Tunneling to the Continent

If the great trio of Pollard, McKerrow and Greg represents the first, sublimely English phase in the history of analytical bibliography, constructed around the meetings of the Bibliographical Society and the Reading Room of the library of the British Museum; if in the figure of Bowers, and more recently of that of Tanselle, we recognise a second, more belligerent, American phase, trumpeted from the Charlottesville citadel and expounded through the pages of Studies in Bibliography, it is also true that for some time the discipline has entered into a third phase, less visible and more widespread, consisting in the diffusion and teaching of the study of the physical processes by which books are made and their consequences into continental Europe. Bibliographically speaking, the hoary joke about the newspaper placard “Fog on the Channel. Continent Isolated” is nothing less than the truth.

Another truth, equally spiny, is that analytical bibliography as conceived and practised in Britain and America is far from being a suitable instrument for the study of books produced in continental Europe and the embarrassing feature of the problem is that it is Anglo-American usage that has got things upside down and back to front. For most of the Renaissance, as has already been noted, England was a printing backwater, which failed to export a significant part of its book production outside its own linguistic area. It has sometimes been thought that, when Caxton in 1476 set up his press in the village of Westminster, his decision to concentrate on producing vernacular texts was motivated by patriotism. Quite possibly, but he was also unwilling to compete with the large quantities of cheap, excellently printed Latin editions that were arriving in ships from Venice or being transported down the Rhine. Even today a source such as ISTC shows how few exemplars of books printed in England previous to 1501 have made it across the Channel, whereas the importation of books five centuries ago is recorded is recorded by the notes of many a possessor; cfr. Lotte Hellinga, ‘Importation of books printed on the Continent into England and Scotland before c. 1520’, in Printing the written word: the social history of books, circa 1450-1520, ed. Sandra Hindman (Ithaca, New York and London, Cornell University Press, 1991, pp. 205-224); Margaret Lane Ford, ‘Importation of printed books into England and Scotland’, in The Cambridge history of the book in Britain. III. 1400-1557, edited by Lotte Hellinga and J.B. Trapp (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 179-201). Bibliophiles and book-collectors, the growth of great institutional libraries, the most significant of which, that of the British Museum, directed for a long time by an Italian, Antonio Panizzi, have all meant that the flow of books from South to North and from East to West has been almost continuous over the years. An Italian bibliographer, for instance, has to work with the knowledge that of the ten largest collections of Italian Renaissance books in the world, half are probably outside Italy, the largest being the British Library in London, which has at least compensated the loss with the production of excellent bibliographical instruments. French and German bibliographers in their own countries are certainly better placed, since the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris and the Staatsbibliothek in Munich provide very large collections of historical output belonging to their respective Sprachraum, but the dispersion of significant material at home and abroad remains a major obstacle. Sad to say, the cities of Lyon and Venice, which in the Sixteenth century represented getting on for half of all European book production, most of it destined for export, today cannot offer more than a sample collection of their respective outputs.

If we take a very basic practice of Shakespearian bibliography, compositor analysis, we soon realise that it is generally impossible to apply it to the literature of other countries and other periods. The liberties taken by the compositors of the First Folio are also expression of the extremely unsettled state of the English language early in the Seventeenth century, where more or less anything goes, whereas tongues such as French and Italian had begun to regularize orthography at a much earlier stage. The application of analytical bibliography to the needs of the countries on the wrong side of the English Channel (or right side, depending on the point of view) ought therefore to leave well alone the pyrotechnics of Shakespeare scholarship and concentrate on basics. For instance, the fundamental task of establishing a list of books printed with the hand press in every  European country from 1 January 1501 onwards, as is in fact the objective of the German VD16 and VD17 projects. The skills of analysis and interpretation represented by militant bibliography can thus be best applied to the recovery and description of this immense printed heritage.

If we look at the progress of the ‘third phase’ country by country, an element of proselytism on the part of British mother-tongue bibliographers is clearly apparent. For the most part these are scholars who are or have been teachers of modern languages in British universities: for France: A.E. Screech, Giles Barber (who was also librarian of the Taylorian Institute at Oxford), David Shaw, to whom should be added the Australian based Wallace Kirsop;  for Germany: John Flood;  for Spain: Edward Wilson, Don W. Cruikshank, and Trevor Dadson; and for Italy: Conor Fahy and, to a lesser extent, Brian Richardson. The phenomenon is worth a little reflection. In the first instance, it reveals the traditional strength in modern-language teaching in the British universities up to a couple of decades ago, though in more recent time the extra cost of language teaching inside the humanities in a expense-conscious academic community, the indifference to language skills shown by governments at both extremes of the political spectrum, and the consolidation of English as the world superglot have all dealt harsh blows to what was once an area of excellence. It is of course a general rule and in some ways mere common sense, that academics, who teach the literature of a culture but do not  live within that culture and are not native speakers of the language of the same, often need to develop very specialist lines of research. From this point of view, the application of Anglo-American bibliographical method to Continental books by these same scholars was favoured not only by dialogue with colleagues in English departments, and the ease with which they could master a critical literature available mainly in English, but also by the very considerable collections of foreign books in British libraries, albeit mainly concentrated in London, Oxford and Cambridge (though some account should be taken of the still relatively little known collections in the Rylands Library at Manchester). The other group of scholars in Britain who have made very significant contributions to Continental bibliography have been in the main specialist curators in the British Library, although in this case the model derives rather from incunable studies, going back to Pollard, Proctor and Scholderer. To this latter group should be added Richard Sayce, specialist in French Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century bibliography, who was also Librarian of the Bodleian. On the other hand it is not always easy to think of Continental scholars who have employed analytical bibliography for more than an occasional insight, but it needs to be said that a younger generation is emerging, more fluent in English and more aware of the potential offered by this sort of research.

The one thing wanting is a real manual of analytical bibliography in French, in Italian, in German, in Spanish and so on. The infernal trio of McKerrow-Bowers-Gaskell remains largely untranslated (with the exception of Spain, where all three have been made available); but in any case this could only ever be a partial substitute, since a proper manual has to be tailored to the needs and history of a specific culture. Of course writings of a sort have been produced, but most of them have either been extremely superficial, as in France (see the Brief introduction), or embarassingly bad, as in Italy (to the point that I have no intention of even discussing them); on the other hand the German tome by Martin Boghardt is a worthy piece of work, albeit very different in its approach and way of thought.