Tag Archives: Early Modern

Tales of the Unexpected

What is a full page image of the Virgin Mary doing in one of the most defining books of the English Reformation?

Virgin Mary with signs and symbols from Canticles from 1552 'Book of Common Prayer'
Virgin Mary with signs and symbols from Canticles from 1552 ‘Book of Common Prayer’

Bizarrely, some copies of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer (STC 16280-16280.5) contain a woodcut of the Virgin, with her symbols and names from Canticles in banderols, on one of the final leaves. In his bibliography of the Book of Common Prayer, David N. Griffiths has described the Virgin’s appearance as ‘unexpected’, although offers no further comment or theory as to how this page can have materialised in the book (p. 66). How did this woodcut get there and what does it tell us?

This woodcut is similar to others which make a regular appearance in printed primers made in both France and England for the English market.

The Virgin Mary in 'Hore beate Marie. ad ritum ecclesie Sarisburiensis', T. Kerver for Francis Bryckman (Paris, 1521). STC 15931
The Virgin Mary in ‘Hore beate Marie. ad ritum ecclesie Sarisburiensis’, T. Kerver for Francis Bryckman (Paris, 1521). STC 15931

The first printed primers, like manuscript books of hours before them, had a distinct emphasis upon devotion to Mary; Eamon Duffy writes, ‘the whole primer was in some sense a Marian prayerbook’, based on the Little Hours of the Blessed Virgin (p. 256). That being the case, Reformed English primers were produced which moved to supplant these ‘traditional’ Latin ones, recognising a popular desire and need for devotional books but supplying, in their place, English ones whose devotions were heavily revised to shape and fit the expectations of Protestant readers.

For example, a ‘Goodly Prymer’ printed by John Byddell for William Marshall in 1535 (STC 15988), whose character Mary C. Erler has described as ‘unequivocally reforming’ (p. 240), was prefaced by an ‘admonition’ to the reader inveighing against Marian prayers, such as the Obsecro te which had had such a prominent place in the medieval book of hours, as idolatrous:

What vanity is promised in the superscription or title before Obsecro te, Domina Sancta Maria? where it is written, that whosoever saith that prayer daily before the image, called the image of our Lady of Pity, shall see the visage of our most blessed Lady, and be warned both of the day, and also of the hour of his death, before he depart out of this world. I pray you, what fondness, or rather madness, is this? (‘A Goodly Prymer’, p. 2).

In her discussion of Byddell’s primer, Christine Peters has argued that Reformed primers urged respect for, even as they rejected devotion to the Virgin Mary; ‘it seems too simplistic,’ she writes, ‘when drawing up a balance sheet of the effects of the Reformation, to assume the ‘loss’ of the Virgin Mary’ (pp. 208 and 215-16).

Yet, the appearance of the woodcut of Mary in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer goes further than the respect Peters finds for the Virgin in this reformed primer. Jayne Wackett, in her study of the counterintuitive cross-over between the image cultures of prayer books from the times of Edward VI and Mary Tudor, has demonstrated that the ‘unexpected’ is remarkably common in mid-sixteenth-century prayer books (pp. 257-8). Yet this full-page devotional image in the Book of Common Prayer is more unexpected even than the illustrated initials she compares. Not only are the Virgin’s names in Latin, rather than English, they also invoke the forms of address in the Obsecro te and other petitionary hymns in the Horae, whose misuse the ‘Goodly Prymer’ attacks.

Curiously, this impression of The Book of Common Prayer with its renegade woodcut was put out by Edward Whitchurche under the Sign of the Sun, an establishment which was inherited from John Byddell: the same printing outfit which had put out the 1535 ‘Goodly Prymer’ (Atkin and Edwards, p. 33). The woodcut may have slipped in, in place of a printer’s emblem, through Whitchurche and Grafton’s previous association with François Regnault; a similar woodcut appears, for example, in Regnault’s English ‘Prayer [sic] of Salysbury use’, printed in Paris in 1531.

Image of the Virgin Mary from 'Prayer [sic] of Salysbury use’, with Robert Copland, printed in Paris in 1531.
Image of the Virgin Mary from ‘Prayer [sic] of Salysbury use’, with Robert Copland, printed in Paris in 1531.
Grafton and Whitchurche had collaborated with Regnault in Paris in 1538 on the printing of the Great Bible, an endeavour which was disrupted by the seizure of the pages by Francis I’s Inquisitors of the Faith (Atkin and Edwards, p. 38).

Later, according to John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, Grafton and Whitchurche returned to Paris to get ‘the presses, letters, and servants of the aforesaid printer, and brought them to London’, setting up as printers themselves to produce the Bible they had begun with Regnault (cited in David Scott Kastan, p. 93). Regnault was one of the leading printers of primers for the English market packaging them into ‘lines’ that catered for established as well as emerging religious and readerly tastes (Erler, p. 230). Similarly, and oddly given his energetic involvement in the production of reformed literature in English, in 1536 Byddell produced a Latin primer (STC 15991) in a small sextodecimo format with a distinctly Marian cast.

For Erler, consumer demand led printers like Regnault and Byddell to produce books for people across sectarian lines and a mixed market for devotional books meant that they both produced English and Latin primers (p. 240). The new prayer book replaced books for liturgical use within churches, of course, but also aspired to supplant primers (Duffy, p. 213). Indeed, across the course of 1552 and into the following year, new quarto and octavo editions of the Book of Common Prayer were produced, often bound with the psalter as the primer was, suggesting a targeting of that lay market and an attempt to attach the volume to people, as well as institutions. The woodcut, then, reminds us that, although the prayer book was a product and a driver of hardening sectarian lines, it emerged into a literary market which was driven as much by lay devotional tastes in all their variety as official ecclesiastical need, a need which was more easily directed from the top.

Once a book had reached that lay market, furthermore, it was difficult to govern its use. Consider, for example, the British Library copy of the 1552 prayer book which carries numerous manuscript erasures of King Edward in favour of Queen Mary; the pronouns are also accordingly changed from masculine to feminine (C.25.l.3; STC 16285). Another copy (C.24.a.2) replaces Edward with James, despite its being superseded by an Elizabethan edition. Neither of these readers seems fazed by the obsolecence of their Book. Readers, as well as printers, then, failed to keep books in their true places and, whilst the ‘Goodly Prymer’ complains about the misuse of Catholic prayers in the old primers, misuse was a problem which potentially affected all books however ‘correct’ and whatever their reformed credentials.

The Virgin Mary in the context of '1552 Book of Common Prayer.'
The Virgin Mary in the ‘1552 Book of Common Prayer.’

It is easy to think about the mid-sixteenth century as a time of clear sectarian lines, when books, their owners and makers took up sides. This unexpected woodcut, a hang-over from a supposedly supplanted age, shows us how hard it was to hold those lines in book production. Print, for all its technological modernity, was still set and pressed by hand and the larger scale of text production amplified the quirks that work by hand admitted. The image of the Virgin Mary in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer is, then, ‘unexpected’ but also typical of a culture which, for all the violence of its religious revolution, sometimes unwittingly readmitted what it sought to delete.

 

If you liked this, you may also be interested in a related article on the 1552 Book of Common Prayer and the so-called Black Rubric, in Textual Practice, 30:7 (2016). If you don’t have institutional access but would like a copy of this, email me and I will send you a free link (i.davis@bbk.ac.uk)

Bibliography:
‘A Goodly Prymer’, in Three Primers put forth in the Reign of Henry VIII, ed. Edward Burton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1834).
Hore beate Marie. ad ritum ecclesie Sarisburiensis, T. Kerver for Francis Bryckman (Paris, 1521). STC 15931.
The boke of common prayer, and administracion of the sacramentes, and other rites and ceremonies in the Churche of Englande (Londini: Edvvardi Whytchurche, 1552); STC 16280.5.
Prayer [sic] of Salysbury use, (François Regnault with Robert Copland: Paris,1531); STC 15974.

Secondary references:
Atkin, Tamara and Edwards, A.S.G., ‘Printers, Publishers and Promoters to 1558’, in A Companion to the Early Printed Book in Britain, 1476-1558, ed. Vincent Gillespie and Susan Powell (D.S. Brewer: Cambridge, 2014), 27-44.
Duffy, Eamon The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (New Haven: Yale, 1992).
Erler, Mary C., ‘The Maner to Lyue Well and the Coming of English in François Regnault’s Primers of the 1520s and 1530s, The Library, s6-VI (1984): 229-43.
Griffiths, David N. The Bibliography of the Book of Common Prayer, 1549-1999 (London: British Library, 2002).
Kastan, David Scott, ‘Print, Literary Culture and the Book Trade’, in The Cambridge History of Early Modern English Literature, ed. David Loewenstein, Janel Mueller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 81-116.
Peters, Christine, Patterns of Piety: Women, Gender and Religion in Late Medieval and Reformation England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Wackett, Jayne, ‘Examining the Unexpected: Printed Images in the Prayer Books of Edward VI and the Primers of Mary Tudor’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte – Archive for Reformation History, 105 (2014), 257-83.

 

Oh, those Ruffians!

Last year I went to a conference on Error and Print Culture, where I was very taken with a certain type of early modern print error. If the type isn’t set tightly enough then, when it comes to inking, the sticky ink on the inking balls can pull a letter up out of the galleys and spill it onto the floor. And sometimes the hurried pressman, reinserting the letter without looking too closely at the context, might replace it upside-down by mistake. So what was supposed to be a u might appear as an n: the word love (or loue), for example, might become lone; or a p might become d (map becomes mad), and so on. Thus, Shakespeare editors face the challenge of deciding whether Othello casts his pearl away like the base Indean or the base Judean. So with my Oulipo head on, I wanted to see just how much of an editorial problem this might be: what would be the implications if we found ourselves in a state of radical doubt about the printers’ ability to get letters the right way up?

This was the plan: first I went online and found a dictionary – in this case a Shakespeare wordlist which runs to 20,000 or so items; then I wrote a computer program which takes each of these words and tries flipping its letters upside-down to see if you end up with another valid word from the same dictionary. You can set which flippable pairs you want to allow each time you run the program, but the options I coded for were p and d, b and q, u and n, a and e, and f and s (the long s shape in early printing can easily by mistaken for an f at the compositing stage). If you allow for all of these, you get a surprisingly large number of potentially ambiguous words: about 600 of them. A lot of them are only ambiguous within quite a narrow semantic field: Kentishman vs Kentishmen, for example. But some are more fun: fancy vs saucy, or the ultra-slippery pan, pen, peu, dan, den.

The last thing to do was to try to write something that used as many of these upside-down words as possible in order to be maximally ambiguous. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far: a pair of poems. They’re called ‘Sweat Themes’, after Spencer’s famous line (often incorrectly set as ‘Sweet Thames’), but also because there seems to be a lot of sweating going on in both of them.

Here’s one version. This one looks like it’s set in a print shop.Sweat themes 1But that is not what I meant at all! Here, of course, is the correct version:Sweat themes 2
This barely scratches the surface of the corpus of flippable words. What about pigs and digs; dies vs pies; the wise wife who’s weeping or possibly weeding because she’s dowerless or maybe powerless. There are fishy terms: carp (card), fin (sin), sole (sola), dace (pace), bass (bess), battered (bettered); boozy ones – fancy ales like becks become saucy, alas, like backs; and semantic leaps from common to proper nouns: orphans to orpheus; are you in denial or in daniel? For the radical doubter, even quite a straightforward document opens onto a world of instability, all Surrealist imagery and Modernist grammar. And all because of carelessness in the printshop: too-casual typesetting or getting too heavy-handed with the ink dabber. As Boney M so memorably meant to say, Oh, those ruffians!

 

 

Prosthesis, ‘Et c’

Image from: Charlotte Klack-Eitzen, Wiebke Haase and Tanja Weißgraf, Heilige Röcke, 'Kleider für Skulpturen in Kloster Wienhausen', Regensburg 2013.
Image from: Charlotte Klack-Eitzen, Wiebke Haase and Tanja Weißgraf, Heilige Röcke,
Kleider für Skulpturen in Kloster Wienhausen, Regensburg 2013.

One of the possible afterlives of a medieval manuscript, if it did not end up as part of the bindings of a new book, or as lighter paper for a fire, was to end up recycled in the lining of a dress, as a recent post to the Bodleian Library’s Conveyor notes. These parchment-dresses present themselves to us as objects from the past requiring explanation (though the explanations are sometimes more prosaic than we would hope). They also lend themselves to theorisation about the relationship between the categories ‘material’ and ‘textual’, as words detach from their original function and literally become material with which to clothe the body. A recent symposium organised by Sussex’s Centre for Early Modern and Medieval Studies on Modified Bodies and Prosthesis in Medieval and Early Modern England suggested that clothes—most strikingly early modern dresses shaped by stays and corsets—are bodily prostheses (Jenny Tiramani); but so too is clothing inscribed with words, such as parchment charms worn on the body (Margaret Healy). Words, like clothes, can shape and supplement bodies and selves. The medieval and early modern phenomena of textual clothing and material texts, however, are not left to us entirely without comment, nor entirely without theorisation in their own age. That is to say, people then, as now, made parchment-dresses do intellectual work.

There’s a medieval tale of a Parisian scholar who appeared after death to his former master, ‘clad all in parchment written, with small letters written thereon’.1 Unsurprisingly, the dead scholar’s appearance raises questions for the master, one of which concerns the significance of the parchment-dress, and the words written on it: ‘what meant that garment that was so light, & the letters that was written thereupon’. If these things require explanation, the master’s question assumes that at least one thing about this strange scene can be taken for granted: that the garment is ‘light’. He thinks he knows, from experience, the feel and weight of parchment. Logical deduction, however, is precisely what this tale is going to confound. The scholar explains that, in fact, each of the letters written on the parchment ‘are heavier unto me than were the weight of this great church’.

‘Saynt German’ (the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Germain-de-Prés) in Paris.
‘Saynt German’ (the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Germain-de-Prés) in Paris.

The church in question is ‘Saynt German’ (the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Germain-de-Prés) in Paris. The weight of this vast and lofty edifice is the measure of the words of ‘sophisms & subtelties’ with which the scholar had occupied his time in life. So heavy, and so hot, is this dress that the scholar cannot describe, only demonstrate what it is like: he asks his master to put out his hand, onto which falls a drop—of sweat? a word?— which is so hot (or so heavy) that it makes a hole in it. Bearing the hole in his hand for the rest of his life, the master subsequently leaves off logic and becomes a monk.
How much does a medieval cathedral weigh? How many letters are on the parchment-dress? What’s the sum of each letter multiplied by the weight of the cathedral of Saint-Germain? Scholastic wisdom holds ‘sophisms’ (questions used in disputation for logic) and ‘subtelties’ (an extreme refinement of argument) to be, by definition, light: The Middle English Dictionary defines ‘sotilte’, for example, as ‘thinness, slenderness, smallness’. But the scholar’s experience after death shows them to weigh heavy indeed: a single letter is like to the stone and timber and lead of a great gothic structure. Salisbury Cathedral, for instance, was built of seventy thousand tons of stone and over three thousand tons of timber for the roof, which was covered with four hundred and fifty tons of lead. You can do the maths.

In medieval thought, words—even subtle ones—are always material, as another medieval tale found in the same collection shows: if due care is not taken in letting blood, words, along with blood, might accidentally be emptied from the body (See pp. 336-37). What the tale of the Parisian scholar also suggests is that words—spoken or inscribed on parchment—shape and alter the self. In some ways, then, this exemplary tale literalises the medieval understanding that words are material, exerting influence on material forms as well as immaterial selves, accruing and accreting to supplement the body and the way in which it signifies.

The form in which the tale of the parchment-dress survives, however, in turn materialises what is increasingly understood to be the always already prosthetic relationship between books and bodies. The tale ends by relating that the master ‘became a good man; & as long as he lived there was a hole through his hand. Et c.’ There are more words, then, but these are not recorded on the page, and so they are (to us) absent, immaterial, unweighable. Of eight hundred tales, one hundred and fifty end with Et c. Elsewhere Et c follows a rubric, or occurs mid-sentence—for example: ‘And thus because he trespassed in flesh & would not eat flesh when his abbot bade them therefore he was punished in flesh-eating, et c, for his inobediance’ (p. 452). The Et c suggests—what? That the reader can supply the Et c? That there is a generic way of carrying on reading that means the words don’t need to be given in full? Several times ‘ad libitum’ follows the ‘et c’: that is, ‘according to pleasure’. As you please. Whatever you like. However we explain it, the Et c here points out that the relationship between material book and embodied reader is always a prosthetic one, imagination or memory or desire bridging the animate and inanimate, the human and the object. Like the parchment-dress, Et c merely literalizes this relationship and makes the injunction to supplement, to fill in gaps explicit. By the same turn, it also leaves quantifying and qualifying out of reach. The weight of words, the multiple ways in which we wear the books we read, must always, finally, elude us.

 


1An Alphabet of Tales: An English Fifteenth Century Translation of the Alphabetum Narrationum, ed. Mary Macleod Banks, 2 vols. EETS o.s. 126-27 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1904-05), pp. 104-05. I have modernised the orthography.

The Smell of Vellum

As someone who researches olfaction in the renaissance, I’ll confess that vellum catches me off guard. I notice first its velvety smoothness, distinct from other archival materials. The difference is palpable: it is skin. That sensory shock is like others, utterly banal when one considers that most Renaissance books in archives today are bound in leather and yet still surprisingly visceral. It’s then that I notice its smell—distinctive, hard to describe, clinging to my hands after I leave the archive. Animalic, not unpleasant, faint, and unsettlingly familiar. It is skin.

Very young skin, to be exact, that is now very old. From the latin vitulinum and old french vélin, vellum denotes calfskin, though the term often refers to parchment made from sheepskin, goatskin, and perhaps even deerskin, pigskin, squirrel skin, and fish skin. Its supple beauty as parchment belies the sacrifice that came before it, a sacrifice not only of animals (some medieval books required over 500 animal skins to make) but also of humans. This sacrifice can sometimes be seen in the parchment itself. Blood in the animal’s skin at the time of death reveals itself as veins in the finished product, indicating that the animal was hunted and killed rather than slaughtered in a butcher house. Parchment-making was also difficult and skilled labor. Parchmenters collected preserved skins, selected the very best, and then endured the stench of lime-soaked flesh in colder climates and rotting flesh in warmer ones as they worked to transform it into parchment, scraping the hair and fat off of it before stretching it. The act of stretching wet skin as it dries realigns the three-dimensional structure of fibers into a flatter surface closer to the skin itself. The result is a material that is much stronger than leather when dry and much more vulnerable to moisture.

Environment is everything. Too wet and its collagen breaks down into gelatin. Too dry and it becomes brittle and easily breakable. Its smell will tell you a lot about its condition as well as where it has been. For instance, John of Gaunt in Shakspeare’s Richard II (1595) compares England to a book bound in shame “with inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.” In his “Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning” (1598-1603), Nicholas Hilliard compares the very best vellum to the smoothness of “sattine” and goes so far as to suggest that one should only paint its surface in a space “wher neither dust, smoak, noise, nor steanche may offend.” But its smell can also deceive. The narrator in Thomas Dekker’s Lanthorne and Candlelight (1608), for example, warns readers of rogues, who specialize in selling poorly plagiarized books as expensive originals. Though the books are “engrossed in vellum, parchment, or Royall paper,” the work was copied out in an alehouse by an “impudent, ignorant fellow that runnes up and down with the Transcripts.”

Dekker’s warning raises questions about the sensory effects of vellum. But what kind of warning is it? Hilliard’s treatise was written on vellum; Dekker’s was printed on paper. Do such differences matter? What happens if we approach these texts not only as literary and cultural artifacts but also as olfactory ones? Does the smell of Hilliard’s treatise disrupt our understanding of his preference for vellum’s arid smoothness as somewhat fussy? And what of Dekker’s pamphlet, printed by a second-rate printer on cheap paper, also dedicated to a gentleman? Does its smell reveal a new way of understanding his dismissal of the sensory pleasures of better quality materials? Does it render it ironic? Put simply: what happens if we don’t just read Hilliard or Dekker’s books again and again but sniff them?

What I hope to suggest is that, if nothing else, the smell of vellum offers a material and visceral reminder that what we mean by the phrase “old books” varies greatly. The smell of vellum is rarely included in the usual paean to the smell of old books, especially those of pulp-based paperbacks (for which there are even a few fantastic perfumes that mimic it). The olfactory play on skin as medium is perhaps a bit too unsettling, even for perfume lovers, collapsing quickly into dark thoughts about anthropodermic bibliopegy. (Though a few servants in early modern drama embrace such a turn: Dromio of Ephesus in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors reminds his master Antipholus that although he does not remember striking Dromio, the mark of the blows remain on his skin like ink on parchment.) It’s also hard to generalize about the smell of vellum: each piece has its own unique aroma that denotes both its origins and its history. Its slightly spongy surface, especially on its flesh side, tended to absorb grease from handling it, so it was often dusted with pounce, chalk, ash, even powdered glass mixed with bread. But we smell it now as an amalgam of provenance, use, and preservation. Its perfume is both animalic and bibliophilic.

It’s easy to understand why the smell of new vellum is one of Hermione Granger’s favorites in the Harry Potter series, and why it is the scent that is most often used in historical novels to signal a medieval setting vastly different from our own. For those like me who encounter it in archives and libraries attuned to care and preservation (including relying on digital imaging as a way to protect the most fragile and rare manuscripts), it’s hard not to wonder about libraries and scriptoriums of the past and their smell. The rare book room comes close with its aroma of cedar-scented leather thongs, iron pegs, linen thread, wooden frames, traces of pounce, lampblack, glue, goldleaf, and perfumed leather, but it is also modern, with the smell of deodorant, plastic, pencils, notebooks, synthetic fabrics, and silicon mixing with those of the past. Key notes are (hopefully) missing: the stale air of book closets, the breath and sweat of scribes, and the smell of dust, mold, and fire.

For most of us, the experience of smelling vellum is rare and limited to the library (that wedding invitation you received most likely smells of cotton dipped in formaldehyde). Yet, even when it is only imagined, its smell evokes our deeply material connections to books, rooted in the sensory and aesthetic pleasures of reading. The smell of vellum varies and will continue to vary, absorbing the aromas of its environment even as it reveals traces of its past. Its skin, like ours, tells a story of contact. It is an intimate history of use, one we’ve only begun to grapple with as part of the complex history of books. But it is one richly redolent with possibility.