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The Culture of Print: Power and the Uses of Print in Early Modern Europe

The Culture of Print: Power and the Uses of Print in Early Modern Europe

by Andrew F.G. Bourke, Lydia G. Cochrane (Translator), Roger Chartier

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The leading historians who are the authors of this work offer a highly original account of one of the most important transformations in Western culture: the change brought about by the discovery and development of printing in Europe. Focusing primarily on printed matter other than books, The Culture of Print emphasizes the specific and local contexts in which printed


The leading historians who are the authors of this work offer a highly original account of one of the most important transformations in Western culture: the change brought about by the discovery and development of printing in Europe. Focusing primarily on printed matter other than books, The Culture of Print emphasizes the specific and local contexts in which printed materials, such as broadsheets, flysheets, and posters, were used in modern Europe. The authors show that festive, ritual, cultic, civic, and pedagogic uses of print were social activities that involved deciphering texts in a collective way, with those who knew how to read leading those who did not. Only gradually did these collective forms of appropriation give way to a practice of reading--privately, silently, using the eyes alone--that has become common today. This wide-ranging work opens up new historical and methodological perspectives and will become a focal point of debate for historians and sociologists interested in the cultural transformations that accompanied the rise of modern societies.

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This collective illustrated work offers an original account of the cultural transformation brought about by the discovery and development of printing in Europe. Focus is primarily on printed matter other than books, such as broadsheets, flysheets and posters. Their effect is considered by placing them within the local, specific contexts which gave them meaning. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.17(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.33(d)

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The Culture of Print

Power and the Uses of Print in Early Modern Europe

By Alain Boureau, Roger Chartier, Marie-Elisabeth Ducreux, Christian Jouhaud, Paul Saenger, Catherine Velay-Vallantin, Lydia G. Cochrane


Copyright © 1987 Librairie Artheme Fayard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05580-0


Franciscan Piety and Voracity: Uses and Strategems in the Hagiographic Pamphlet


A noble lady of the castle of Galeta suffered from a cyst between her breasts and had found no remedy against the foul odour and the pain that overwhelmed her. One day she entered a church of the Friars to pray. She saw there a tract that contained the life and the miracles of St Francis. She leafed through it with lively interest to know what it contained, and when she had been instructed in the truth, bathed in her own tears, she took the book and placed it on the affected place and said, 'By the truth that is inscribed on this page, 0 St Francis, deliver me now from this wound by your holy merits.' And for a moment she gave herself, in tears, to intense prayer; then, after having removed her bandages, she found that she was totally cured, to the point that afterwards no trace of a scar could be found.

The Thaumaturgic Book

A hagiographic pamphlet, the Life and Miracles of St Francis, effected the cure. The book of miracles had no end. When the booklet was read and handled, it produced once more the supernatural efficacy that was its contents. One clear use of the book here is as an object to transmit the thaumaturgic powers described in its text. This propagation of the sacred, moving from the contents to the container, is not surprising in a religion in a phase of the formation of ritual by cumulative annexation. Still, nothing in this anecdote is simple, neither the nature of the book, nor its status, nor the practices that flourished around it.

The scene is reported in a Treatise on the Miracles of St Francis written around 1252 (some twenty-five years after the saint's death) by Thomas of Celano. Thomas, a close companion of St Francis, composed the first biography of the poverello of Assisi in two successive versions (Vita Prima, Vita Secunda) that contributed much to the diffusion of the saint's cult until they were replaced as the official biography when St Bonaventure wrote his life of Francis. The anecdote in the pamphlet thus belongs to Franciscan literature in an epoch of full harmony between the Friars Minor and the papacy, whose faithful servants they considered themselves. Thus it is far from illustrating autonomous 'popular religiosity'.

What exactly was this pamphlet? And what was it doing in this Friars' church? It may have been a very short text for liturgical use, since the lessons for the canonical hours or a choral 'legend' (saint's life) could dwell briefly on the life and miracles of a saint. If that were the case, it would have been a small work of few pages, and its presence in the church could easily be explained. The verb perquaesivit (rendered here as 'leafed through') should then be understood in its classical sense of 'read in its entirety'. The noble lady could easily have absorbed all of a brief antiphonal reading and have been 'instructed in the truth' (de veritate instructa). The question of the nature of the book implies a way of reading. If, on the other hand, we take the book to have been a full-length saint's life (Thomas of Celano's, for example), perquaesivit should indeed be understood in the sense of 'leaf through' and implies no need to read it or even to know how to read. 'Reading' in this case becomes a magical practice and the noble lady was more 'touched' or 'struck' by the truth than 'instructed' by it. The term used to designate the book – libellus – indicated at the time a genre rather than a specific object. In the Middle Ages, the libellus, whatever its size, told the life of a saint for devotional purposes but outside liturgical use. A painting of this miracle in the church of St Francis in Pisa seems to confirm this hypothesis, since the book depicted seems substantial. Size proves little, however, given the chronological gap (the painting cannot possibly predate 1260), and, even more, since iconographic codes dictated the depiction of any book as an object of a certain volume.

The painting does show the libellus placed on the altar, however, like a Bible or a lectionary. Of course, the troublesome ambiguity of all representations of action (was the book taken up from the altar or placed on it?) makes it impossible to know whether it had sacred status before the noble lady arrived or was promoted to that high place by the miracle. Be that as it may, the anecdote illustrates the sanctification of the hagiographic book after the Biblical model. Sacredness arose out of the text itself Our translation is powerless to judge the balance between the truth and the efficacy of the text (sicut vera ... quae sunt conscripta ... ita liberer: just as what is written of you is true ... so let me be liberated). The term pagina ('what is written on this page') referred not to the physical pamphlet but to the sacra pagina that (in the singular) designated the Bible or true doctrine. The sacred status of this booklet, on a par with Holy Writ, explains the thaumaturgic effects of the hagiographic text. Holy Writ had been used for its curative powers from apostolic times: Barnabus, according to the apocryphal Acts that bear his name, treated the sick by the laying on of the Gospels. In a neighbouring domain, the use of a Bible for prophecy and prediction is well known. Opened at random, the Bible predicted the future in the first verse that caught the reader's eye. This practice, far from making a late appearance in the bibliolatry of the Reformation, seems to have been systematic and official from earliest times. A good example of it can be found in Guibert of Nogent in the beginning of the twelfth century, who reports that each of the bishops of Laon practiced sortes upon his accession to the episcopal throne.

The thaumaturgic use of saints' lives noted by Thomas of Celano in the mid-thirteenth century was based on three new phenomena: the widespread diffusion of hagiographic texts (on which more later), a new respect for the book, and the near adoration of St Francis, in which written devotions played a large part.

Franciscans and the Cult of the Written Word

Veneration for the book can be understood, first, as the end point of the twelfth-century renewal in theology and philosophy that affirmed (through Aristotle) that truth coincided with being and that established, as Jacques Verger says, 'the quasi-synonymy, frequent at that time, of pagina and doctrina, liber and scientia. The tendency was greatly reinforced by the expansion of the mendicant orders in the early thirteenth century, and it is not by chance that we find extraordinarily high praise of the book, read and handled, in a sermon written by a Franciscan, John de la Rochelle (fl. 1225–50). The sermon clarifies the meaning and scope of the word libellus. It celebrates the memory of the Franciscan 'evangelical doctor', St Anthony of Padua (d. 1231), guarantor and authority for the 'scholarly' tendencies within the order of the Friars Minor. John applies to Anthony a verse of Revelations (10:8): 'Go; and take the book that is open, from the hand of the Angel who standeth upon the sea, and upon the earth.' John de la Rochelle says,

In this passage, Anthony receives many sorts of praise ...

Seventh, for his privileged knowledge and practice of Holy Writ. He kept a booklet open in his hand. It is said: an open booklet, a booklet in the hand. The booklet is open because it is understood; it is in the hand, not in a coffer or a purse or on a table, but in the hand, which is to say, put into practice. It is a booklet, not a book, because in this detail his privileged knowledge is emphasized, for he used his memory like a book.

The libellus was the site of a continuing incarnation and a special mediation between the hand and the memory, between God and Man. The verse from Revelations pointedly described an angel before it presented the evangelical doctor. John de la Rochelle preferred the 'booklet' to the book because it manifested being and not having, use (the open booklet) and not possession (the coffer, the purse, the table). It quite literally functioned as a memorandum, an external aid to memory. It applies not to a library or to a thick volume but to the knowing mind. It signalled, it represented, somewhat as did liturgy. It originated a cultural tradition of the bedside book – a domestic and religious work that was both intimate and universal, small and exhaustive, a work to return to again and again, always held, always open, a hand book and a 'soul book'. The immensely successful career of the manuscript, and later the printed, hagiographic pamphlet must be understood as starting from this praise of the hand-held book that, at the heart of the Middle Ages, removed the book from the learned world and oriented it towards new uses. After all, in the early thirteenth century the Franciscans had invented the breviary for universal use, and a general minister of the order, Haymo of Faversham, gave it nearly definitive form towards the middle of that century.

Until the early modern period, Franciscans worked to give an even more concrete and immediate content to this cult of the written word, as Thomas of Celano's anecdote attests. This cult seems to have been encouraged by Francis himself, and the oldest Franciscan hagiography, repeated in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend, speaks of a friar who kept a note written in St Francis's hand on his person to protect himself from temptation. This tradition was long-lived, as can be seen in François D. Boespflug's study of Crescentius of Kaufbeuren, an eighteenth-century Franciscan mystic. The theologian Eusebius Amort speaks of 'Franciscan amulets' in the context of an affair centring on illicit trade in pious images. According to Boespflug,

The Amort/Bassi report also speaks of cédules de Luc, adding that they owed their name to a Franciscan named Brother Lucas. This object might be compared to the various 'formulas to be eaten' – that is, paper notes bearing a handwritten or printed phrase taken from Holy Writ and chosen for their efficacy in conjuration. The paper was eaten as a precaution against serious danger, but in 'calm times' it could simply be worn around one's neck.

The dual nature, theological and magical, of the hagiographic book made it a sacred object that one could manipulate. Like a cult object, it could be possessed in common and be endowed with sacred power, but like devotional materials, it was an individual continuation of cultic activities and the mark of a religious practice. It took its place among medals, pious images, and pilgrimage tokens. It signalled, recalled, evoked a vow or a past or ongoing practice. When it was read, leafed through, or put on display it became a spiritual guide, along with breviaries, missals, and books of hours.

It should be noted that there were two types of libellus among the hand-sized works praised by John de la Rochelle. First, there was the compact libellus (the breviary and other forms derived from it), which was conceived to abridge, concentrate, and miniaturize all of liturgy and sacred narrative. Regular use and the techniques of reproduction and binding employed place this sort of work among those books that bore the sheen of constant use. Second, there were the hagiographic pamphlets, which offered the faithful only a small fragment of ritual life (one feast day, one patron saint, one pilgrimage), and belong to the category of books hewn from larger works, fragments of chronicles, readings from saints' lives and lectionaries. The first were books to be used; the second were books to be shelved beside the thick, stubby missal or placed in one's small book cabinet along with a few images and broadsheets.

As in many other domains, the actual practice of reading, venerating, or displaying works such as these escapes us. We would need ten, a hundred, or a thousand Thomas of Celanos, and of varying sorts. We must rely, then, on a closer analysis of the byways of book production.

The Saint's Life: A Definition

The enormous and polymorphous mass of documents is a daunting prospect, however. To risk a tautological definition, the hagiographic libellus was a brief work written to celebrate the memory of a Christian saint. The tautology seems lexical only: the diminutive in livret or libellus designated a contents and a likely use as much as it did a format. The criterion of brevity will be retained, however, in the constitution of our corpus, on the supposition that any longer saint's life implied conditions of use and costs that excluded its 'manual' use and that made learned reading practices obligatory. Celebratory purpose only vaguely circumscribes this body of materials, since such texts stood at varying distances from worship. They could be part of liturgy if the pamphlet contained or elaborated on the readings of the office or included prayers or thanksgiving. They could also fall within individual devotions and meditations, or within community festivity if we include in the genre the innumerable 'dramatic representations' (published in formats closely resembling those of the devotional pamphlets) offering the text of hagiographic dramas performed by confraternal organizations on the occasion of a saint's day. The final element of the definition – sainthood – is an important one. In Christianity, the institution of sainthood acted as a juncture between the various strata of religiosity and culture. Its ambivalence could be directed towards a sort of implicit polytheism contained in and constricted by theologic monotheism. The 'natural' and unmediated status of sainthood compensated for the unbending theoretical violence of trinitarian dogma, so rarely understood by the faithful.

The chronological limits of the potential corpus seem difficult to establish, since hagiographic narrative continued for centuries with little essential variation. If we examine one example among hundreds, a brief anonymous work sold in our own time in the church of Chasteloy-Hérisson in the Bourbonnais (the Histoire de saint Principin, martyr de Chasteloy, Montluçon, reprinted in 1961), it is clear that its plan follows the canonical model and differs little from that of its thirteenth-century counterpart. It contains sections on the 'History of St Principin' (St Principius), 'Authorities in support of the history and the cult of St Principin', 'Reports concerning several Cures', 'Hymn', 'Consecration' and 'Prayer'.

But is it feasible to scan the immense period of the development of the hagiographic pamphlet from the third century to our own times? A history of the narrative and doctrinal contents of these works would present few surprises and undoubtedly show slow but continuous shifts in religious sentiment and modes of belie£ It is more important to our concerns, however, to focus on the moments of change in the circulation of such pamphlets.

The Three Ages of Hagiography

We can distinguish three periods, three ages of hagiography. In its prehistory (up to the eleventh century), the libellus became a form of devotional literature. Its prototypes were many, from the Passion of Pepetua and Felicitas (Fassio Sanctarum Pepetuae et Felicitatis, early third century), the first western martyrdom account, to the Life of St Martin of Tours (Vita Martini Turonensis, late fourth century) by Sulpicius Severus, often imitated during the first millennium. These were learned works, however, of limited circulation, still far from liturgy and ritual and in competition with the anthologies inspired by the lives of the Desert Fathers, such as the Dialogues of Gregory the Great. These works were not produced in any great number, nor did the specific content become fixed into a brief-life followed by a list of posthumous miracles until the eighth and ninth centuries, when the Carolingian reforms stabilized the liturgy. Although the Bible was used increasingly in liturgy, revitalized hagiographic narrative was also granted a place. Thus saints' lives were compiled for liturgical use and their biographies were cut up into lessons, brief chapters to be read at matins and occasionally during the Mass. This expanded liturgical use was further increased by a strong demand from monastic communities and parishes, spurred on by lively competition for saintly patrons and a growing cult of relics. Hagiographic texts offered valuable help for proving that an abbey or a monastery possessed authentic relics and for bolstering its prestige. Until the twelfth century, the high point of monastic culture, saints' lives, single or in collections, increased dramatically, but they circulated largely within the learned ecclesiastical milieu, which drew fragments from them for liturgical purposes. Francis Wormald has noted in his study of the illustrated manuscripts of this period that up to the twelfth century hagiographic booklets and anthologies were kept in the monastery's treasury, not in the library. The libellus thus appears to have been a source of authority and an act of authentification, but not a work of edification.


Excerpted from The Culture of Print by Alain Boureau, Roger Chartier, Marie-Elisabeth Ducreux, Christian Jouhaud, Paul Saenger, Catherine Velay-Vallantin, Lydia G. Cochrane. Copyright © 1987 Librairie Artheme Fayard. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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