Getting to Know Some Old Things Very Well: The Rare Books Project

        One of the greatest differences between Medieval or Early Modern culture and our own is the slower apparent speed with which things happened before the onset of modernity, with its active pursuit of change and its concern for ever more precise measurements of time.  Time, itself, presumably passed just as quickly when measured in an astronomical sense, but until quite late in the course's readings, people lived not according to clocks accurate to the tenth or hundredth of a second, much less according to computers and cell phones calibrated to the vibrations of a Cesium atomic clock.  A notable exception to this generalization is Marlowe's Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which uses the tolling of quarter hours in Scene 13 to dramatize time-compression as Faustus strives to re-enchant his universe to stop the  flow of time.  But Marlowe shows himself to be in the "tech-savvy" avant guarde in this and many other ways.

         In the oldest texts, from Bede and Beowulf through Wyatt and the sonneteers, sunrise and sunset, the passage of time is referred to by the position of the sun or moon in the sky, the rising and setting constellations that accompanied the changing seasons, the religious feast days which organized the Church calendar, traditional pagan feasts that survived mainly in the countryside, and the chaotic but widely dispersed catastrophes of fire, windstorm, flood and warfare that monks recorded in chronicles.  The "devouring Time" sonnet motif, which Spencer and Shakespeare borrowed from Du Bellay, still treats time on a vast geological scale.  Even writers as late as Congreve and Montagu barely notice more than the meals by which the London elite structured their days.  Rochester's "Satyre Against Reason and Mankind" ridicules the time-haunted life: "Hunger calls out, my reason bids me eat; / Perversely, yours your appetite does mock: / This asks for food, that answers, "What's o'clock?"  Only Marvell, of the poets we read in English 211, seems to perceive the awful transition in "To His Coy Mistress," which shifts its chronological perspective from a love that is "vaster than empires and more slow" to the sudden pursuit by "Time's winged chariot," but his instrument of time-measurement is still "our sun," not the second hand of an analog clock dial.

        The contemporary student of Medieval and Early Modern literature must slow down and develop patience to learn from the surviving witnesses what they have to reveal.  To give you some hands-on experience handling very old objects and developing the patience to learn from them, the Library's Special Collections Librarian and I will teach you how to use rare printed and manuscript books as primary research materials.  This is a great opportunity to slow down your scholarly "clock" and to become familiar with some rare objects few people have seen in several hundred years.  More importantly, it gives you a chance to discover some genuinely new primary source evidence that you can use in this course, as well as in your other courses in majors as varied as History, Art, Music, Sociology, and Economics.

        If you are interested in writing a short (5 to 7 page) description of and response to one of the library's Early Modern printed books, make an appointment with me to discuss your interests.  I will encourage you first to consider investigating an edition from this list of old books (1495-1803) in the Rare Book Collection (Athenaeum, 4th floor).  If one of the books on the list does not attract you, we can search the catalog for other relevant authors or keywords using the Advanced Search function, setting the "Location" to "Special Collections."  Any of these Early Modern printed books can tell you many things, depending on what you already know and how patient/curious you are.  With each book you will also receive a short list of questions the book can answer if you examine it carefully.  I also hope you will discover your own questions as you study these objects and give them the respectful attention deserved by anything that has survived for 200 to 400 years, or more.  Your description and response paper is due by the beginning of the tenth week of classes.  That will give me time before the end of the semester to meet with you for a conference to discuss what you found.  I am  especially interested in your own questions about the books, bookmaking, publishing, and other aspects of the technologies by which literature of the past can be recovered. 

        Before you actually can have access to your book, you need to spend an hour with the Special Collections Librarian or her assistant to learn how to handle archival materials, especially how to handle fragile paper and how old bindings must be treated.  You understand how hand-made books of this era are constructed and how the text is kept on the page by comparing examples of old and modern book binding, pages printed on early hand presses, and pages written by human scribes rather than printed by machines.  To begin preparing to handle your book, take a look at this very brief but well-illustrated web page on the making of manuscript (hand-written) books from the Getty Museum.  Read this web page and the related links to familiarize yourself with the basic history of how books were made, from manuscript to movable type printing.  If you want to see images of early typefaces from the 15th century through the present, see the images from the Cary Collection at RIT.   These early book pages will help prepare you for what you are about to encounter.   Just select one image from each century and you will get a rapid sense of how book layout and typefaces can tell you when an early book was printed.

Additional Links to Related Web Pages on Bibliographic and Conservation Issues

Oak gall ink and the corrosion of old MSS--when acid produced by hand-made inks has time to eat into paper or parchment, whole manuscripts or readers' manuscript annotations on printed books can turn the pages to a sort of "lace," where emptiness replaces the inked letters.

Brittle paper and the condition of printed books--a nineteenth- and twentieth-century byproduct of the shift in paper making technology from linen rags to chemically treated wood pulp was paper that became extremely brittle within decades.

Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books:  A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology.  Matt T. Roberts and Don Etherington (Stanford U.)--stumped by a word you encounter in the course of your training?  Look it up in Roberts and Etherington!