Intellectual history

Imagining the World of Early Print

By guest contributor Devani Singh

"Private Lives of Print: The Use and Abuse of Books 1450 - 1550" at Cambridge University Library. Photo by M. McMahon.
“Private Lives of Print: The Use and Abuse of Books 1450 – 1550” at Cambridge University Library.

Amongst the incunabula or “cradle books” – those produced before 1500, in the infancy of printing – currently on display at the Cambridge University Library is a more recent manuscript. It is an autograph copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili”: a response, in verse, to what the Poet Laureate dubs the “the world’s most unreadable text” of the same name, a dizzying amatory dream narrative printed in Venice in 1499. Like the sonnet response to the book penned by sixteen-year-old Sisto Medici (1501/02 – 1561) on this copy’s title page, Duffy’s poem is an homage to the human relationship with early printed books and texts. “How we know what we love—”, Duffy’s poem wonders, “what we make, or hold, or pass on with our hands”. In this exhibition, “The Private Lives of Print”, focused as it is on celebrating not only the technical achievements of the first European printers, but also books’ subsequent reinventions in the hands of later owners, such lines might serve as an anchor for thinking about encounters with the products of the hand-press period, historical and recent.

England’s first printer, William Caxton, was a mercer by training; he learned the technique for printing books in Cologne, planning to incorporate these new goods into his mercantile business (ODNB). The items that he printed in Flanders supplied the English market abroad with the first books produced in the language. And the texts on display at the University Library confirm that many of the books he and his contemporaries made were intended to travel. Incunabula moved along the familiar Continental trade routes, tracing paths that Caxton had travelled to sell his wares —perhaps even manuscripts — long before he acquired a printing press (ODNB). From printing house to illuminators and binders, from authors to patrons, and from readers old to new, the striking mobility of the early printed volume at the hands of historical agents is underlined here.

A defaced woodcut of Thomas Becket. Cambridge University Library. Photo by M. McMahon.
A defaced page of the life of St. Thomas Becket. Cambridge University Library. Photo by M. McMahon.

One of the exhibition’s centerpieces is a Gutenberg Bible (Mainz, 1455), once used to set copy for a Latin Bible printed in Strasbourg around 1469/1470, and here displayed alongside its exemplar. Paul Needham, who discovered the relationship between these two books, contributes an essay to the CUL’s virtual exhibition, recounting a remarkable narrative of this Gutenberg Bible’s early history that unfolded even as it sat unsold for over a decade (see also his essay here). When early printed books did reach the hands of purchasers, of course, they were often modified further, sometimes irreversibly so. One of the exhibition’s English books is a translation of the Legenda aurea, printed in London by Wynkyn De Worde around 1498/1499. Preserving an act of later censorship, this copy bears a lattice of dark ink across the remaining pages of the life of St. Thomas of Canterbury — the “hooly blissful martyr” of Chaucer’s Tales — whose cult was proscribed in 1538 by Henry VIII.

Some readerly interventions, on the other hand, have been reversed by the classifying tendencies of modern libraries, as in some of Caxton’s works on display: The Boke of Curtesye and Anelida and Arcite, once bound together with six other pamphlets into a reader-assembled composite unit. This volume saw its constituent parts separated into distinct codicological units at the University Library in the mid-nineteenth century (Gillespie, “Poets, Printers, and Early English Sammelbände”, 195). Here, an attempt is made to restore the pamphlets’ earlier configuration, as the curators return the eight booklets to proximity, inviting us to imaginatively reconstruct their existence in prior centuries as a single book.

Both edifying and divertive acts of reading are documented, sometimes in the same volume, as in a popular Latin volume on the Trojan war printed at Messina in 1498 composed of Dictys Cretensis’ De bello troiano and Dares Phrygius’ De excidio Troiae historia. One reader rendered full-page ink drawings of Roland and Hector on the book’s endpapers, transcribing additional Latin verse alongside them. But most visually arresting, perhaps, are not the drawings and dense annotations added to some books, nor even the sumptuous professional gilding and hand-coloured woodcuts that adorn the more lavish volumes in the collection, asserting the reliance of the new trade in printed books on familiar ways of beautifying them.

Rather, the eye is drawn to a group of books near the far end of the Milstein Exhibition Centre, showcasing a range of bindings in which contemporary owners covered their books. Their descriptions alone evoke the bindings’ sensuous quality — for instance, that of the delicate humanist knot-tooling on a black goatskin binding of Cornelius Nepos’ Vitae Excellentium Imperatorum (Venice, 1471), or of the pink-stained alum-tawed sheepskin that encloses a monastic copy of Cicero (Cologne, 1472). These tangible relics of previous owners and past readings permit an imaginative encounter with the people who made, cared for, and used these volumes, and with the myriad motivations these historical agents brought to their encounters with the leather, metal, wood, paper, ink, or vellum that comprise the books seen here.

The frisson that we experience from our own encounters with material texts is no doubt heightened by an awareness of their movement across time and through unknowable pairs of hands — what Duffy’s poem calls “the human chain”. That early printed texts often preserve both the intentionality and idle whims of their makers and readers is a substantial facet of their attractiveness.

Yet the CUL incunabula also speak productively of absences. One composite volume of three texts printed at Louvain in the 1480s tells of another type of chain — this one physically lacking, but evident from holes in its distinctive binding. This missing chain tethered the bound book to a lectern, probably in a Cambridge library, in the late fifteenth century.

In the case of this Cambridge book, in the compilation described above, or in the sole extant leaf of a broadside almanac offering guidance of the appropriate purging regimens for a given place (Budapest) and a given year (1475), we encounter early printed books and texts differently than their first readers did. The text of broadsides like this one would lose utility and thus, value outside of their localised geographical and temporal contexts, and were likely recycled for their physical material. This ephemerality is instructive, and grants the space to interpret archival absences. In doing so, we might better apprehend the loss, mutability, and destruction — both intentional and inevitable — that necessarily characterise the history of early printed texts.

Private Lives of Print: The Use and Abuse of Books 1450-1550 is curated by Ed Potten and is on display at the Milstein Exhibition Centre, Cambridge University Library, until April 11, 2015.

Devani Singh is a Gates Cambridge Scholar completing a Ph.D. in English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where she is studying early modern readers of Chaucer’s printed editions. She is also interested in Renaissance historiography and in early modern uses of medieval books and texts.

Intellectual history

The Republic of Intellectual History

If the Republic of Letters occasionally meets for coffee or conferences, so too do intellectual historians often come together for talks, regular workshops, and summer schools. The editors at JHIBlog hope to increasingly encourage and promote these events with your help. We will soon have a calendar of events on the website, with readers encouraged to submit news of interesting happenings both in intellectual history as well as related fields. Here we certainly want to look further afield. If the discipline itself has ambitions to a global scope, intellectual history is being practiced globally as well. Here such organizations as the International Network for the Theory of History have begun paving the way for collaborations and contacts, particularly in their handy listing of conferences which will interest intellectual historians of all stripes. Yet not all traditions of doing intellectual history are converging—nor should they, necessarily. This makes for a variegated and exciting map which we hope readers from all over the world can help fill in over time. And hopefully we can do our part in fostering this community.

So without further ado, here are a few events, workshops, exhibitions, and programs which the editors look forward to participating in (or very much wish we could attend–would any readers like to contribute their impressions?):

Events, lectures, and conferences


Programs and exhibitions:

What have we missed? Please let us know in the comments!

Intellectual history

JHI 76:1 Now Available Online

We’re pleased to note that the January 2015 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (volume 76 issue 1) is now available at Project Muse, with the print edition sent out to subscribers shortly. As you’ll see from the table of contents, the articles in this issue all share connections to the history of science and philosophy, from early modern Aristotelianism to twentieth-century American anthropology:

Marco Sgarbi, Benedetto Varchi on the Soul: Vernacular Aristotelianism between Reason and Faith, pp. 1-23

Lucian Petrescu, Cartesian Meteors and Scholastic Meteors: Descartes against the School in 1637, pp. 25-45

Katherine Butler, Myth, Science, and the Power of Music in the Early Decades of the Royal Society, pp. 47-68

Francesco Bellucci, Logic, Psychology, and Apperception: Charles S. Peirce and Johann F. Herbart, pp. 69-91

Stephanie L. Schatz, Lewis Carroll’s Dream-child and Victorian Child Psychopathology, pp. 93-114

David Greenham, “Altars to the Beautiful Necessity”: The Significance of F. W. J. Schelling’s “Philosophical Inquiries in the Nature of Human Freedom” in the Development of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concept of Fate, pp. 115-137

Gabriel Alejandro Torres Colón and Charles A. Hobbs, The Intertwining of Culture and Nature: Franz Boas, John Dewey, and Deweyan Strands of American Anthropology, pp. 139-162

Of course, you’ll need an individual subscription, or be connected to an institutional network with a subscription, in order to access the articles. If you’d like to receive your own print copy (and support the excellent work that our friends at the Journal do), consider subscribing!

Intellectual history

January events in Paris for intellectual history

by John Raimo

Here at the JHI blog, we hope to soon share more news about upcoming events for intellectual historians of all stripes wherever they may be. A calendar is in the works. The coming weeks in Paris, however, have so many interesting events that they certainly warrant a blog posting of their own in the meantime. So without further ado, you’ll find here a few talks and conferences to consider attending should you find yourselves in Paris just now (and a little luck will see some reporting on one or two of them):

Intellectual history

History of Ideas at the AHA

by Emily Rutherford

AHA2015 logo
JHIBlog readers attending the American Historical Association Annual Meeting might be interested in the following sessions, just a few highlights amid the smorgasbord on offer. Visit the official Program for detailed panel descriptions and information about location and session participants:

Friday, 1-3pm

13. History of the Human Sciences
19. “Of Numbers’ Use, the Endless Might”: Research at the Intersection of History and Mathematics
26. The Resurgence of Science in Historical Method

Friday, 3.30-5.30pm

Magna Carta in the Age of Enlightenment, Revolution, and Empire: Rethinking Constitutional History on the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta

Saturday, 8.30-10am

65. Challenging and Extending Reinhart Koselleck’s Theories of Historical Time
79. Political Philosophy across Translingual and Transnational Confucian Heritages
87. Toward a Trans-imperial Intellectual History of Central Eurasia, 1644–1820
Association of Ancient Historians 1. Inside the Minds of Ancient Writers: Investigating Polybius, Livy, Tacitus, and Procopius in the Historical Period from the Second Century BCE to the Seventh Century CE

Saturday, 10.30am-12pm

92. Historians as Public Intellectuals in Comparative National Context
114. Provincializing European Intellectual History

Saturday, 2.30-4.30pm

142. Religion in Europe after the “Secular” 1960s
Toynbee Prize Lecture: From Globalization to Global Warming: A Historiographical Transition
Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing: The Practice of Book History: Between and beyond Disciplines

Sunday, 9-11am

162. From Source to Subject: Historical Writing and the “Archival Turn”
175. The Future of the Book Review

Sunday, 11.30-1.30pm

Conference on Latin American History 36: Education in the Nineteenth-Century Americas
189. America and the Left: Past and Present

Sunday, 2.30-4.30pm

224. History and Literature: The State of the Relationship
228. New Meanings, Old Words: Muslim Reading Practices across Time and Space
241. Toward a Global History of Sexual Science, c. 1900-70, Part 1: Global Transfers of Sexual Knowledge: Dubbing, Appropriations, and Translations
American Society of Church History 27: Confessional Boundaries in the Reformation Era

Monday, 8.30-10.30am

Toward a Global History of Sexual Science, c. 1900-70, Part 2: Sexual Science as a Global Formation: The Multi-directionality of Intellectual Exchange

Monday, 11am-1pm

291. The Transnational Politics of Journalism in Early Postwar Germany

Also of special interest to modern intellectual historians are the series of Presidential Sessions on “Reassessing the Influence of Classic Theory on Historical Practice”; these are indicated in the print program with a gavel icon and are summarized here. And of course, don’t miss the plenary session, “The New York Public Library Controversy and the Future of the American Research Library,” on Friday evening, and 2014 President Jan Goldstein’s Presidential Address, “Toward an Empirical History of Moral Thinking: The Case of Racial Theory in Mid-Nineteenth Century France,” on Saturday evening.

Keep an eye out for us, too! Two out of three JHIBlog editors will be gallivanting about the meeting, and I’ll be tweeting @echomikeromeo. If you recognize us in the flesh, say hi!

Intellectual history

Welcome to JHIBlog!

Welcome to the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas. We are excited to bring together today’s varied, burgeoning conversations in the field of intellectual history, broadly conceived. The JHI‘s founder, Arthur Lovejoy, and his successors have shown intellectual history to be ecumenical and expansive by nature. As per the Journal, intellectual history broadly concerns the histories of philosophy, of literature and the arts, of the natural and social sciences, of religion, of political thought, of the practice of scholarship, and of books and their readers. This larger notion encompasses other fields; indeed, intellectual history necessarily borders cultural history and encourages scholarship bridging several domains and practices. Similarly, the JHI has always insisted upon the widest regional, chronological, and methodological range of interests.

This makes for a hard act for a blog to follow. Yet such broader discussions merit further reflection in ways a blog is well-equipped to carry out: covering events and field developments as they happen, and providing perspective from researchers like ourselves who are just beginning their careers as intellectual historians. We feel that intellectual history by nature closely responds to the history writing practiced both within and beyond the academy. The concerns we as historians share with our readers form a separate historical record. Our blog will track and hopefully contribute to this ongoing discussion. This includes drawing attention to scholarly controversies, intellectual trends, and public debates as much as to exciting new research itself. In other words, we believe intellectual history spans the earliest classics to trending subjects on Twitter (where you can follow us at @jhideas). The wonderful freedom which the field affords hence invites commentary not only from us as editors of the blog, but also from you the reader. And if we do our job, it should prove exciting to follow from day to day.

We have great models to follow. Nursing Clio, Immanent Frame, In the Middle, The Appendix and above all the Society for U.S. Intellectual History blog are some of our great inspirations—and favorite readings!—alongside the JHI itself. We intend to follow their example by commenting on scholarly happenings, broaching different controversies, following the news from the angle of intellectual history (which will include weekly link round-ups from around the web), and conducting occasional interviews and round table-style conversations. This also includes inviting frequent guest contributions, reporting on conferences, and (in time) assembling an events calendar for intellectual historians of all stripes. Naturally, the blog will prove experimental and contingent in all the best ways. Readers’ comments will be more than welcome throughout and, we hope, will help create the same sort of vibrant communities which our online role-models maintain. This means adding to and expanding a lively discussion already in place so far as intellectual history goes, like our parent journal focusing on but not confining ourselves to European intellectual history.

Given our reading practices, a blog can broaden our encounters with intellectual history. The JHI was conceived in the 1940s as a print journal, and continues to be to this day. Yet many of us download separate articles from this or that academic journal, and scan the contents of book reviews for books related to our separate niches in the field. This blog is intended for the medium in which it will be read—we hope that the ability to scroll through and jump from a variety of posts will help to broaden readers’ horizons and open up new possibilities for research. We aim to follow the example of the JHI in the sheer range of topics which we and our contributors aim to introduce and explore before a wider audience. The Journal’s most recent issues run the gamut from werewolves, Machiavelli, and music in ancient Egypt to ancient Platonism, homosexuality in Victorian England, and lexicography. Our hope is that the blog will follow suit.

We certainly have our work cut out for us as editors. You can read about us and our interests in the “About” page. We recognize that we are not representative of all intellectual historians, whether in America or the rest of the world. Here we expect our readers to help push the blog outwards, and we hope that you will challenge us in the comments below every post as well as writing us if there are subjects, events, or recent publications that you would like to see us cover. We intend to invite contributions from younger non-Anglophone historians and historians of the non-Western world, as well as from classicists, art historians, theologians, philosophers, scientists, publishers, and lawyers, among others. If you work in the field of intellectual history and have an idea for a guest post, we also welcome pitches to our editorial email address. In other words, this blog will remain a work in progress—just as intellectual history itself always proves. We’re excited to get started.

— Emily, John, and Madeline