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.

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.