The Medieval Review 17.10.07

Tonry, Kathleen. Agency and Intention in English Print, 1476–1526. Texts and Transitions, 7. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. pp. 241. ISBN: 978-2-503-53576-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Valerie Schutte

In the seventh volume of the Texts & Transitions series overseen by the Early Book Society, Kathleen Tonry offers a history of the first fifty years of print in England from the perspective of the agency and intention of the printers themselves. She argues that early printed books held the views and opinions of the men who printed them, and then addresses how and why that matters. Most studies of early English print tend to view all early English print as presaging the Reformation. Tonry offers her book as a corrective, especially as the Reformation was a non-factor from 1476 to 1526. Rather, her approach "balances the physicality of books with book-making as a generative, creative act," which aligns with the medieval understanding of books as material products intertwined with intellectual labor (2). While agency in book production is not a new idea, she focuses on late-medieval print to correct the traditionally considered divide between manuscript and print beginning around 1500.

Comprised of an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion, Tonry's study shows that late-medieval readers, writers, and book producers did not make distinctions between book and text production or writing versus creating a book. For example, paratexts of William Caxton reveal that he was neither scriptor (scribe) nor auctor (author), but instead held an "undefined book-centred" position (7). Early printing was about textual production and more; it involved choosing a text, translating, and correcting. While printers were obviously interested in profits, they could also be invested in the "extra-economic discourse of spiritual profit," or producing books for the common good (11). Tonry is also one of several scholars who has recently come to the conclusion that there was no clear distinction between manuscript and early print. Like those other scholars, Tonry is revisionist by not focusing on the mechanisms of print, but rather on printers as agents of textual creation.

In her first chapter, Tonry suggests that late-medieval printers had motivations beyond profitability; there was an ethical motivation for producing texts that continued from manuscript to print. These extra-economic concerns included morality, identity, and agency in production. Tonry identifies common-profit, or books that were produced for the welfare of readers, as a medieval motive for book production that extended into early print. By looking especially at the printed works of Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton, John Rastell, and Robert Copland, Tonry shows how common-profit became tied to the identity of book producers in a way that identity was not tied to manuscripts. Common-profit gave printers agency in book production. Printed book production demonstrated the ethical agency of printers and how they stressed the spiritual benefit of their books, yet used their own names and identities to give value to their books. Tonry discusses colophons as places where printers inserted identity and agency. Scribal manuscript colophons were haphazard, often anonymous, and information contained within them varied, but printed colophons were practically standardized by the end of the fifteenth century with a printer's name, place of print, and the year of production.

In chapter two, Tonry turns to the linkage between printed book agency and intention. She uses "intention" as "the strategic action of agency" (73). A discussion of intention is important for Tonry to show why printers printed what they printed and their desired impact. In this chapter, Tonry focuses on merchants as men who participated successfully in commerce, and printers as one subset of these merchants. This particular fifty-year period of 1476-1526 also saw mercantile interest in religious texts. Traditionally, religious print at this time has been treated as anticipating the Reformation or reacting to the fifteenth century Lollard movement. However, Tonry suggests that this period should be seen as a juncture of "religion, mercantile readership, and print" (75). Instead of focusing on book history, this chapter is really about the history of English mercantilism and theories of usury and common-profit. Anti-mercantile themes were popular in manuscripts in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but were not picked up by printers. Beginning with Henry VII, the monarchy had an interest in using and controlling print, yet mercantile culture had large influence over early English print. Print was just one aspect of the agency and intentions of London's merchants.

Chapter three offers a new approach to early English print history by identifying religious texts that "speak specifically to the interests of a merchant readership" (109). She suggests that these religious texts are interested in commercial morality that was not present in the manuscript tradition. For this chapter, she offers close readings of Caxton's Golden Legend suggesting that Caxton deliberately reshaped his text to respond to cultural needs. She also offers a close reading of Dives and Pauper, printed in several editions by Pynson, De Worde, and Berthelet to show how it related to economic discourse. She concludes the chapter by directly arguing against Elizabeth Eisenstein to suggest that print did not have agency, it was the printers who did, and one of their intentions was to create texts suitable for a mercantile readership.

In her final chapter, Tonry argues that historical writing reveals the interconnectedness of agency and intentions of printers with the agency of readers. The chapter examines printers as historians, particularly Caxton, Rastell, and the St. Albans printer. These printers modified medieval chronicles to better fit the new technology of print, yet furthered the medieval idea of the ethical reading and writing of history. She offers much discussion of how Caxton amended and added to the earliest chronicles he printed in the 1480s, books that are often overlooked in many studies of the impact of Caxton on English print and the reforming of the English literary tradition.

Tonry concludes her study by suggesting that early print has been colored by the modern concept of bibliography and terming all things printed before 1500 as incunabula; this often limits scholars from considering all early printed texts together, and thus as anticipating the Reformation. She stresses that print was not an agent of change, but a tool used to create agency, and not the only tool, at that. Printers and readers were the agents, and in the first fifty years of print in England did not view printed books through the lens of heterodoxy and orthodoxy. She hopes that her book challenges traditional narratives of early print that give printers a limited role in cultural change.

Overall, this book is a valuable addition to the newest revisionist scholarship on early English print history. While Tonry's understanding of agency and intention only applies to select printed books, her study is important because it shows that it is anachronistic and overly simplistic to understand all print (especially religious books) to anticipate the Reformation. Printers had other motivations for printing in the first half-century of print in England. Tonry's book is theoretical in nature, often using terms and phrases that Tonry coins herself. She often defines those terms and how they apply to book production, such as providing different theories of agency. She offers her study as a new paradigm by which to understand early English print. But perhaps Tonry's most important point is one that cannot be stressed enough: one should not read print history backwards (even if the printer offers a tabula and index).

Copyright (c) 2017 Valerie Schutte

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