Research spotlight #1: A history of titling practices: in transition

by Victoria Gibbons

After completing my doctorate this summer, I have had the privilege of undertaking a one-year postdoctoral scholarship with the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation. The Wingate Scholarship enables me to continue my research, begun early in my postgraduate study, on the historical development of literary titling practices at Cardiff University.

My doctoral thesis initiated a diachronic reconsideration of the literary title. Unlike previous critical studies of titling practices, which focus almost exclusively on modern printed works, the thesis focused on the titling practices of manuscripts, addressing the different forms, functions and meanings of premodern titling. The overlapping of theoretical and material concerns in this under-researched area of book history necessitated a new form of multidisciplinary approach which combined critical theories of titology with codicological and bibliographical modes of enquiry. My current postdoctoral project develops and extends the findings of my doctorate. While the thesis looked at titling practices from the beginning of written records until the end of the fourteenth century, the postdoc concentrates on a more limited timeframe: the fifteenth century. My long-term research goal has always been to establish and publish a history of titling practices, spanning manuscript, early print and later print/digital modes of literature. Yet my doctoral research reveals that the development of titling cannot be mapped simply and rigidly onto these mediums. Taking the transition from manuscript to incunable as its focus, the postdoc looks beyond such technological determinism, allowing consideration of the influence of other related factors (the growing commercialisation of the book trade, higher rates of textual production, the increasing standardisation of textual formats) on the development of titling practices at this time.

I envisage two main stages for this project: firstly, the gathering and analysis of titling practices (incipits, explicits, printers’ colophons, title-pages) of literary productions c. 1425–c. 1525 (4–6 months); the second stage involves writing this primary research up, joining it with the existing doctoral research, and editing the research into a coherent publication (6–8 months). I am currently embarking on the first stage of this plan and I must admit that it feels incredibly good to be researching again, especially in a fresh, relatively unexplored area.

Last month I spent an amazing week in the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room of Washington’s Library of Congress. Starting with William Caxton’s edition of Chaucer’s translation of De consolatione philosophiae (1478) and finishing with Wynkyn de Worde’s edition of The Contemplation of Sinners (1499), I worked my way through many of the incunabula in the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection.[1] Handling Caxton’s edition of Gower’s Confessio Amantis from 1483 and his translation of Christine de Pizan’s Faits d’armes et de chevalerie from 1489 were special highlights for me. It is obviously difficult to draw conclusions at such an early stage, but, as I look back over my notes, what strikes me most forcefully is the similarity between practices of titling in incunabula and those of contemporaneous (and earlier) manuscripts. Incipits, explicits, and illustrations are all still used to identify texts, as the figures accompanying this entry (courtesy of the Library of Congress) demonstrate. While there are some immediate (the addition of printers’ colophons) and some more gradual changes (the inclusion of title-pages), it seems that the effects of print on titling practice are not as revolutionary as many critics suppose.[2] What this might mean for a history of titling is one of the questions I’m trying to work though at the moment.

Later this month, I will be spending a week in Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives (SCOLAR) in order to survey the titling practices found in its recently acquired collection of incunabula and early printed books. I am extremely excited about this particular collection as it has been the subject of very little research, so who knows what I might find! I hope to write more about my findings in SCOLAR and the general progress of my postdoc early in the New Year.

Figure 1 Figure 1The incipit that opens the text of William Caxton’s translation of Christine de Pizan’s Faits d’armes et de chevalerie (1489). Incipit-style headings are found in English and French manuscripts throughout the later Middle Ages (and at a much earlier date in Latin).
Figure 2 Figure 2The opening woodcut in Caxton’s translated edition of Image du Monde (1481). This is the first book Caxton made woodcuts for and it seems likely that these images are an attempt to replicate the miniatures of a French manuscript (London, British Library, MS Royal 19A. IX) which he alludes to in his augmented general preface to the work (the first part of which also appears above).
Figure 3 Figure 3An example of the often lengthy colophons with which Caxton usually ends his printed books. This is the first page of the printer’s colophon which appears at the end of Caxton’s version of Christine’s Faits d’armes et de chevalerie. Also note the presence of a closing ‘Explicit’, common in English, French and Latin manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages.
Figure 4 Figure 4The second page of Caxton’s colophon. While printer’s colophon seems to be the direct result of print technology, this device could also derive from the scribal head- and end-notes found in some fifteenth-century manuscripts, particularly those of John Shirley.

Images above are provided courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington DC.

About Victoria
Victoria Gibbons (BA, MA, PhD Cardiff) joined Cardiff academic (100x100)University’s English Literature department as an undergraduate in 2002, and, after eight years of undergraduate and postgraduate study, she completed her doctoral thesis entitled ‘Towards a Poetics of Titles: The Prehistory’ (AHRC- and FfWG-funded) earlier this year. Victoria holds a postdoctoral scholarship from the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation for the academic year 2010–11. She has given numerous papers (EBS 2007, ICMS 2009, NCS 2008 & 2010) and had two articles published on her research (JEBS, 11 (2008) and SSW 2007 (2008)). Victoria has been a member of CEIR since the beginning of her Masters (AHRC-funded).

[1] I must thank Eric Frazier (Reference Librarian) and Daniel De Simone (Rosenwald Curator) for their help during my time at the Library of Congress. Without their guidance and expertise my week would have been a lot less productive than it was.

[2] For examples of critics who have considered the advent of print as the major determining factor in the development of titling practice, see Morton Bloomfield, Incipits of Latin Works on the Virtues and Vices, 1100–1500 AD (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1979), p. 1: ‘the standard title is the child of the printing press’; Mary A. Rouse and Richard H. Rouse, Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), p. 469: ‘the concepts of “author” and “title” could not exist without the printing press’. The importance of print is also a principal tenet of titology.



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