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Grounding the Book: Readers, Writers & Places in the Pre-Modern World

The inspiration for our topic this quarter was inspired by the 10th annual Marco Symposium. The questions posed by the organizers of this years symposium were as follows:

How have the physical sites of reading and writing interacted with the material form of books to shape how books are read and written? How have spaces such as the monk’s cell, the scholastic’s lecture hall, or the humanist’s study left their marks on books, allowing us to gain insight into the reading practices of those who studied them? What role have books played in giving meaning to the rooms in which they were kept?

In his opening address, Dr. John Zomchick raised a number of current issues in the study of the humanities. In particular, he underscored the constant need to justify our work as central to societal evolution, to our future as human beings and as citizens  of this world. We, as academics, are the humanists of the future, and as such we have a great responsibility to preserve the role of humanities as a significant contribution to the generation of knowledge.

The Symposium began with a keynote address by Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam Professor of History at Princeton University: “Reading Across Borders in Renaissance Europe.” Grafton’s study focused on the reception, translation and study of Hebrew texts, specifically the Talmud, in the early 16th century. In addition, he wove a fascinating narrative which recounted significant events in the lives of both Christian and Hebrew scholars in relation to their friendship and collaboration, the practice of active reading, and the learning of languages via transposition (from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English, etc.) His talk was supplemented with fascinating visual images of heteroglossia along with his natural engaging humor and charisma. Scott and I were able to spend some time with Dr. Grafton at lunch the next day and were impressed by his warmth and approachability.

Out of all the papers presented at the Symposium, I would have to say my favorite was Robert Black’s “Italian Manuscript Schoolbooks.” Dr. Black, a Professor at the University of Leeds, discussed his work with Primary schoolbooks from 14th and 15th century Florence. These Latin texts (for there was never a distinct strand of vernacular education in Italy at this time) were filled with colorful glosses, pictures, and epigrams written by young schoolboys.

Not only was Dr. Black’s talk lively and fun, but he brought up an interesting notion: It is quite likely that the way most readers in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance encountered classical text was through the glosses. Now, this may have changed with the advent of the printing press, because what Dr. Black appears to be suggesting is that they were reading the glosses because they didn’t have translations available.

This assertion has tremendous implications for thinking about literature that relies  heavily on classical sources. In Jonson’s “To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare And What He Hath Left Us,” the poet is careful to explain that “though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,” the ancient playwrights might still be invoked in celebration of Shakespeare’s legacy. In spite of this well-known reference, I have always assumed that most Renaissance poets and dramatists knew classical texts in the original language. This revelation certainly points up the importance of reading 16th and 17th century literature in relation to popular translations from that time period. We know Golding provided Shakespeare’s Metamorphosis, but what other translations might have been essential? Who was the most widely read Seneca, for example? Some interesting food for thought.