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Presented By: Medieval and Early Modern Studies (MEMS)

The Premodern Colloquium. Manuscript to Print in England: Reconsidering the Divide

Michael Johnston, Purdue University

Prof. Michael Johnston Prof. Michael Johnston
Prof. Michael Johnston
My talk is taken from the conclusion to my current book project, entitled Scribes and Readers: The Middle English Book, 1350-1500. In this book, I examine the surviving manuscripts of four popular Middle English verse texts: The Prick of Conscience, Piers Plowman, and John Lydgate's "Dietary" and "Stans puer ad mensam." Based on my analyses of the 199 manuscripts surviving from these poems, I argue that Middle English literary culture was a local affair--that is, manuscripts were produced in numerous sorts of institutional settings, often by scribes from the nearby area, making books for nearby readers. As a result of this diversity of sites of book production, we find an often bewildering variety among Middle English manuscripts. But what unites the books in the hands of most English readers in the period of 1350-1500 is that they came from within the cultural milieu/orbit of the readers themselves.

In this presentation, I look at how the advent of print brings about a sharp break in such practices of book production and in the relationship between readers and their books. In manuscript culture, I argue, books were bespoke artefacts. Print turns the book into a commodity, centralizing its production and moving it outside the immediate world of readers. In this presentation, I will thus revisit long-standing debates about whether the printing press marks a revolution or an evolution in book production. Returning to the ideas of Ann Arbor's own Elizabeth Eisenstein, I argue that we have been too quick to dismiss the revolutionary effects of the printing press.

Michael Johnston completed his BA in English at John Carroll University in 2000, his M.Litt. in Mediaeval English at the University of St Andrews (Scotland) in 2002, and his Ph.D. at Ohio State in 2007. His first book, Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England, appeared with Oxford University Press in 2014. He has also edited three collections of essays: a special volume on teaching the history of the book for Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching (vol. 19.1, Spring 2012); with Susanna Fein, Robert Thornton and His Books: Essays on the Lincoln and London Thornton Manuscripts (York Medieval Press, 2014); and with Michael Van Dussen, The Medieval Manuscript Book: Cultural Approaches (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
Prof. Michael Johnston Prof. Michael Johnston
Prof. Michael Johnston

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January 23, 2022 (Sunday) 4:00pm
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