Category Archives: book history

reflecting on early modern printing

Learning about the printing process and the production of Shakespeare’s First Folio has made us aware of how commercially charged and collaborative the composition of a book was. We found that commercial value and shared authorship were most vital for understanding the functioning of the literary sector in the early modern period; we were not aware of how important these aspects were prior to studying the module. 

The significance of the paratextual material included in books illuminates the collaborative effort of printing; the sections from other writers discussing the text, notes from the ‘author’ and title pages to publicise printing houses (to name a few paratextual inclusions) simultaneously remove value from the text and insert value into the paratext, which suggests that books were not only produced for distributing single texts but for distributing ideas, concepts, and advertisements of services. 

The printing of a book was not the organised process that it is today and edits had to made to rectify the countless mistakes that had occurred. Signature marks, pagination, and press-figures distinguish printing houses and individual printers. These are key indicators for identifying whether a book is authentic or not; for example, signing a book with an asterisk suggested that although the text was in English, it wasn’t originally and was therefore a translation. This is extremely important to note when analysing a text, because editorship becomes transnational, and therefore possibly biased. Frequent edits by the Master of the Revels, Tilney, constituted a large part of the paratext of early modern books. The extent of Shakespeare and his contemporary’s play’s censorship is identifiable from the annotations, attached notes, or in some cases large marks of crossing out. 

The small annotations and scribbles seen in early modern printed books adds humanity to the collaborative nature of printing, helping a 21stcentury viewer of the pages be able to imagine the reality of the different people involved in printing a book. We didn’t realise that Shakespeare wasn’t involved in the composition of the First Folio, which brings into question the validity of his ‘works’. Since the paratextual collaborations were such a major part of early modern books, we can infer that a large amount of collaboration went into producing Shakespeare’s works; since Shakespeare himself wasn’t alive to contest editing of his material we view his plays less as beacons of his sole genius, but as confirmation that he was a hard-working but collaborative author. 

Going forward, we will approach early modern books and Shakespeare plays differently, seeing them as demonstrations of compiled talent, as opposed to a creation of a single author. Since books were subject to alterations due to lack of quality, we want to remove our subconscious belief that a published early modern book is superior to an unpublished manuscript. This principle can also be applied to other modules like Women on Trial; performance pieces that aren’t included in books can be viewed as equally as valuable as published pieces. 

Elli, Becky, Kelly, Sophia, Luke

Renaissance Book History: A Trip Back in Time

One thing is for sure, and that’s that printing during the Renaissance was a meticulous system.

This week, our lectures and a visit to the Newcastle library archive have taught us a LOT about early modern books and their complex composition. In this post, I will first venture into the world of a professional printing work space, discussing step-by-step the process of turning an author’s manuscript from ink on a page to a real, saleable print. Secondly, I will discuss our trip to the library archives, comparing the books we looked at with contemporary examples and considering other useful information.

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Readership – Then and Now

The group was this week tasked with discussing the rather ominous topic of contemporary and Elizabethan readership. Conversation regarding our own reading experiences is all well and good, after all, but how can one truly get into the mindset of individuals who went about their lives centuries before our own? When reading through the Peter Stallybrass and Roger Chartier’s Reading and Authorship: The Circulation of Shakespeare 1590-1619, we identified several names of friends and associates of Shakespeare, with Sarah, Hannah and Phoebe tackling the various readers specifically and Jack deciding to look more in depth at the role of commonplace books for the everyday Shakespearean reader.

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