15.11.04, Gómez-Bravo, Textual Agency

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Valerie Schutte

The Medieval Review 15.11.04

Gómez-Bravo, Ana M. Textual Agency: Writing Culture and Social Networks in Fifteenth-Century Spain. Toronto Iberic. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. pp. 332. ISBN: 978-1-4426-4720-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Valerie Schutte
Independent Scholar

Ana M. Gómez-Bravo's Textual Agency: Writing Culture and Social Networks in Fifteenth-Century Spain is a study about "the journey of the text from pieces of paper to book as it was propelled by the social, political, and cultural forces of the time" (214). For Gómez-Bravo, a "book" has become understood as something printed, yet manuscript and print overlapped for some time. It is her intention to argue with the idea of a sharp break between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by suggesting that periodization is problematic and that many of the textual developments often associated with the printing press in fact already existed in fifteenth-century Spanish manuscript culture. While her study explicates Spanish texts and their production and reproduction, she specifically focuses on the plethora of extant cancioneros, or poetry, as nearly three-quarters of extant medieval documents can be dated to the fifteenth century and 7,000 of these documents are poems.

In a total of nine chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, Gómez-Bravo grounds her study in both historical and literary theory to explore materiality and textual agency. Each of the nine chapters builds upon the others, with the first chapter explaining who wielded pens and who wielded swords in the fifteenth century. In the fifteenth century, the nobility was unstable as old lineages died out, new lineages were created, and the growth of state government gave men new opportunities to gain power. Thus, "textual capabilities" came to be a tool for political power (32). Those who made a living by pen-wielding, escribanos, are the focus of the second chapter. Nobles, knights, and middle-class professionals all came to need reading and writing to fulfill their duties, and the fifteenth century saw a drastic expansion of poets and poetry because of the increasing need for documents and texts. Escribanos held more than one post that involved document creation, such as being scribes and notaries, as the more an escribanowrote, the more he was worth. As for cancionero poets, they too had several patrons, as the greater production of poetry led to greater social standing.

The next four chapters examine the paper that was used for poetry, how it was disseminated, and how it was archived. According to Gómez-Bravo, the fifteenth century saw a "proliferation of loose papers" (60), which meant that the pages which poems were written on became loose artifacts that allowed for mobility and distribution of poetry, both with and without a poet's consent. Many poets were employed in official record keeping, and the greater need for copies of bureaucratic documents influenced their poetry; just as with official documents, on paper, poems could be distributed by hand, posted on doors, or left in inns and town squares. These loose papers were not considered very valuable on their own and had the potential to be lost or destroyed, but when gathered into rolls, booklets, and envoltorios, these texts could be incorporated into a more permanent collection and better preserved. As for bureaucratic influence, the loose papers that served bureaucratic needs were gathered into registers, payment vouchers, and memoranda, and many bureaucratic posts were filled by poets who picked up on these archival practices. Registers were used by both governments and businesses, but also existed for individual persons, becoming a medium in which official and personal writings were created, giving opportunities for literary verses to be recorded. Both poetry and legal documents were usually short in format, needed to be copied for speedy dissemination, and often circulated in individual leaves.

As these previous four chapters examined how texts were created on individual leaves and gathered together for safekeeping and ease of use, the final three chapters discuss how such books were used. One such function of a book was the text as memory; writing could become an extension of memory. To aid in the use of books, compilations of poetry came to have paratexts, especially titles and rubrics. Rubrication functioned as a reading aid for cancionero poetry, which was often abstract. Rubrics could offer interpretation, claim authorship, and provide the reader with the structure of the poem. Paratexts made cancionero poetry accessible. Gómez-Bravo's final chapter offers case studies of some of the most prolific cancionero poets of the fifteenth century, such as Juan Álvarez Gato and Antón de Montoro.

While Gómez-Bravo highlights the vast amount of cancionero poetry created in fifteenth-century Spain, her book equally focuses on legal practices and general book and manuscript reading and writing practices; some chapters are much more about poetry than others. With its frequent examples of Spanish royalty and how they used texts to consolidate power, this book would be appropriate for scholars interested in the history of the book in Spain, cancioneros, legal writing practices, and fifteenth-century Spanish monarchs and their books and letters.

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