This past 7 January, Katherine Briant, a MA student of the Center for Medieval Studies, presented her paper, “Prostitution of Textual Reproduction from Manuscript to Print,” at the Gender and Emotion conference sponsored by the University of Hull, which drew from dozens of countries an equally diverse number of attendants. Investigating the language of prostitution that accompanied the transformation from manuscript to print culture and book production, Katherine’s presentation focused on the early modern eruption of gendered, carnal language that proclaimed the evils of printed books by describing and embodying them as stillborn children, corrupted virgins, and promiscuous women. Specifically, the condemnations of printed books expressed in the writings of Filippo de Strata, Erasmus, and Pietro Aretino were presented as using and perpetuating the metaphor of prostitution to express interconnected anxieties about the new medium. These sharp criticisms were contrasted to Richard de Bury’s Philobiblon in order to juxtapose the supposed promiscuity of the printing press with the chastity of manuscripts. Katherine argued that this rhetoric displays manuscript scribal production as a masculine form of parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction) firmly under clerical control. Print media was an intrusion upon this singular relationship, calling the legitimacy of the children produced into question.
Katherine highlighted that the metaphor of prostitution reveals apprehensions about not only the economic future of print production, but also the social repercussions of print accessibility. The use of sexual language allowed for the chastisement of two particular forms of textual corruption that came about with print: 1.) the corruption of an author’s body of work via the introduction of errors into the text by unobservant or negligent printers and 2.) the corruption of suggestible reading communities by the promiscuous circulation of texts. Concerns over error, an overabundance of readers, and rapid, perhaps haphazard reproduction were most clearly presented in the metaphor of the generative female body. The further citation to the unchecked commercialization of women’s sexuality allowed scribes and early modern writers to attack the greed that motivated printers and dramatized the dangers of print in the absence of established regulations.
Upon the completion of her presentation, Katherine was met with questions pertaining to the application of her thesis to the current struggle between print media and ebooks. The similarities between this modern struggle and the complaints forwarded by medieval writers is striking, Katherine noted, as we hear now of the fear that the digital age will see the end of the book, writing, and even literacy itself: fears that could have dripped from the quill of Filippo de Strata six centuries ago.
Katherine’s presentation stood amongst several others which touched upon, amongst a myriad of other topics, the performance and emotional expression of masculinity and femininity, religious versus secular types of sorrow and grief, public versus private emotional expression, affective pain and compassion in saints’ lives, and the ability of suffering to inspire others to take action or alter their own behaviour. Of these papers, two stood out as particularly inspirational for Katherine. The first, by Ioana Coman, of the University of St. Andrews, also looked into the link between manuscript culture and embodiment, presenting Johann Grimestone’s notebook as a liminal emotional space; that allowed Christ’s wounded body and Grimestone’s own body to come into communion. The second, by Eleni Ponirakis, of the University of Nottingham, performed a linguistic analysis of emotion words employed in Cynewulf’s Juliana, striking a cord with Katherine, who also spent time studying Juliana in the past.
Before the conference, Katherine made sure to take in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, standing before portraits of those figures we often see and read of in our studies, in person, without the filters of the press and copying machine obscuring the precious details of every individual brushstroke. Also while in London, Katherine worked with six manuscripts containing the Philobiblon in the British Library, taking nearly 900 pictures of them for use in future study as she continues to investigate not only how Richard de Bury’s text was transmitted initially, but also how a text about text itself was received, interpreted, and edited in the centuries after its composition. Katherine also found time to see Mr. Foote’s Other Leg on the London stage, perhaps fittingly, as the play delivers behind its comedic exterior a thought piece on suffering and its relation to comedic relief, echoing the subject matter of the conference in a more informal, if no less compelling, way.
By Kevin Vogelaar