French 245A: The Circulation Of the Written Word In Early Modern France and Italy (1450-1800)

Instructor: Déborah Blocker

Topics in the History of the Book and Manuscript Studies:
The Circulation Of the Written Word In Early Modern France and Italy (1450-1800)

This seminar introduces students to the fundamentals of book history (the invention of the printing press, development and policing of the book market, and the material forms of the book), but also to what in the field is now called scribal culture, that is the continued circulation of manuscripts during the age of the printing press and, more generally, the lasting and constant competition between books and manuscripts in the high culture of early modern Europe.

The main aim of this seminar is to provide students with a wide panorama of how the written world circulated in early modern Europe (dealing also, though marginally, with posters and letters). Its central practical purpose it to make students more capable of finding, analyzing, and adequately using print and manuscript sources they will need to study in the context of their dissertations, so as to make them fully proficient at extracting from these materials the information they need.

We will be doing some early modern paleography and a minimal amount of codicology. We will also be thinking about how European libraries and archives developed and are currently organized when it comes to early modern materials (as this is often a consequence of the early modern circulation and conservation of these very materials and constitutes important practical knowledge to have when working in those archives). One session of the seminar will be devoted to an in-depth discussion of Dr. Filippo de Vivo’s (History, Birkbeck College) current research project on the comparative history of archives 
in late medieval and early modern Italy (this research project is funded by a four-year European Research Council Starting Grant).

The course will also address the growing availability of early modern print and manuscript sources over the internet, discussing in practical terms how they can best be found, searched and utilized, but also raising epistemological questions regarding the drawbacks of immaterial formats when one is studying the material production and circulation of texts.

This course will be useful both to students of literature (in French as well as in Italian, but also in English, Spanish and Portuguese or German, as many of the fundamentals of this history are similar in the rest of Europe) and to historians in general. Historians of art and music will also find the course of interest, given how important rare books and manuscripts sources now are for these fields as well. Historians of philosophy with a curiosity for the materiality of ideas will also benefit from it.

We will work both from primary sources (rare books and early modern manuscripts, whether at the Bancroft Library or in digital formats) and from the vast body of secondary literature that has now developed in the field of book and manuscript studies.

The course is taught entirely in English, but a reasonable reading knowledge of French and/or Italian will be needed for some of the secondary readings, as well as for the paleography exercises.

  • Elective Requirement: This course fulfills the Critical Approaches and Methodology requirement for the DE in REMS.