Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.06


Sandra L. Hindman (ed.), Printing the Written Word: The Social History of Books, circa 1450-1520. Ithaca: Cornell Unversity Press, 1991. Pp. 336; 80 b&w illustrations. $45.00 (hb). $14.95 (pb). Ithaca: ISBN 0-8014-2578-6 (hb). ISBN 0-8014-9902-X (pb).


Reviewed by Barbara Halporn, Indiana University.

Recent scholarship on the history of the book bridges the gap between manuscript and incunabula studies. Paleographers and codicologists used to reserve their skills exclusively for manuscript books, and bibliographers of the incunable period focused only on printed books. Printing the Written Word, the papers of an interdisciplinary conference organized by its editor, S. Hindman, demonstrates the value of this fresh approach.

The papers, organized into three sections: "Printers," "Authors and Artists," and "Readers," speak of the book as a "carrier of relationships" to use N. Z. Davis's perceptive phrase. In her introduction, Hindman places these papers in the context of current debates about the history of printing as represented by Elizabeth Eisenstein, Anglo-American analytical bibliography, and the "histoire du livre." Prof. Hindman and the others in this volume place the early printed book and its production in its social and economic context.

Sheila Edmunds, "From Schoeffer to Vérard," examines and challenges a commonly held view that many professional scribes became printers in the early period of printing. She shows that while some scribes (most notably Peter Schoeffer) did bring their skills and sense of the market for books into the new craft, these transitional figures were unusual.

The disparate fortunes of two printers who produced elaborately illustrated books are set out by Martha Tedeschi, "Publish and Perish: The Career of Lienhart Holle in Ulm" and Sandra Hindman, "The Career of Guy Marchant (1483-1504): High Culture and Low Culture in Paris." Both Tedeschi and Hindman explore the commercial and aesthetic decisions that led the one printer to ruin, the other to financial success.

In the section "Authors and Artists," three essays examine the relationships that developed between the printers and the authors and artists with whom they collaborated: Cynthia J. Brown, "Text, Image, and Authorial Self-Consciousness in Late Medieval Paris"; Eberhard König, "New Perspectives on the History of Mainz Printing: A Fresh Look at Illuminated Imprints"; Lilian Armstrong, "The Impact of Printing on Miniaturists in Venice after 1469." These case studies are useful and suggestive, but can only offer a glimpse of this unexplored area.

If our attempts to understand the transition from script to print, from scribe to printer are daunting, the search for the reader of these early printed books proves still more frustrating. But the ways people read and used books have become the subject of analysis and scrutiny under the influence of Robert Darnton and Roger Chartier. The essays in the section "Readers" contributed by Lotte Hellinga, "Importation of Books Printed on the Continent into England and Scotland before c. 1520" and by Paul Saenger and Michael Heinlen, "Incunable Description and Its Implication for the Analysis of Fifteenth-Century Reading Habits" are provisional in nature and tentative in their conclusions. Nevertheless Saenger and Heinlen have demonstrated how much can be learned about readers when the cataloging of incunabula includes detailed information about readers' notes and other marks readers use to make the texts their own.

Michael Camille, "Reading the Printed Image: Illuminations and Woodcuts of the Pelèrinage de la vie humaine in the Fifteenth Century," draws on cognitive psychology and reception aesthetics to explore the reader's experience of the illustrations of a book that was popular both in manuscript and print. The availability of this text in both forms enables Camille to "explore the transformations of pictorial narrative in the change from scribal to print culture..." This approach yields some fresh observations, among them a suggestion that the printer's economical practice of reusing woodcuts helps the reader by offering a repetition of familiar figures. Perhaps most striking of all, however, is his observation that the "most radical shift in this text's visualization occurs not when it is translated from one language or form to another ... but when it speaks a new presentational 'language' in the medium of print."

"Mementos of Things to Come: Orality, Literacy, and Typology in the Biblia pauperum" by Tobin Nellhaus takes a look at this well-known but problematic blockbook printed around 1460. He moves beyond the bibliographical puzzles of this book to examine how its structure encourages the reader to use typological strategies to unravel the complex composition of the illustrated page. Nellhaus sees the Biblia pauperum as a book to aid personal meditation, whose conceptualization rested on both oral and literate strategies of thought.

All such collections are uneven and where the unevenness lies depends greatly on the interests of the reader. As the editor tells us, the participants in the conference consciously turned away from the approach that Eisenstein set forth to work toward an alternative synthesis, "the integration of the book into society." It is a worthy goal, and one difficult to achieve in a conference. Some essays in particular seemed to me offer promise that the history of the transition from the manuscript to the printed book will be integrated into its social, intellectual and economic context.