Perspectives: Newsletter of the College of Arts & Sciences

Renaissance Books Reexamined

There was a time, not long ago, when all books were printed and songs were packaged as albums.  Technology has changed that, allowing customers to hyperlink texts and group songs into playlists based on personal taste.  A novel idea? Hardly, says Jeffrey Todd Knight, assistant professor of English.

Knight studies books dating back to the late medieval and Renaissance periods.  At that time, he explains, most books were sold unbound and could be combined into collections by the customer.  

Jeffrey Todd Knight
Jeffrey Todd Knight

“Customers had a wonderfully creative role,” explains Knight. “They would go to a bookseller and there would be various title pages in the window. They would select the titles they’d like to go together.  The bookseller would make them into composite books. It wasn’t until later that the publisher decided what went in books.”

According to Knight, the transition to ready-bound books came even later than most  of us have thought.  The assumption has been that the printing press ushered in the modern, ready-bound book. But Knight argues that the medieval approach, with customers assembling their own materials, continued until the nineteenth century. “People see the Renaissance as modern,” says Knight, “but there’s a much messier history of reading beneath the surface.” Knight is currently completing a book on the subject, titled Bound to Read.

Why the confusion about the modern book’s arrival? Knight says that modern libraries, particularly well-funded U.S. libraries, made a habit of separating  Renaissance compilations and rebinding the individual texts as discrete books.

To reconstruct the content of the original Renaissance compilations, Knight has visited nearly four dozen libraries in the past few years—accumulating more than 40 library cards along the way—to study librarians’ handwritten catalog notes. “They would bracket lists of titles to indicate that ten titles were originally grouped together,” explains Knight. He also found “disbinding” records for books taken apart in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Not all Renaissance manuscripts have been altered. While studying at Cambridge University, Knight came upon an original volume consisting of two vellum books, bound together with a sixteenth-century animal skin shoelace.  The discovery inspired his current research. “It was being confronted with these objects that looked very foreign,” he recalls. “No one would think of treating two books like that now.”

"A project like this is enabled by the culture we find ourselves
in right now. It's the same kind of explosion of information.
Then it was the invention of the printing press; now it
is computers and digital culture."

Beyond simply uncovering examples of Renaissance compilations, Knight studies the mix of texts in those compilations . By learning what Renaissance customers chose to bind together and noting combinations that make frequent appearances, he is gaining a better sense of readers of that period.

“I have uncovered surprising juxtapositions of texts that cross traditional genres,” says Knight. “The combination can at times seem random, but I try to find the logic of what the person putting it together was thinking. I look for patterns, which can be difficult because these things change shape so often.” Combinations have included Shakespeare’s Lucrece bound with a religious book, Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender compiled with an encyclopedia or almanac, and Ovid’s narrative poems collected and combined with handwritten sonnets.

Knight describes a particularly memorable 1590s book created by a budding English poet named John Lilliat. “He bought a copy of Thomas Watson’s Hekatompathia, bound the printed text into his notebook, and wrote by mixing Watson’s lines with his own,” says Knight, well aware of the parallels with song remixing, a current trend that involves combining existing and original music.

Such commonalities, says Knight, make his Renaissance research all the more intriguing.

“A project like this is enabled by the culture we find ourselves in right now,” he says. “It’s the same kind of explosion of information. Then it was the invention of the printing press; now it is computers and digital culture. 

“Today anyone with a computer has the creative power to remix songs, videos, and text—something not available a generation ago,” Knight adds. “We’re revaluing the act of compilation as a creative force in a way that recent centuries did not. This is the kind of creative agency that people had in the medieval and Renaissance periods.”

Return to Table of Contents, January 2012 issue