Tudor Books and Readers: 1485-1603

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  • Circumstances may dictate changes in this provisional program. In particular, the final selection of rare books for display at our workshops is at the discretion of librarians and/or curators.

  • Our foreign-based hosts require advance payment for lodging and, in the case of our visit to Oxford, partial board. Participants will be unable to make alternative arrangements for lodging or partial board. In order to participate in this program, individuals will need to return a signed form that grants permission to James Madison University to deduct expenses for lodging and partial board from the seminar stipend. Participants will receive a check for the remainder prior to departure.

  • Topics for daily discussion only suggest points of departure for seminar participants. They are not prescriptive, but open to development within the Seminar's broad focus on Tudor book history and the history of reading. 

  • Participants are expected to prepare for this program through advance reading of Philip Gaskell’s exposition of the technology of printing during the era of the hand press in A New Introduction to Bibliography (pp. 1-185). His account provides essential background for our program.

          Antwerp and Oxford are twin poles of our study of hand-press book production, the history of the book, and the history of reading. We will begin with a four-night visit to Antwerp in order to investigate the technology of the hand-press at the Plantin-Moretus Museum. As the sole surviving Renaissance printing and publishing house, this UNESCO World Heritage Site preserves unrivaled resources for the study of early printing. Our guided tour and workshops at this site will throw light on the nature of England’s insular printing trade, which relied heavily on the importation of books and domesticated patterns of production characteristic of the far larger trade in books in continental Europe. Tudor readers regularly observed how domestically produced books were inferior in craftsmanship to continental books.

          Exemplifying the entire process of printing and publication, Christoph Plantin’s printing establishment houses the world’s only collection of working models of antique hand presses. It is therefore the only place in the world where we may witness production processes identical to those used in Tudor England. This Renaissance edifice incorporates its original type foundry, proofreading room, and book shop; the largest surviving collection of early modern type fonts; and archives concerning early book production. In addition to organizing a private demonstration of 1) fabrication and setting of type and 2) operation of a hand-operated press, the co-directors will collaborate with Professor Guido Latré in conducting guided tours of the museum and Antwerp’s old town center. Supplementing these activities, a rare-book workshop will allow for hands-on study of the immediate context for the publication of illicit books intended to be smuggled from the Low Countries into Tudor England. In addition, Dr. Gergely Juhász plans to conduct a seminar on William Tyndale’s exile in Antwerp. Our hotel is close to the site where his translation was printed prior to being smuggled into England.

          Stopping in London for three days as we travel from Antwerp to Oxford will allow us to organize a workshop at Senate House Library, University of London. Curators may display books drawn from among 134 incunabula (i.e., books printed before 1500) owned by the library. Curators are willing to display other items which may include the first edition of Sir Thomas More’s Supplication of Souls, a 1550 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, 1554 editions of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis and Boccaccio’s Falls of Sundry Most Notable Princes, Sir John Harington’s 1591 verse translation of Lodovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a 1598 edition of Chaucer’s works, and the 1581 English transation of Seneca’s tragedies, which afforded examples of Revenge Tragedy for Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Participants will be able to conduct individual research at the British Library. Not only are many of the most important Tudor books on permanent display, books available for consultation may include Caxton’s translation of The Golden Legend, the most celebrated collection of medieval saints’ lives; the exceedingly rare first complete edition of Tyndale’s English New Testament and a deluxe copy of a later edition printed in Antwerp and owned by Henry VIII’s ill-fated wife, Anne Boleyn; and Holinshed’s Chronicles and the Mirror for Magistrates, from which Shakespeare extracted material for his history plays. Participants will have an opportunity to conduct further research into rare books and manuscripts housed at the world’s premier library collection.

          Moving from London to Oxford, we will reside at St. Edmund Hall for the remaining four weeks of our program. Oxford’s chief attraction, the Bodleian Library, offers participants access to one of the world’s strongest collections for the study of Tudor print culture, which they may study in the fifteenth-century library donated by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Harry Potter aficionados will recognize it as the cinematic setting for the library of Hogwarts School. Duke Humfrey’s Library remains open during the present renovation of the Bodleian Library. Participants may consult topographical and musicological material in Duke Humfrey’s Library, in addition to rare books permanently shelved in the late fifteenth-century book stalls at the Arts end of the reading room. During the renovation period, the majority of the Bodleian’s rare books and manuscripts may be consulted in a temporary Special Collections Reading Room which has been established in the Radcliffe Science Library. Founded at the outset of the reign of Henry VII, Duke Humphrey’s Library is the core collection of the University Library, which underwent re-foundation by Sir Thomas Bodley shortly before the death of Elizabeth I. In addition to the Bodleian, seminar participants may arrange to visit other archives in Oxford, including the Taylor Institution Library and Oxford college libraries.

          Because we are sensitive to the fullness of our schedule during Week Two (our first week in Oxford), we plan to intersperse a variety of orientation and program activities. Monday features an introduction to the history of the Bodleian Library by David Vaisey, Bodley’s Librarian Emeritus. To the degree that it is permitted during the renovation, he plans to lead our group on a guided tour of the Library. A walking tour on Tuesday may include visits to Corpus Christi College, which was founded during the reign of Henry VIII, and Magdalen College. Our orientation will conclude with a reception and dinner on Wednesday evening.

          Week Two will continue with discussion of the role played by typography in guiding both learned readers of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and unlearned readers whose literacy was confined to the vernacular. In doing so, we may assess whether the rate and nature of literacy differed between men and women and evaluate the social category of the Tudor female reader more generally. Germane to our investigation is the nature of black letter type (i.e., type modeled on late medieval handwriting). Now-familiar roman type became the dominant force in English printing by the end of the Tudor era, but it had prevailed on the Continent much earlier.

          We also plan to consider the importance of format and layout in the marketing and reading of books. Expansive editions in folio format (i.e., books printed on large sheets of paper that were folded once in the manner of modern newspapers) dominated fifteenth-century English printing, whereas sixteenth-century printers favored smaller formats (i.e., books in which large sheets were folded two, three, or more times). We may consider recent arguments that bigger books may have been more cost-efficient than books in smaller formats because they could require as much or more paper than folios for the printing of texts of comparable length. Folios could challenge readers daunted by the sheer size of such books, but indexes and other aids permitted readers to browse in addition to reading books from beginning to end. This week would close with a rare book exhibition and workshop at the Bodleian Library, where we plan to display books ranging from the largest Tudor folios (e.g., the Great Bible and folio editions of Chaucer’s Works) to books in diminutive formats. Our workshop would provide insight into why the survival rate of large folios tends to be much higher than that of many books in small formats. After all, many large books have remained –  sometimes unread – for hundreds of years in private and institutional libraries, in contrast to small books that passed through the hands of many readers. Indeed, ephemeral books that were especially popular were often “read to death” and disappeared due to intensive reading.

          We plan to consider influential approaches to the history of reading during our opening meeting in Week Three. These may include discussion of how readers use books and how hand-written marginalia can offer insight into the mentalities of readers. We may also evaluate studies that challenge long-accepted claims that the reading habits of Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and William Tyndale embody progress beyond authoritarian reading practices of late-medieval defenders of Roman Catholicism such as Sir Thomas More. In considering the printing and reception of Shakespeare’s plays, the ensuing session may consider marketing strategies employed by publishers and booksellers. It may be, as some scholars have posited, that books containing a single play represented an attractive investment opportunity for book sellers. After all, single-play editions consumed less paper and were therefore less costly and risky than collections of plays. Furthermore, publishers were more likely to reprint single-play books than collections. This session may also take up the recent proposal that Shakespeare revised his plays specifically for readers of printed editions.

          We plan to close this week by conducting an exhibition and workshop on book illustration at Merton College library, the oldest continuously functioning library in England. We plan to investigate 1) illumination (i.e., illustration by hand) of late medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and printed books and 2) illustration of printed books with woodcuts and engravings. Book historians are interested in how the use of illumination makes early folios look like more expensive manuscripts rather than less expensive printed books. John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, whose printer made a risky investment when he commissioned the many woodcuts for use only in this massive collection, exemplifies the fact that woodcuts were expensive commodities that could drive up the price of books. One of the most influential Elizabethan books, it contains numerous propagandistic pictures of alleged heretics being tortured and burned alive. We may consider how readers’ inscriptions exaggerated the pathos of these pictures or mocked them as propagandistic frauds. We may also consider books and poster-like broadsheets that contain copperplate engravings, which involved different production processes than woodcuts.

          We will begin Week 4 with a session that considers the impact of gender and social rank on the selection of reading matter. We may consider resistance to an act of Parliament that extended permission for silent reading of the Bible only to upper-class women. A gentlewoman named Anne Askew cleverly deployed her reading of the New Testament against interrogators, who charged her with encouraging surreptitious reading on the part of Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. Prefaces, printed marginal glosses, and other aids inserted into early editions of the English Bible exemplify disagreement over whether lay people, especially men and women of the lower classes, possessed the capacity to understand scriptural texts on their own. Building upon rare book exhibitions at the Senate House Library and Bodleian Library, we may consider ways in which the translators and editors attempted to facilitate or restrict interpretation of this particular text. We may conclude by investigating how the translators of the King James Bible (1611), which remained the standard translation until the twentieth century, incorporated wording based upon versions by Tyndale and other Tudor translators.

          In considering book use, collecting, and reading during the ensuing discussion meeting, we may consider issues of vital concern to book historians. For example, the formation of
Henry VIII’s personal library exemplifies how he abandoned his father’s taste for late medieval chivalric literature in favor of works of serious scholarship. Antiquarians also preserved medieval manuscripts and printed books by transferring them from recently confiscated monastic libraries into royal collections. Some of these books were read anachronistically in support of Henry’s campaign to divorce Catherine of Aragon, and also as a part of broader attempts to justify Protestantism in the face of Catholic critique. We may furthermore consider how the ancient practice of reading books continuously from beginning to end coexisted with discontinuous reading (i.e., browsing) facilitated by the use of indexes, concordances, marginal glosses, and other aids. Finally, we may give thought to how and why readers marked up books by inserting emphatic symbols, marginal notes, and other forms of commentary. Such additions provide valuable insight into how readers made sense of books, as is the case in a copy of the first printed edition of Piers Plowman, a notable medieval visionary allegory. A copy preserved at the Bodleian library demonstrates that at least one reader disagreed strenuously with the editor’s opinion that this poem functions as a prophecy of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

          Our final workshop will take place at the seventeenth-century library at St. John’s College, where participants may engage in hands-on study of rare books selected to fit the subject of our program. In addition to preserving book stalls and benches used by early modern readers, this library contains a rare example of a book that is still chained in place in order to prevent theft. This workshop will begin with examination of a manuscript of John Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes that Caxton’s successor used as the basis for his 1500 edition. It is bound with a copy of Caxton’s edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that contains hand-painted woodcut illustrations. In order to display the transition from manuscript to print, we plan to compare it with the illustrated medieval manuscript of The Canterbury Tales which may be included during the earlier visit to the library at Corpus Christi College. Other books on display will enable us to assess the very different publishing styles, typography, and book layout employed by William Tyndale’s printers in Antwerp and Thomas More’s publishers in London. The first editions of the collected English works of Tyndale and More will enable us to evaluate these bookmen respectively as leading proponents of Protestant reform and religious orthodoxy during the reign of Henry VIII. Books from the library of Sir Thomas Tresham, a landed gentleman impoverished by fines levied by Elizabeth I, provides insight into the reading preferences and mentality of an aristocrat who opposed royal edicts.

          We shall devote our final week in Oxford to the study of a) prominent Tudor readers who left substantial records of their reading in the form of hand-written marginal annotation and b) broader assumptions concerning the ways in which the history of reading informs issues of periodization, the literary history of the Tudor era, and more. At the very end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the gentlewoman Margaret Hoby kept a diary that provides evidence of her daily reading to members of her household. Marginal notes inscribed by John Dee, the astrologer of Elizabeth I, and Gabriel Harvey, the Cambridge scholar, reveal extensive traces of their reading. In the ensuing session, we may evaluate the applicability of theoretical models concerning the study of books and reading during the whole of the Tudor era. Period labels such as “Renaissance” or even “early modern” fail to explain the continuities and discontinuities associated with the reading of books from Caxton to Shakespeare. A concluding symposium will focus not only on participants’ individual and collective findings, but also on how they may apply their results in teaching, scholarship, publication of books and articles, and so forth.

          In general, we plan to conduct no more than two three-hour-long discussion sessions plus one book-oriented workshop each week. Our program includes one long weekend in order to provide participants with an opportunity to leave Oxford to conduct research at the British Library, Cambridge University Library, or other major collections. We will invite participants to suggest specific titles for display, which they would have an opportunity to introduce if they wish to do so. We plan to facilitate collegial exploration of shared concerns by opening meetings with introductory remarks designed to outline issues that might profit from discussion, but we expect participants to collaborate in defining and pursuing our agenda. From the second week they will be able to volunteer presentations concerning their research or pedagogical methods and will be able to lead the group in discussion of secondary readings. Seminar discussions and book exhibitions will provide a backdrop to the participants’ individual research programs, which might take the form of a written paper, annotated bibliography, or the enhancement of teaching and/or other work-in-progress. Individuals will have an opportunity to share ideas by circulating papers and other documents during the course of our seminar.

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