of continuity: one of the oldest and best glass shows in the country, though you can find a few other things there, too: some jewelry, for example, and other things. 


Heisey 4-light candelabrum
But most people bring their glass to sell, and many buyers come for the glass. Since glass is in my blood, I have always dealt a bit in glass, though my real love these days is books, of course (more on that, next week). 

All my newest acquisitions in glass, pretty much, were already boxed up and priced before I got around to working up this blog post: all I had left was the crystal candelabra shown at the left.

This piece was probably made some time before World War II, possibly even in the first quarter of the twentieth century: it's a bit hard to date precisely, and similar pieces (to hold two or three candles) were certainly made into the 1950s. 

But before the war, and again after the war, the dangling prisms that were intended to catch the candlelight and reflect it around on candelabra like this were produced by the millions in Bohemia, then imported and re-sold by American manufacturers like A H Heisey & Co., who made this candelabrum. For a short time during the war, Heisey tried to make a pressed substitute, when the German/Czech/Bohemian sources were unavailable, but there's no substitute for cut and polished glass.

More recently, here in Morgantown, we were out of power for six or eight hours on Monday night: too bad I didn't have any candles to put in this, or I'd have had no problem reading all evening. 

It could've been an evening of unexpected elegance. But we had no candles, alas.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Mini-Catalogue 173 Announcement: Graphic Narratives and Related Items

I am finally getting around to posting another little list or catalogue; this one is only partially illustrated, but if you'd like to see an image of anything, please just email me! 

This list has a number of books or items signed by Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware, as well as important or unusual titles from many of the major figures in the field, as well as a few unusual items going back to around 1860 or so. There's also a signed first edition of Alison Bechdel's brilliant Fun Home

Most of the items here are first editions, of course, and I've been generous in a couple of instances in my definition of comics, but everything here juxtaposes word and image in some key or interesting way, and for me, at least, that's at the heart of comics.

And it wouldn't be a list from me if it didn't include an oddball item or two. 

I hope folks enjoy it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Incunable initials

One leaf from Gratianus's Decretum (Strassburg: 
Grüninger, 1490). Recycled as binding
material.
Of course my first love, in the realm of books, is medieval manuscript material, although the price range I am usually working in hasn't often given me opportunities to buy complete medieval books. And because I never wanted to contribute to the practice of dismembering books in the present, many of the least expensive manuscript leaves that one can find for sale are also something I have generally not been interested in buying. 

As a result, my buying (and, to a degree, selling) of medieval manuscript items has focused on recycled medieval material: usually leaves or fragments recycled as binding materials in later books.

Of course a similar fate often met early printed books, and in recent years, I've also begun looking for incunabula fragments recycled in bindings. One benefit of doing so, of course, is that it gives me a whole new area for learning about old books, which is a delight.

One of the things I have long known about incunabula (books printed before 1501) is that they were often manuscripts as well, or at least intended to be: very frequently, space was left for capital letters. The printers imagined or intended that these spaces be filled in by hand, usually with painted initials. Not only did many early printed books look like manuscripts, they were, in part, actual manuscripts, with at least some letters entered by hand.

Recently, I came across the pictured fragments from an incunabula edition of the Decretum of Gratianus, a standard legal text, with commentary.  

I was surprised, when I was looking these leaves over, to note that some of the red initial letters had been printed, while some had been inserted by hand.
Note in the left-hand column, the "O" and
"E" have been printed, while the "A" and
"P" were painted in by hand.

The printed red portions include not only these initials, but rubricated headings and even the running headings at the tops of the pages. There was enough material that the printer wanted to appear in red that it was worth the effort to set up a two-color printing process.

But even so, Grüninger apparently still felt the book would be best, if alternating initials were added in by hand, ideally in a contrasting color. In this copy, the contrast is not very strong: the hand-painted initials here might be in a purplish color, rather than red, but blue or green would certainly have provided a stronger and more effective contrast. 

I find details like this fascinating; perhaps those who work more closely and frequently with early printed books than I do will be thoroughly familiar with this sort of thing, but it seems to me to offer a wonderful insight into a late fifteenth-century idea of just how colorful a book ought to be. It has only been recently, after all, that we have begin to have a renewed appreciation for color in our texts.

Note that, beneath the capital "S" at the bottom of
the image here, there is a small printed lower-case
"s" (the tall form) to guide the scribe who added the painted letters. A printed "S" appears
at the upper right. 
[Bibliographic note: I attribute these fragments to Grüninger's 1490 edition with some, but not complete, confidence. The same printer printed the same text in 1489 and in 1490, and an electronic facsimile of the 1489 edition can be found online. In comparison with the facsimile, my edition seems to share the same types, the same text upon each page, and the same set of printed capital letters, but it is also a clearly different setting. My conclusion that these leaves come from the 1490 edition seems reasonable, but in the absence of an actual comparison to a complete copy of that edition, it must remain an attribution only.]

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Edward Brerewood's Tractatus, 1659

It's been a while since I have managed to post anything on the blog. I'll blame it on a recent birthday, but the truth is that I haven't been finding much in the way of fun or interesting things to post.  

Title page of Brerewood's 1659
Tractatus, edited by
Thomas Sixesmith
But I did manage to get this little book from Edward Brerewood recently, more or less by accident.

I suppose I might need to explain how one buys a 350-year old book by accident: in this case, I saw it for sale; I thought the price was reasonable; and even though I didn't have a very clear sense of what might be in the book, I went ahead and purchased it.

I was delighted to find, when it arrived in the mail, that, even while its content was not something I am especially interested in (a long Latin treatise on the properties and situations of things), it was filled with page after page of complexly structured two-dimensional texts.

Pages 214-15, De Substantia [I love the up-side-down capital S
used in the heading of page 214!]

I have been thinking extensively for a couple of years now on how odd and interesting it is that we have an expectation that a poem, or novel, or text in general can be read aloud. And thus, I've been especially interesting in how some texts frustrate that expectation by organizing themselves in two dimensions, rather than three. Brerewood's book, to my surprise, is filled with many such examples.

On the pages shown above, we find numerous brackets and numbers, indicating various levels of subordination, and even two lines on the left hand side of p. 214 printed vertically. The brackets and layout and other visual components of the text, I believe, are actually doing part of the work here: they demonstrate relationships that readers are expected to perceive. And they do it in two dimensions.

Of course, diagrams in books have long had a similar purpose and effect, but here the text itself has diagrammatic qualities.  

At the end of the book, there are two additional tracts by Brerewood, one on meteorology and one on the eye; the latter includes two nice diagrams as well:

From Brerewood's separate work on the eye.
Books, sometimes, are to be read; there is no doubt of that. But sometimes, at least, they must also be looked at. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Measuring paper and parchment in 1810

Arithmetical Tables, 1810.
Title page.
Just a brief post today, as I am recovering from a cold and still not feeling fully recovered. But I was amused, in looking over this little children's chapbook, Arithmetical Tables for the Use of Schools, to see that in 1810, students needed to know their addition and multiplication tables, they needed to know how to count British money and American, and they needed to know a whole range of weights, sizes, and lengths.

But apparently, kids in those days also needed to know the terms for quantities of paper and parchment. And even though I've spent a good part of my adult life thinking about parchment and vellum, I'd never heard of a "roll" of parchment before. 
Page 23. 

You learn something every day, I guess.

Now, if I can just find an occasion to slip this one into casual conversation.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A small set of Moorman's Yorkshire dialect books

Moorman's Dialect Poems, 1917
Part of what I love about working with books is the stories they tell. Some of the most remarkable books that I've had tell stories not intended by their authors. Instead, sometimes, it's their owners' stories that are most fascinating, or the details of their place in history as objects. This is one of those stories.

It is, as so often here on my blog, the story of a recent acquisition, a little set of three books by F. W. Moorman, all examples of his work promoting and writing in the Yorkshire dialect. 

Moorman was a Professor of English Language at the University of Leeds, and in Songs of the Ridings, he identifies himself, with some pride, as a minor poet, and Songs of the Ridings reprints poems he had published anonymously "in the Yorkshire press" (5). Plays of the Ridings includes three shortish dialect dramas, in hopes of inspiring the "peasant or artisan actor" and helping to establish "folk-festivals of song and dance and drama" in the Yorkshire Ridings (7). One of the plays, "The Ewe Lamb," is based closely on the Mak portion of the late-medieval Wakefield Second Shepherds' Play. The third book of this little collection is a second edition of his scholarly collection, Yorkshire Dialect Poems (1673-1915) and Traditional Poems, published in 1917.

This last book is distinguished by being signed by the author on the
Moorman's signature.
front free end-paper; the apparent owner of all three books has inscribed it also on the title: "Kurt Busse/ Wakefield/ 1917."


Songs of the Ridings has a somewhat longer inscription (dated Nov. 13, 1918) by the author on the end-paper: "With the author's compliments to a lover of dialect literature and in memory of many hours together at Lofthouse." The date here, two days after Armistice Day, may not seem especially important until one reads the letter in Moorman's hand that is laid into Songs:

Dear Dr Busse
  I have had some difficulty in procuring the books you asked for, and one is still out of print. But my bookseller asked to send you the others today and I hope they will arrive with this letter of mine. I sent on your message to Herr Paul Strasser, and hope that I reached him. 
  I was very glad to get news of you and to know that you were moderately comfortable on the Isle of Man. The voyage must have been terrible. I think much of you in these days of upheaval and my earnest hope is that Germany will pass safely through the storm and become an even greater nation than before. No doubt dark days are ahead, but I have faith in the clear vision of your countrymen, and I believe that when a firm democratic government is established, a glorious future awaits your people. May you play your part in bringing this about. It is to the young men of your generation that the nation looks most of all. 
  Please let me know of your movements. I hope that it will not be long before you are able to return home, and if you can break your journey in Leeds, my wife and I will be delighted to offer you hospitality. 
  I shall always bear a grateful memory of the hours which I was privileged to spend in your company at Lofthouse. 
  With kind regards,
  Yours very truly,
    F. W. Moorman


The censor's stamp.
The references to Lofthouse and the Isle of Man here are all contextualized by the stamp on the top of the letter: "Censored. Aliens' Detention Camp. Knockaloe, I. O. M."

Dr. Kurt Busse, the owner of these books, must have been a German detainee during the war, held first at Lofthouse in Yorkshire, and then at Knockaloe, Isle of Man. The dates and places mentioned in these inscriptions help us trace--in part--some of his movements while detained.

Perhaps it is the recent political actions of my own country, actions that seem to wish to take another class of people and make them detainees or deportees, that makes this story seem so touching to me now, but I hope always to be touched by such stories, and their reminders of both how war and politics can imprison us, and that, even so, friendships might be formed across lines that--to some--seem uncrossable lines of enmity. 

But having these books and writing this blog post was also my opportunity to learn about Knockaloe and Lofthouse: these stories remain important, and I encourage my own readers to learn something of such places, too. 


Moorman's letter and inscription in Songs of the Ridings.






Monday, February 13, 2017

Mini-Catalogue Monday. Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts and Fragments

16th/17th century codex, bound in a
(non- Beneventan) fragment
I posted a picture of a book with a handful of Beneventan binding fragments on my Chancery Hill Books Facebook page a couple of weeks ago, and I believe it was, by far, the image I've gotten the most reaction to.

I never really expected to find anything in the Beneventan script, a scarce and collectible Italian style of writing that pretty much avoided the innovations of Carolingian and Gothic scripts, maintaining its own sphere influence pretty much right through the middle ages.

Two more sets of related Beneventan fragments

That book (and the two that belong with it, shown above) is in my little catalogue of twenty items for sale that I've just posted. Here's the link: Chancery Hill Books Catalogue 172.

You can also find there a variety of interesting--and even odball--items from roughly the thirteenth century to the seventeenth, from binding fragments and charters all the way to complete codices. Plenty of fun things to look at for medievalists, even if you don't see anything you'd like to buy.

A nice bifolium recycled as a wrapper

Of course, if you do find something you can't live without, the catalogue has instructions for getting hold of me!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Two more oddball items.

Shakespeare on Poker, 1906.
Writing up these little blog posts about new acquisitions is, I have to admit, a fun part of my week. Each time, there is some little thing that I've learned or learned about, and I always love to share. Or is it that I love to show off? I think, if truth be told, there's a bit of both.

This week, I'll show off two things I picked up during the last few months of 2016. The first is a copy of Shakespeare on Poker, copyrighted (and presumably illustrated and published) by Martha C Ballard, a scarce little book of brief Shakespearean quotations, accompanied by illustrated poker hands that offer a kind of commentary upon them. More than one is presented as a Shakespearean curse suitable for a bad hand of cards. 
One of the pages from Shakespeare on Poker.

This particular copy, as shown is in embossed and printed card covers; a suede binding was apparently also available. 

I am no poker player myself, but this book's use of juxtaposition to generate meanings from texts and images brought together might encourage us to see it as a kind of comics production. In that sense, it's something I could barely resist. 

My second oddball item today is a manuscript, a single sheet that is apparently unrelated to a batch of other things I purchased from a seller in Sicily. One side is taken up by some notes upon the use of the gerund, with some examples in Latin and others labeled "Volgare." The sheet has been folded to put the gerund material on the inside; on the front of what remains are what we call "pen trials," where a writer either having just cut a new tip on a quill pen or merely testing out a new pen, engages in a test of the pen. If there were any doubt that at least some of what is written here were pen trials, the words "prova" and "Prova di penna" seem to make the case clearly enough. 

But written on the rear side is a draft of a short poem in Latin, perhaps a schoolboy's exercise? It is titled "Elegia" and I've had a bit of fun trying to work it out: there are words written sloppily, phrases and lines crossed out, and probably at least two stints of composition, marked by two shades of ink. I'd guess the date is late eighteenth or nineteenth century. The first three words of the poem proper give a sense of the contents "Horribilem Ortigia Urbanam": it seems to be a kind of ironic praise poem to the Sicilian island of Ortigia, here figured as a terrible place.

I could be wrong, though: Latin hexameters are not really my cup of tea, when it comes to verse. And in fact, my knowledge of Latin versification is such that I'm even a little hesitant to describe this as hexameters. But if any of my few readers out there can solve the problems of this little poem, I'd love to hear about it.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Crazy Things I End Up With, Part N

Folio 7 of the collection of probate documents.
As I've written before here, I've come to realize that I am most interested in oddball items, of one sort or another. I am especially interested in manuscript material, of course, from almost all periods, but the older the better.

A couple of months ago, I was able to get a handful of gatherings from what once must have been a larger book: the leaves here are numbered from 7 to 63 (with some errors in foliation), but the whole looks like an Italian manuscript from the seventeenth century, recording a handful of family wills and related probate documents, in Latin or Italian.

The documents all seem to come from the de Maiore family, and they range in date from 1623 to 1683, and they were written in a number of hands. Most seem to have had a life as separate items until being bound together (most have been folded lengthwise, like many smaller legal booklets); now they are disband, but the regular foliation indicates these must have been bound up in a book.

As always, when I run across an inventory, of course I look to see if any members of this family mention books in their wills or estate documents. In this case, to my surprise and delight, it seemed that the last of the inventories here (dated 1683) did include two books:

Two breviaries and a clock.


Item due breviarij uno grandi dorato 
e l'altre della sorte comune
Item un orologio a campana

["Item: two breviaries, one large, with gold, and the other of the common sort.
Item: one clock with bells." After each entry is a brief notation, perhaps of value. I am not sure, but it may read "usato," meaning used.]

The description, of course, leaves it very unlikely that these books could ever be identified, unless they had an ownership inscription to match the inventory. But it's an interesting little moment, to see a gold-adorned breviary here, along with one of the common sort, being listed alongside a clock as a possession worth enumerating. 

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.