Tag Archives: print

Chaucer and Science – an exhibition

This post introduces an exhibition to coincide with the Biennial London Chaucer Conference  on the theme of Science, Magic and Technology. It runs from 29th June to 12th July at Senate  House library.

Senate House Library often puts on displays to support conferences. It’s a win-win situation: the conference is enhanced by the books or manuscripts shown, and the Library demonstrates a sample of the richness of its holdings and the relevance of its material for research. This is the second time that it is supporting the biennial London Chaucer conference. Last time it exhibited a range of editions of Chaucer, from Richard Pynson’s 1492 printing of the Canterbury Tales onwards, and including private press editions noteworthy for their production as ‘books beautiful’. This time we broadened the display to fit the theme of ‘Science, Magic and Technology’, focussing on the science – more specifically, on astronomy and astrology.

From Chaucer's 'Knight's Tale' in 1550 edition of Chaucer's 'Workes'
‘The Workes of Geffray Chaucer Newly Printed’
Geoffrey Chaucer
London: R. Toy, [1550?]
[S.L.] I [Chaucer – 1532] fol.
We still showed a couple of early editions of Chaucer: his Workes from about 1550 (ESTC S122266), open at the ‘Knight’s Tale’ because that tale is rich in astrological symbolism, and the Workes from 1532 (the first complete edition of Chaucer) because it provides the earliest printed appearance of Chaucer’s Treatise of the Astrolabe. And we fetched out some other examples of medieval literature: a 1554 edition of Gower’s Confessio Amantis (in part imbued with astrology), and an illustrated edition of Dante’s Comedy from 1544, showing Dante’s paradise of nine concentric circles around the earth.


'Philosophia Naturalis, Compendium Clarissimi Philosophi Pauli Veneti' Paul of Venice Paris: J. Lambert, [ca. 1515?] M [Paulus] SR
‘Philosophia Naturalis, Compendium Clarissimi Philosophi Pauli Veneti’
Paul of Venice
Paris: J. Lambert, [ca. 1515?]
M [Paulus] SR
But we also used early scientific works. Possibly the rarest item, and the item with the most illustrative appeal, is Philosophia Naturalis, by Paul of Venice (ca 1368-1428), printed in Paris in about 1515. Despite its comprehensive title, this book comprises just one work, De Compositione Mundi – an abbreviated Latin version of the thirteenth-century monk Ristoro d’Arezzo’s Composizione del Mondo, written in about 1282. The Composizione, itself based on work by Ptolemy, Aristotle, Averroes and others, is the first astronomical work to have been written in Italian; a further claim to fame is that it may have influenced Dante, who influenced Chaucer.


Visit the exhibition  at Senate House Library (4th floor, Senate House), 29 June – 12 July 2015. Available during Senate House Library opening hours: Mon. – Fri. 9.00-17.45; Sat. 9.45-17.15.


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!