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Helen Smith, ‘Grossly Material Things’: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England. (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Helen Smith, ‘Grossly Material Things’: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-19-965158-0. 254 pp. Hbk £60

Reviewed by Alice Eardley

[1]  The title of Smith’s book, with its reference to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, signals its place in an established history of feminist interest in the material circumstances of literary production. For Woolf, ‘Fiction is like a spider’s web … attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in’ (Smith, 2). Feminist scholars, taking their cue from Woolf’s now infamous proclamation, made elsewhere in A Room of One’s Own, that material circumstances meant it was almost impossible for Renaissance women to write, have spent the last few decades recovering evidence of women’s participation in literary culture. The outcome of this process is the conclusion that, while women may have been largely excluded from print publication (a fact accounting for Woolf’s inability to locate the women writers she sought), manuscripts offered a viable and legitimate means of literary engagement. In this book, Smith adopts many of the insights afforded by the process of archival retrieval, particularly the emphasis now placed on the significant roles women played as literary agents and not simply as named authors, and uses them to provide a much-needed reappraisal of the relationship between women and the printed book.

[2]  The book is structured around Robert Darnton’s influential ‘communications circuit’, tracing the various roles of authors, publishers, printers, agents of distribution and sale, and readers (6). Serving as a corrective to the andro-centrism of Darnton’s model, Grossly Material Things traces the participation of women in every step in the process of book production. Chapters 1 and 2 consider women as collaborative authors, contributing to the authorship of books as sources of inspiration, partners in conversation, copyists, translators, dedicatees, editors, and also as patrons of writers and stationers. While feminists have often despaired at the traces of male-influence to be found in texts by early modern women, it is refreshing to be reminded that women also had a role in shaping the writing produced by men. Smith painstakingly sifts through the traces of authorship to found in printed texts in the form of dedications, prefaces, and title pages, but she is also particularly good at bringing alive the material and social contexts, such as the home, within which textual production occurred; it is hard to resist quoting her suggestion that ‘women’s role in the processes of mourning, and in the estate management and accounting of their deceased husbands’ affairs, created a close link between the hands that tidied the corpse and the hands that tidied the corpus’ (43). These reconstructions remind us that only the most determined misanthropic writer would have been able to evade all influence of women on his work. While not all of the observations here are entirely new (it will come as no surprise to many that the process of translation is creative rather than mechanical) they are presented with a wealth of original textual evidence and contextual detail and put forward with a degree of confidence that serves to undercut modern notions concerning the value of different kinds of textual engagement.

[3]  Chapters 3 and 4 progress to the second stage in Darnton’s model, providing exciting insights into the role of women in the sixteenth and seventeenth century book trade. Smith builds on work by Bell (1989, 1994, 1996a, 1996b) and McDowell (1998), stepping backwards in time to consider the period between 1550 and 1650, and revealing women’s participation as printers, stationers, business partners, employers of apprentices, participants in the mechanical processes of book production (including binding), overseers, and as patrons of the Stationers’ Company, specifically as contributors to the development of the Stationers’ Hall, and as charitable donors of money, goods, and property. Outside London, women acted as important, and often well-known, distributors and sellers of material both in the British Isles and in Northern Europe. Smith’s exhaustive survey of the Stationers’ Register and of numerous other documents pertaining to the company, including woodcuts, letters, wills, court records, and Star Chamber decrees highlights the pervasive presence of women and their activity at every level of the printing business. We are again insistently reminded that, even where they have not left material traces, women were not absent from the spaces in which book production and distribution took place, not least because commercial premises often coincided with domestic arenas. This knowledge is significant for literary scholars in particular because it demonstrates that ‘women’s labour is one of the material subtexts of the books we have inherited, and should be read alongside those books as a provocation and a challenge to the work of interpretation’ (134). Smith’s insights are important, not simply because of what they reveal about women in the book trade but because they provide further evidence to contradict lazy modern assumptions about women’s complete exclusion, purely because of their gender, from commercial and civic life during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As such, it sits comfortably alongside studies such as those by Erickson (1993) and Capp (2003), in part because of the way it layers up archival evidence as a riposte to scholarly commonplaces concerning the place of women’s in early modern society. While they were not, admittedly, a dominant presence in the early modern book trade, women were evidently not a negligible one and their contemporaries, the evidence implies, were not surprised to find them there.

[4]  The broader theoretical issues at stake in this book are brought to the fore in chapter 5, which uses early modern ideas about the physiology of reading to explore the relationship between books and female bodies. The gendered bodies involved in the early modern book trade matter because they constitute very different engagements with, and contributions to, the material they were involved in creating (and through which they were themselves created). In Darnton’s circuit these are the readers that complete the cycle, influencing or becoming the author at the ‘beginning’ of the publication process. This concluding chapter showcases the methodological strands, including detailed contextual research, history of the book, and theoretical observations (from Marxism and feminism to name just two) that inform the book as a whole. Ostensibly a study of women’s engagement with the printed book, this volume employs an original angle of enquiry to tease out generally neglected aspects of the book trade in general (the relationship between patronage and the printed book, and the role of ideological rather than mercantile motivations in decisions made about material to print and disseminate, for example) and in doing so brings a wealth of new insights to the field of book history. More generally, it asserts confidently and on the basis of a wealth of evidence the often-forgotten fact that the lives and worlds of early modern men and women were not hermetically sealed off from one another and that literary production, like many other endeavours, was almost always the product of some form of cross-gendered collaboration.

University of Reading, August 2012



Works Cited


Bell, Maureen. 1989. ‘Hannah Allen and the Development of a Puritan Publishing Business, 1646-51’, Publishing History 26: 5-66

—— 1994. ‘Elizabeth Calvert and the “Confederates”, 1664-75, Publishing History 32: 5-49

—— 1992. ‘”Her Usual Practices”: The Later Career of Elizabeth Calvert, 1664-75, Publishing History 35: 5-64

—— 1996a. ‘Women in the English Book Trade 1557-1700’, Leipziger Jahrbuch zur Buchgeshichte 6: 13-45

—— 1996b. ‘Seditious Sisterhood: Women Publishers of Opposition Literature at the Restoration’ in Kate Chedgzoy et al. (eds.) Voicing Women: Gender and Sexuality in Early Modern Writing (Keele University Press, 1996), 185-95

Capp, Bernard. 2003. When Gossips Meet: Women, Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Erickson, Amy Louise. 1993. Women and Property in Early Modern England (London: Routledge)

McDowell, Paula. 1998. The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace, 1678-1730 (Oxford: Clarendon Press)

Brian Cummings ed., The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Brian Cummings (ed.), The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-19-920717-6. 821 + lxxiv pp. Hbk £16.99

Reviewed by Lori Anne Ferrell

[1]  The Church’s many foundations are built on anniversaries, and the structure still holds. Here we are, a myriad books timed to proclaim last year’s 400th anniversary of the “King James Version” of the Bible barely catalogued, and already the 350th anniversary of the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer is upon us. The celebration includes, of course, a shiny new edition of that text.

[2]  But scholars of even-earlier-modern English religion should take note that this new edition reprints not only that revered icon but also purports to include its 1549 and 1559 forbears, and that Oxford University Press invited Brian Cummings, author of The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace (2002), to edit what appears to be an important omnibus volume designed with their needs in mind. The title announces the book’s contents plainly enough: we expect to find inside reprints (in modern typeface, thankfully) of the three important prayer books emerging from the English protestant reformation and settlement. Given that the last scholarly reprint of the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer appeared in 1976, an expansion and update is well overdue.

[3]  The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 will have little difficulty, then, attracting students of the Tudor-Stuart Church, who will profit from buying this edition. The book is well-produced and well-structured for easy retrieval of information. The editorial notes, glossary, and bibliography are sound, smart, and often engaging, packing a lot of information and helpful clarification into small spaces. Cummings’s introduction is well-wrought: elegantly penned and so succinct and self-sufficient as to serve, in a pinch, as a quick primer on the early modern English Church and its culture. Along the way, this book also models Cummings’s approach to the art and craft of text editing, which aims, as it should, at accessibility. Academic readers will be grateful not only for editorial principles based on ease of use but also for his ready explanations of why and how this textual facility has been evaluated and formulated. Cummings applies a light but steady hand to unstable early modern punctuation and orthography, retaining original spelling but correcting and clarifying when necessary. The formatting, which reprints the texts in chronological order, is, the editor explains, not as cluttered as a parallel text offering might be. The transparency is refreshing – with one exception, a big one, to which I will return.

[4]  But first to finish the plaudits. My graduate students love this book. And well they ought: this has to be the most affordable and useful thing they will ever purchase new from any university press. (At an annual conference book display, standing by the OUP kiosk, I overheard a colleague repeating, simply, “twenty-nine-ninety-five! twenty-nine-ninety-five!,” so dazed and grateful was he for such unwonted grace from the scholarly print trade.) This amazing price (in US dollars), however, discloses the primary purpose of the book, which appears to be to appeal to the fanbase: those lovers of the beauties of English religious prose who last year paid dutiful tribute to the “King James Version”, but whose true passion is reserved for the mellifluous beauties of the liturgy.

[5]  For let’s face it: since the 17th century, the Church of England’s chief cornerstone has been its Book of Common Prayer, not the Christian Bible. That fact is interestingly confirmed by the actual contents, as formatted, of this edition. It is, despite the title, no omnibus: it contains one complete text – the 1669 edition – prefaced by two very condensed versions of its historic predecessors. The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 in fact reprints only the sections of the ’49 and the ’59 that did not survive religious Reformation and Revolution to successfully negotiate Restoration. Those chapters that survived – most notably the controversial “Of Ceremonies” – do appear in each separate prayer book’s table of contents, but their titles are enclosed in brackets that direct the reader to the full text as enclosed, arranged, and mediated by (with one exception) the 1662 prayer book. (Nearly half of the 1559 prayer book is represented only in these bracketed chapter headings; the reader wishing to study the ’59 Preface, with its prescient caution that anything devised by the wit of man is subject to corruption, is directed back to the wise counsel of 1549.) And we must also wait for the liturgy’s establishment-picked scriptural buttressing – psalms, lessons, gospels, or epistles – until the return of Charles II.

[6]  Why should this matter, if, with some cross referencing, hardly onerous in itself, we eventually have a full text made up of the sum of its many parts? The author of Grammar and Grace could undoubtedly tell us exactly why, as the answer is a commonplace of research scholarship, especially in the field of literary and theological studies. Simply put: words out of context lose historical meaning. And in attaining a rare ahistoricity they can become a bit too sacred. To print only the 1662 prayer book in its entirety and final order is to privilege it, and to privilege it is to misrepresent, ever-so slightly but still significantly, the prayer books of Edward and Elizabeth, texts that were sufficient to their day but, in the end, subject like all human things to decay and revision.

[7]  So this edition missed the chance to correct a bad but typical ecclesiastical habit, one that has had more influence on the scholarly treatment of English Protestantism and the history of the Church of England than we sometimes acknowledge: it forgets their contested, uncomfortable origins and retrospectively argues for an “Anglicanism” that simply did not exist before 1662. By the simple yet powerful expedient of format alone (the editorial introduction makes no such mistake), this edition ignores the origins of the English reformation – which, even as it retained its liturgy, was more Calvinist, more “puritan”, more continentally-oriented, and far more sola-scriptural in its sixteenth century beginnings and first full century than it would become by the late seventeenth century: an era that marked not only the end of tumultuous and deadly intra-protestant conflict but also (and inevitably; it is always thus) the beginning of a particularly characteristic and pernicious form of triumphalist Anglican historiography. In the battle against false witness, a phenomenon particularly prevalent in denominational studies, we need all the bibliographic weapons we can muster. So procure and appreciate this edition for its many excellent parts, but do not consign John Booty’s 1976 edition of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer to the resale shop just yet. If you teach this stuff, you are still going to need it.

Claremont Graduate University, August 2012