Object Lessons: Manuscript and the Print Devolution (RBS-Mellon Symposium)

Date: 21 April 2017
Time: 12:00–5:30 p.m.
Location: Sinclair Suite, Texas Union 3.128, University of Texas at Austin
Presented by: The Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School and the University of Texas at Austin Department of English

An oft-repeated narrative of epochal change posits that the invention of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century was one that fundamentally—and immediately—propelled the medieval world into modernity. Scholarship on fifteenth-century manuscript production and the economies of the late-medieval book trade, however, reveals a complex and vibrant manuscript culture—networks of scribes, illuminators, and workshops, booksellers and readers—that did not simply cease to exist after the advent of print. The arrival of William Caxton’s press to England in 1476 would have introduced scales of production previously unknown in the country, but continuities in the format, decoration, and materials associated with book manufacture suggest that the production of handwritten documents need not have diminished. The production of and trade in early printed books has been well documented, but little has been said about the fate of the manuscript after the advent of print.

This symposium explores the role of the manuscript in an increasingly mechanized literary world, theorizing the notion of a “print devolution,” a paradoxical increase in the authority, desirability, and production of manuscript books after the introduction of the printing press in England. Speakers will direct our attention to cases of handwritten texts that were bound with or read alongside those produced on the hand-press; manuscript texts that in some way resist printing or printers’ best efforts; private and coterie collections never intended for the book market; and “medieval” printed volumes that trouble perceptions of print’s modernity and reliability – their “veracity” in Adrian Johns’ critique. Resisting accounts that figure the arrival of print technology in England as the death knell for manuscript culture, “Object Lessons” hopes to reveal the complexities and complications of a historical moment where these purportedly disparate forms coexisted. By bringing together speakers whose work straddles the largely imagined lines between manuscript and print and between medieval and Renaissance, “Object Lessons” offers the chance to reconsider the fate of the handwritten book after the Print Revolution.

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