Material Reading of Early Modern Culture is a good and useful book that begins by claiming to be a rather different book. In their introduction, editors James Daybell and Peter Hinds describe this collection as “the first book of this nature to bring together material readings of manuscript, print, and orality in early modern culture,” which is an ambitious but puzzling claim. It is not at all clear to me how this book’s “nature” differs from that of Arthur F. Marotti and Michael Bristol’s well-known and widely-respected Print, Manuscript, Performance, which combined superb material readings of manuscript, print, and orality when it was published in 2000. It is especially hard to forget that earlier collection when Arthur F. Marotti himself contributes to this one, and when Print, Manuscript, Performance features in his contributor’s note. If the fundamental nature of this project truly differs from that earlier volume’s, Daybell and Hinds should have parsed the difference more explicitly. Their claim of priority is distracting and perversely invites comparisons between their book and an earlier, better one.
This is a shame, because Material Readings deserves to be read on its own merits. It certainly did not begin the recent turn to the archive, which has brought renewed attention to the physical embodiments of early modern texts and to the ways in which physical evidence can encode interpretive meaning. But the collection itself is evidence of how fruitful that turn to the archive has been, and of how much good work is being done by scholars, especially younger scholars, bringing a materialist approach to the archives. And while few of the individual essays risk overly-ambitious interventions in current scholarly debates, taken as a whole they form an invaluable resource. Anyone interested in serious archival research will learn a good deal from this book.
Daybell’s chapter on “Secret Letters in Elizabethan England,” for example, concentrates a wealth of knowledge about secret-writing techniques within a dozen pages. His essay is a concise trove of information about early modern ciphers, codes, and invisible inks, technologies which were originally honed by the demands of early-modern diplomacy but which, Daybell shows, were swiftly adopted by a wide range of consumers for a wide range of personal uses. Cedric C. Brown’s essay on specific epistolary and gift texts complements Daybell’s nicely; together the essays provide an excellent primer, or a masterful refresher course, on researching early-modern letters.
Similarly, Jonathan Gibson’s essay provides a helpful lesson about the underlying organizing structure of “seemingly chaotic” manuscript miscellanies. Gibson points out that many such scribes organized their blank paper books into sections, leaving empty spaces to be filled over time, and that this original structural organization is useful to identify even when later scribes, using whatever blank spaces they found for their own purposes, have superficially obscured it. Christopher Burlinson and Victoria E. Burke, in their own essays, demonstrate sound approaches to early student manuscripts. Burlinson examines the notebooks and note-taking habits of two Cambridge students from the early seventeenth century, while Burke studies books compiled by female Quaker pupils in arithmetic, at least two of whom were instructed in mathematics by another woman.
Several of the essays take specific manuscripts, and often little-studied ones, as exemplary cases studies. These essays (like Burlinson’s and Burke’s) will be useful even to scholars who are not especially concerned with the particular subjects of discussion. Andrew Gordon analyzes a little-studied manuscript collection of verse and copied correspondence, now in the National Library of Scotland, preoccupied with the career of Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex. Gillian Wright considers the manuscript poetry of Katherine Philips and questions of its political consistency over time. Arthur F. Marotti examines the well-known Skipworth Manuscript (BL additional MS 25707), an important source for critical editions of Donne, focusing on the compilers and their social and political networks rather than on the collection’s most famous poems. Marotti deals with a better-studied object than many of his fellow contributors. (And Marotti’s contribution, informed by his illustrious career as a scholar of manuscript culture, ought to be and is one of the standouts here.) But all of the essays in this volume provide valuable lessons in scholarly methods, whatever the intrinsic interest of the matter to which those methods are applied. This collection is ultimately more about materialism, as an intellectual methodology, than about any specific material, and that is all for the best.
The volume also sets a section aside for print culture, and the essays in this section consider the complexities of circulation and re-circulation in early modern media culture. Hinds usefully situates John Dryden and Roger L’Estrange in their original political environments, fleshing out the contexts and original reception of their work in a vibrant culture of satire and polemic. Mark Knights shows how useful it can be to study the images (and especially the re-use of images) accompanying printed polemic, a study made feasible by the recent digitalization of many archives. And Mary Ann Lund delves into the slippery relationship between the oral and printed words in the paratexts of early modern sermons, an especially useful reminder of early-modern print culture’s nuance and complexity.
The physical volume itself is an unfortunate exemplar of late-modern print culture. It has been so poorly copy-edited that at least one sentence, a fairly important sentence in one of the best essays, has been rendered indecipherable. This does not reflect on Daybell and Hinds, but serves as a cautionary tale for authors and editors in the age of austerity. Too few publishers can still afford the kind of copy-editing and proof-reading that was once routine, and the responsibility for production editing has been shifted in many cases onto writers themselves. Caveat auctor: younger scholars preparing books can no longer always expect publishers to take care of their lovingly crafted words (although there remain happy and admirable exceptions); in today’s publishing environment, authors and collection editors must expect to be the first and last guarantors of accuracy. Daybell and Hinds have done fine jobs here, as have their contributors. But they have been let down by a publishing industry that has given up on part of its job.
But lackluster production values do not diminish what Daybell and Hinds have achieved. Almost any reader interested in archival research on early modern culture can profit from reading this book. Give Material Readings of Early Modern Culture a thorough study before your next trip to a research library. You and your work will be the better for it.