09.03.02, Kuskin, Symbolic Caxton

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Anne Laskaya

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.002


Kuskin, William. Symbolic Caxton: Literary Culture and Print Capitalism. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. Pp. 390. ISBN: $40.00.
ISBN: 978-0-268-03317-0.

Reviewed by:
Anne Laskaya
University of Oregon

Symbolic Caxton is a book not to be missed by any who study late medieval and/or early modern culture. Kuskin analyzes the conflation of material and intellectual reproduction in late medieval, early modern England, focusing on Caxton's press. A veritable wealth of information and sophisticated interpretation, the book is grounded in a complex but exciting intellectual framework consisting of Marxist analysis (particularly Althusser's understanding of the pervasively ideological qualities of cultural objects), the history of the book, a thorough understanding of literary history, close readings, questions of audience, politics, economics, gender, and a keen inquiry into the complexity of fifteenth-century English culture. Kuskin includes a thorough introduction, sixty-eight pages of notes, twenty-nine b/w illustrations, a brief eleven-page works cited, three substantial sections of text divided into six chapters, and an epilogue. The work teems with information, references, fascinating detail, as well as with hefty and provocative readings of both verbal and visual texts from fifteenth-century manuscripts and incunabula. It is, Kuskin summarizes, an exploration of "printing in symbolic terms," detailing ways English literary production "articulated a number of intellectual structures for vernacular writing" within a nascent capitalist economy that helped transform English public and private life (3). This "imaginative change" is registered "in what human beings did for a living and for leisure, in the way they organized their rooms, in what they read, heard, thought, and imagined about the world around them, not [only] because of the revolutionary nature of technology but because of the internal alignment of English culture prior to print" (3).

After a quick review of the mythic but oft-repeated Caxton chivalric mytho-biography that opens Chapter One, dismissed in favor of understanding Caxton as entrepreneur, Kuskin turns to an account of more recent book-buying ventures. He examines the 1998 auction at Christie's in London of the Wentworth Chaucer, Caxton's 1476/77 edition of the Canterbury Tales, that sold for over 4.6 million pounds. The prestige of the text stems from its status as the first printed edition of Chaucer but also as the first folio book printed in England (32). But Kuskin reads the event, the buyer (Sir Paul Getty II), and the London Times' article on the auction to remind us of the intersections of book, authority, capital, and identity found in our own contemporary time. If Getty sinks extraordinary sums into a book to strengthen his new identity as a British citizen and knight (both achieved in 1998), he also enacts a conservative political agenda, one that dreams of defending and preserving "the British way of life," because Getty's purchase guaranteed the Wentworth Chaucer stayed in England. Kuskin uses the Wentworth Chaucer and several other notable book auctions and collections to explain the interconnections between books and what we understand as reality: humans can create, and can be created by, books.

Turning to similar dynamics at work in the fifteenth century, Kuskin investigates Caxton's representation of early book production, focusing on ways Caxton creates "a tangible expression of social relations," very much in the tradition of manuscript culture. Like a scribe from the world of the scriptorium, Caxton casts himself as a reader encountering French and Latin books who then translates them into English for other readers: "Caxton postulates a late medieval romantic ideology, one that represses the labor of the print shop in favor of a technologically older yet still quite contemporary textual practice of book copying to suggest that writing and reading are two parts of the same action of textual production. Thus he uses his own position as a printer to illustrate a form of consumption for his readers" (49). Caxton's printer's mark, as well as the printer's devices used by others, leads Kuskin to ask "why...does the printed book evoke a biographical trademark at all?" And "what does it accomplish in the market for books?" His conclusion: the trademark or printer's device, helps "construct books as commodities in relation to the self" (52). The printer's mark also descends from heraldry, linking print production back to the authority of medieval aristocracy while also creating an individual "signature" for the press. Kuskin calls the printer's mark "a visual poetic of commerce" (73).

The most substantial portion of Chapter One is given over to a discussion of the printer's mark, because the mark allows the printer to assert both a visual claim of newness and a connection to a kind of self-assertion reminiscent of medieval aristocratic heraldry. On the one hand, Caxton's mark contains symbolism aligning his printing business with the textile industry, a guild to which he belonged as a "mercer" and "stapler." The new industry of printing becomes symbolically understood within the economic signs of medieval guilds and aristocracy, while also pointing beyond, to a world of capitalism where the volume of reproduction becomes key to profit. The mark contains symbolic resonances that makes it "a model for commodity consumption in a condensed form, for private property is always a movement of appropriation from the generic to the individual" (79).

Chapter Two locates the polyvalent meanings associated with the early printed book's "authority" focusing primarily on the dynamic of early capitalism. Kuskin chooses four texts to analyze: 1) the London Mercers' letter (dated October 17, 1464) which requests that Caxton negotiate trade agreements with Burgundians on behalf of Edward IV; 2) Caxton's prefatory materials to the Recuyell of the Histories of Troye (1473); 3) his 1476 "advertisement" for the Ordinale ad usum Sarum; and 4) his comments on printing found in the 1480 Chronicles of England. "In place of patronage and commerce," Kuskin writes, "I offer capital as a medium for reading Caxton which recognizes the essential doubling of textual and economic practices at work in his production process, a doubling that allows him to present the printed book as an object of authority connected to but also separate from the manuscripts of the English and Burgundian courts" (81-2). Besides outlining the capitalist project of printing and its link to authority, Kuskin recognizes the way capital can be understood as a kind of alchemy, as a way to change, supplement, replicate, multiply and dramatically disseminate the authority of text, material goods, and Caxton himself. His argument establishes the conflation of power, authority, printing, capitalism and alchemy in Caxton's book printing.

Chapter Three focuses on fifteenth-century writers' complex relationships with Chaucer, that "father of English poetry." Using the mid-century, anonymous and minor poem, "Myn Hert ys Set," as evidence, Kuskin begins his discussion of the Chaucerian canon, demonstrating the way literary authority arises from the "consolidation and appropriation" of literary inheritance for a peculiarly fifteenth- century self-conscious poetic practice (118). It is a practice deferential to its past, particularly to Chaucer, but reluctant to proclaim its own creativity or authority, what Kuskin terms "a poetics of alienation" (121). His argument here is much indebted to Seth Lerer's work on Chaucer and his readers. What Kuskin offers, however, are fresh but brief readings of texts, including "Myn Hert ys Set," the contour of William de la Pole's life, and Lydgate's tale of Oedipus, a poem that overtly situates its author and its utterance in the world of the Canterbury Tales, among others. These help Kuskin demonstrate the complex interweaving of a central metaphor of paternity that typifies Chaucer's legacy, textual production, and royal authority. Ironically, "paternity bequeaths only loss and fragmentation" in "Myn Hert," de Pole's biography, and Lydgate's Oedipus (123). The paradoxical nature of "inheritance" takes Kuskin into more lengthy close readings of three specific texts: 1) Caxton's 1476/77 version of Chaucer's Retractions, 2) the 1477 Book of Courtesy, and 3) Caxton's prologue to his 1483 version of the Canterbury Tales. Here, the printed book, in particular Chaucer's printed texts, are understood "as symbolic of a series of appropriations and corresponding alienations: Chaucer's appropriation of ecclesiastical authority" (into the vernacular world of the Retractions), "his scribes' appropriations of his various texts toward the single-author edition, Caxton's appropriations of labor toward profit, and the reader's appropriation of the book toward his or her individual uses" (136). Book production and textual production mirror and help create, change, and sustain social relations.

In Chapter Four, Kuskin aims to dislodge simple notions of "patronage" that underlie many twentieth-century discussions of Caxton. Instead, he finds "the question of patronage becomes, in fact, a question of social authority," and that it highlights the presence of intertwining discourses: "the production of persona, feminism and antifeminism, commercial production and lay spirituality" (161). Here he rereads Caxton's relationship with Anthony Woodville, Margaret Beaufort, Christine de Pizan's works, and others to uncover dynamics of collaboration occurring between nobles and merchants, men and women, in the production of literary and social authority: "Patronage is dynamic and mutually beneficial, a complex process of social production in which both client and patron formulate a shared authority" (180). Kuskin also introduces issues of gender into his discussion, building on Jennifer Summit's recent work. He focuses on the paradoxical issue of women as authorities, obviously resonant for a discussion of Caxton's works since he printed English translations of Christine de Pizan. So the categories of printer, translator, patron, literary historian, and author become progressively interdependent and progressively blurred across the fifteenth century. And along with this (because women were patrons, authors, translators, and readers), women's relationship to authority becomes a major issue for the history of the book, as well. Pressures on traditional, late medieval power dynamics grow, paralleling the growing challenge of a printed and sold, and thus more voluminous vernacular literature to the older manuscript, less widely circulated, latinate, and ecclesiastically-controlled literature.

Kuskin's fifth chapter examines the complexities of authority, social relations, printing, and Nation evident in Caxton's "Nine Worthies Series," a set of three romance texts grouped around the conceit of the Nine Worthies. These include Godfrey of Boloyne, Le Morte D'Arthur, and Charles the Grete, texts published between 1481 and 1485. Although all of Caxton texts participate in the construction of English nationalism, to some degree, these three provide powerful evidence of "Caxton's critical program" aimed at "reshaping the cultural imagination." Kuskin notes that "Caxton uses the Nine Worthies series to call for a fifteenth-century crusade while printing indulgences for just such an excursion" (194). The indulgences provide Caxton with capital necessary to print the huge project of the Morte D'Arthur, as well as other romances; in turn, the romances create imaginary worlds that attempt to move readers' desires toward crusade. The discourse and visual presence of the Worthies in Burgundian and English culture, Kuskin demonstrates, assists an ideological project: namely, strengthening central authority; and by strengthening kingship: "they organize the social body by visibly locating authority in the royal figure, while simultaneously demonstrating that this authority is constructed through the participation of the entire community" (199-200). Ultimately, "Caxton's critical program constructs a unified literary culture" that is inseparable from fifteenth-century social conditions; it "develop[s] a symbolic space in which to define individuals as participating in the larger imaginary community as secular subjects" (235).

Placing Caxton within the framework of fifteenth-century, pre-Tudor "vernacular humanism," Symbolic Caxton establishes the simultaneous influence of "the medieval" and of "the early modern" on the printer. The Eneydos and Ovid's Methamorphose help Kuskin make his argument that Caxton's work looks back to tradition and "inheritance" as well as forward to new relationships between literary authority and political power. Caxton's English versions of these two classical texts, "are as concerned with establishing a theory [and a history] for reading classical texts as they are with the texts themselves." And "both use this history to analyze authorial intention" (255). Furthermore, Caxton's preface to the Eneydos is read in light of the poetry of John Skelton and so seen as actively participating in the "vibrant, international laureate system centered in the court and moving outward to define English culture" (241).

Symbolic Caxton concludes with an "Epilogue: The Archival Imagination (or What Goodes Has to Say)," a device and a title echoing Kuskin's deep appreciation for all things "Caxton." He reconsiders his project and the common fictional, but useful, binary terms of periodization, grounding his analysis in a provocative reading of the earliest surviving, but brittle, copies of Everyman. He claims, "Symbolic Caxton argues that the medieval is both discrete from and forever part of the modern," and that "one way out of these binaries is through the archival imagination, the intellectual recognition that the self-reflective nature of the textual archive demands a similarly reflective process of reading" (285). The textual content, the preface found embodied in the form of incunabula may be understood as interpreting, figuratively, the nature of the book. Everyman may be a moralizing mystery play, but in Kuskin's hands, it is also a text that dramatizes, in the figure of "Goodes," or things, a culture "overwhelmed by commodities but nevertheless imagining itself through them." Fifteenth-century English book culture reads objects in symbolic terms, sharing a way of reading with its sign-saturated "medieval" past and its "modern" future.

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Author Biography

Anne Laskaya

University of Oregon