Do hens have hands?

Adam Smyth

  • The Culture of Correction in Renaissance Europe (Panizzi Lectures) by Anthony Grafton
    British Library, 144 pp, £30.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 7123 5845 3

When the King’s printer Robert Barker produced a new edition of the King James Bible in 1631, he overlooked three letters from the seventh commandment, producing the startling injunction: ‘Thou shalt commit adultery.’ Barker was fined £300, and spent the rest of his life in debtors’ prison, even while his name remained on imprints. ‘I knew the tyme when great care was had about printing,’ the Archbishop of Canterbury lamented, ‘but now the paper is nought, the composers boyes, and the correctors unlearned.’ Most copies of what became known as the Wicked, Adulterous or Sinners’ Bible were promptly burned, but a few survive as collectors’ items, their value raised immeasurably by Barker’s error: one featured in an exhibition at the Bodleian Library last year about the making of the King James Bible.[*]

‘In winter, working by candlelight, when the rooms are warm and the printers become lazy and sleepy, it’s easy to overlook things,’ the Dresden printer Wolfgang Stöckel wrote in the early 16th century. It isn’t clear whether Barker’s mistake was a weary slip in a dark room, or an act of sabotage at a moment when biblical translation was politically fraught; the motives behind ‘Blessed are the place-makers’ (1562 Geneva Bible), and ‘the unrighteous shall inherit the Kingdom of God’ (1653 King James Bible) are uncertain too. But the three missing letters show the vertiginous power of error suddenly to invert meaning, and they illuminate, momentarily, the responsibility resting on the underpaid, undervalued, put-upon compositor. One can understand why, with so much at stake, his exhausted fingers might have hesitated over the rows of type.

The story of error is the flipside of a history of the book that is traditionally organised as a narrative of technological triumph. Elisabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979) made a pioneering argument about the revolutionary capacity of movable type not only to standardise and fix text, but also to disseminate it to a newly wide readership, a radical democratisation of knowledge that in part enabled a Protestant Reformation in which each reader’s encounter with the printed word was central. Recent scholarship has broken up this grand narrative into a more tentative story of change, replacing technological agency with a messy world of collaboration, muddle, money, contingency and imperfection. Less a confident stride towards modernity, the Renaissance book now looks stranger: not quite yet a thing of our world.

Where once there was revolution, we’re now inclined to see continuities with manuscript culture: early printed books – including the first of them, Gutenberg’s Latin Bible of 1455 – tried very hard to look like handwritten texts. Like all new media scrambling for credibility, print disguised its own novelty. Narratives in which print triumphs over scribal culture have been eclipsed by a recognition of their overlap; Peter Stallybrass’s work on ‘printing-for-manuscript’ shows how popular printed texts such as almanacs actively encouraged handwritten interventions: one from 1566 offers itself as a space for anyone ‘that will make & keepe notes of any actes, deedes, or thinges that passeth from time to time, worthy of memory, to be registered’. Far from killing off scribal activity, printing functioned, in Stallybrass’s words, as ‘a revolutionary incitement to writing by hand’. The printing press’s capacity to stabilise texts – to ensure that the right words were printed again and again – and so to encourage categories such as ‘author’ and ‘literature’ to take root, now seems, at best, a stuttering process.

The gusto with which readers intervened in texts, adding annotations (ticks and crosses; sketches of flowers; heckling commentaries) or even physically remaking them (knives and scissors were reading props alongside spectacles and candles) suggests that the book was thought of less as a finished, coherent object and more as an ongoing process: often sold unbound, and frequently including blank pages, the material book had the capacity for endless revision. Perhaps most significant, historians of early modern print culture have begun to realise that the book was only one of many forms for conveying printed text, and not always the most profitable: printers made much of their money from ephemeral texts like pamphlets, broadsheets and ballads. The history of the book beyond the book is becoming a rich area of study.

The Culture of Correction is built on a series of case-studies from the first 250 years of European printing, drawing, in particular, on printers’ archives in Leiden, Antwerp and Rome. The volume confirms, if it needed confirming, Anthony Grafton’s unrivalled capacity, within Renaissance studies, to combine high learning (‘the correctors studied here were hardly typical,’ he notes, with some pride) with the ability to make potentially arid archival sources – printers’ proofs, correspondence, records – sing. The world of printing that emerges in The Culture of Correction is an always collaborative, thoroughly social, but not always friendly process: an inky collision of scholarship, manual labour and sharp business practices, operating under financial pressures and a hail of deadlines. The looming Frankfurt Book Fair caused such stress in Thomas Platter’s printing house in 1536 that Platter’s partner Balthasar Ruch attacked him with a ‘heavy pine board’ while Platter was correcting proofs. We sense this mix of industry and panic, of erudition and hard graft, in a Moses Thym engraving from 1608: a swarming print shop in which a man plucks type from a tray to set a page; a boy moistens paper to ensure it will hold ink; a printer tugs at a hand-press; a young man places the freshly printed sheets, still wet with ink, on a ceiling rack to dry; a young woman enters with a huge jug of beer (errors were often blamed on ‘printers’ wine’); and surveying it all is the master printer, who – dressed in fine robes but nervously counting on his fingers – seems simultaneously wealthy and almost broke. At the back of the room, partly obscured, is a well-dressed man in a ruff, marking a text as an author looks on disdainfully. This is the corrector: Grafton’s flawed hero in a story of the (stumbling) modernity of print.

Correctors were crucial middlemen, watching over texts as they made their uncertain way from author to print-shop to reading public, trying to secure accuracy and regularity amid the ‘havoc’ of printing. They altered manuscript copy before passing it to compositors, inserting punctuation, which authors didn’t worry about too much. They wrote fair copies of manuscripts; translated texts; and scanned proofs with a lector reading copy out loud as pages came off the press – ‘edited in the course of printing’ is the breathless inscription in one book from 1479. They rewrote authorial texts (‘single-author texts’ were often silently collaborative) and composed the paratextual devices – contents tables, indexes, chapter headings, marginal summaries, even introductions – that guided Renaissance readers around their books with increasing, and increasingly non-linear, precision. Authors were a constant source of woe. In exile from Marian England and toiling reluctantly as a corrector in Basel, John Foxe said he had never read anything ‘less pleasant, more choppy or more rebarbative’ than Stephen Gardiner’s prose (‘he spirals off so wildly that he needs a Sibyl rather than a translator’); Balthasar Moretus of the Plantin company complained that one author’s ‘writing, which is not so much inelegant as simply full of mistakes, terrifies us’; a third asked: ‘Do hens have hands?’

At its peak, the job was extraordinarily demanding. Extant papers from the Plantin archive include Hebrew dictionary proofs covered with ‘thickets’ of annotation and 44 pages of manuscript notes: a ‘magnificent hybrid of print and manuscript’, Grafton writes with delight, that ‘takes us directly into Plantin’s shop’. Correctors could be very learned indeed: Robert Estienne gathered ten of them from ten different countries at his Paris shop – they spoke Latin at dinner – and was so confident about their work that he hung corrected sheets in the street, challenging passers-by to find errors for a reward. In contemporary descriptions, the corrector sounds like some combination of child genius, automaton and loyal dog. Christopher Plantin praised his son-in-law’s potential for correcting because he

has never been passionately interested in anything so much as the study of the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean, Syriac and Arabic tongues (in which those who confer with him familiarly affirm that he is no mean scholar) and of the humanities; also he will correct loyally, carefully and faithfully whatever is entrusted to him, without ever seeking to parade his learning or show off before others, for he is very retiring and most assiduous at the tasks assigned to him.

As correcting was professionalised, becoming a distinct occupation rather than one activity among many performed by clerics and professors, correctors began to be mocked, blamed and derided. Some were artisans who had risen up – Thomas Platter began as a rope-maker – but many were learned men who had failed to secure better jobs: ‘shabby, Bartleby-like figures’, in Grafton’s words, who spent their days bent over proofs, tainted by the whiff of manual labour, and paid little for a job which, if performed well, grew invisible. Correctors were talked about when things went wrong: Henri Estienne spoke of one who ‘inflicted ghastly wounds on the text’ by changing every proci (‘suitors’) to porci (‘pigs’). And since, as Joseph Loewenstein put it in Ben Jonson and Possessive Authorship, ‘a moral vocabulary … lurked within the language of text correction’ – error-strewn text suggested sloth and dishonesty – print-shop pressures grew acute. Corrector Stephan Bergler lived completely isolated in the highest attic of a house in Leipzig. Even Jerome Hornschuch, author of the Orthotypographia (1608), a guide to correcting, confessed to taking up the job only to avoid the more terrible fate of work as a tutor: given half the chance, he wrote, most correctors ‘would be off like a shot from this sweat-shop’. The Reformation raised the stakes, as both Protestants and Catholics claimed to be engaged in a sustained process of biblical correction. Protestant scholars stripped away what they saw as the obscuring textual accretions of Catholicism in order to return to an unadorned Word, while Catholics such as Thomas More (as Seth Lerer shows in Error and the Academic Self) regarded Protestant texts as assemblages of error.

For Grafton, correctors stand for ‘something like a new culture’, which pursued regularisation and ‘textual precision’: they were ‘a new social type’, informed by the medieval scriptorium but fundamentally ‘brought into the world by printing’. They herald the beginning of certain modern attitudes to the book that survive today, not only in the technical language they developed (including the deletion sign derived from the Greek δ), but more significantly through a broader stress on uniformity, accuracy, standardisation and ‘a new sense of responsibility towards the transmitted text’. We see this in the overheated title-page boasts that use a rhetoric of accuracy to out-jostle rivals: the third edition of Lancelot Andrewes’s A Pattern of Catechistical Doctrine (1675) was ‘corrected and perfected … and thereby purged from many thousands of errours, defects, and corruptions, which were in a rude imperfect draught formerly published’.

Grafton’s story, while richly attuned to the eccentric byways of print and to the gaps between profession and enactment, is broadly progressive: correctors possessed ‘a set of tools’ for producing ‘a better, more desirable product’ and securing ‘a larger market share’, and were (in one of a number of presentist parallels that sound oddly dated) like ‘web masters and other computer professionals who inhabit modern offices’. And although Grafton’s discussion of correctors’ mistakes fizzes with examples that illuminate the ‘wonderfully messy’ world of print, error, in his account, is an unlovely enemy, and something fundamentally opposed to the project of print. Errors are ‘homely, slovenly’, shameful things that ‘polluted books’. They ‘crept in’, like ‘the wilie Snake’ in Paradise Lost: ‘suttlest Beast of all’.

But the telos of print and modernity occludes other, stranger attitudes to texts, among them the idea of error as something productive, which, alive in the Renaissance, has since receded. These are the paths not taken by the history of the book. Indeed, despite the correctors’ labours, the Renaissance printing press could be seen less as a force for textual fixity than as a mechanism for disseminating error with greater efficiency: this at least was the view, as Grafton notes, of the humanist Niccolò Perotti, who, after years of celebrating the press, thought it ‘better to do without these [printed] books than to have them copied a thousand times and sent out through all the provinces of the entire world.’

Take lists of errata: one of print’s innovations, and fascinating little confessional spaces that look, at first sight, like emblems of a culture of accuracy. Their relationship with error was paradoxical and sits uneasily in Whiggish histories of print. Books seeking to create the effect of accuracy did so by parading their mistakes; the task of correcting devolved to readers (‘as thou readest, correct them by thy own judgement,’ proclaimed an insouciant Mysteries of Love & Eloquence in 1658); and errata lists often themselves contained further errors. These lists of mistakes, which opened many books, cast error as one of print’s signature traits. ‘Besides the many failings both of the Author,’ Thomas Blount’s Animadversions upon Sr. Richard Baker’s Chronicle (1672) began,

the Printer has, with supine negligence, added a grosse number of Errata’s, without any advertisement of them, but leaving all upon the Authors account, yet the understanding Reader will, for the most part, discern, which ought to be laid at the Authors Study dore, and which at the Printers Case.

No wonder, then, that when Edmund Spenser came to imagine error personified, he saw a monstrous version of print culture. In Book I of The Faerie Queene, the holy knight Redcrosse bungles his way through the Wandering Wood, mistakenly taking the paths chosen by others, until he is face to face with Error: half-woman, half-serpent, ‘lothsom, filthie, foule’ – and thoroughly bookish. As Redcrosse grips her throat, she vomits up not only ‘toades, which eyes did lacke’, but also ‘bookes and papers’, while about her scuttle her ‘fruitfull cursed spawne of serpents small’: ‘fowle, and blacke as inke’. The problem for Redcrosse is that error can’t be corrected like an inverted ‘m’ in a compositor’s tray. Error in The Faerie Queene is a monster, but it is also the landscape, and a condition of living: Redcrosse cuts off Error’s head (‘A streame of cole black bloud forth gushed’), but he remains a knight errant – a figure who wanders and errs. Spenser’s poem needs these mistakes: had Redcrosse swiftly and successfully tracked down the dragon holding Una’s parents, there would be no epic. The poetry springs up in Redcrosse’s error-prone meanderings between command and fulfilment, and the poem becomes an example of the literary and moral riches that error can produce.

Catalogues of errors became bestsellers in Renaissance Europe. Laurent Joubert, physician to Catherine de Medici and Henry III, wrote two volumes on what Montaigne called ‘the vast and troubled sea of medical error’, including, in Les Erreurs populaires (1579), feisty chapters on wrong-headed assumptions about the evils of wine, the deterioration of blood sausage, and the (widespread?) practice of too frequently changing bedcovers. Thomas Browne’s collection of ‘Vulgar Errors’, Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), was ‘composed by snatches of time’ as Browne laboured as a doctor, specialising in the unpleasing art of uroscopy. Browne tracks error back to Eve and the apple and the tree of knowledge, the Fall resulting in the panorama of mistakes that he perceives around him in Norwich in 1646. He is particularly good on animals: ‘That a Bear brings forth her young informous and unshapen, which she fashioneth after by licking them over’; ‘Concerning the venomous Urine of Toads’; ‘That the Bever to escape the Hunter, bites off his testicles or stones’; that ‘the Elephant … being unable to lie down … sleepeth against a Tree’; ‘That a Brock or Badger hath the legs on one side shorter then of the other, though an opinion perhaps not very ancient, is yet very general.’ Browne’s unravelling of the belief ‘that every Hare is both male and female’ – the ‘affirmative of Archelaus, of Plutarch, Philostratus and many more’ – leads him on a remarkable and extended meditation on ‘Retromingency or pissing backward’:

for men observing both sexes to urine backward, or aversly between their legs, they might conceive there was a feminine part in both; wherein they are deceived by the ignorance of the just and proper site of the Pizzel, or part designed unto the Excretion of urine; which in the Hare holds not the common position, but is aversly seated, and in its distension enclines unto the Coccix or Scut.

Is Browne joking? Probably not: if these lines seem funny today, that has more to do with a copious prose style that had not yet become strange in the mid-17th century. (Christian Morals, which Browne wrote for his children, begins: ‘Tread softly and circumspectly in this funambulatory Track and … Maim not Uprightness by halting Concomitances.’) Browne’s professed commitment is to truth, reached by ‘singling out’ the ‘encroachments’ of error before casting them into oblivion, but the verve with which he anatomises mistakes means the book ends up as a monument to error’s beguiling vitality, and evidence of what Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, called the ‘one thousand forms of error’ in contrast to the (impoverished) singularity of truth. In Areopagitica, a defence of freedom of expression, Milton made an even bolder case for the ethical importance of getting things wrong. Writing to the sound of civil war, and with The Faerie Queene in mind, he described ‘the true warfaring Christian’ as one whose virtue could emerge only through entanglements with vice, and ‘all her baits and seeming pleasures’. A virtue that ‘slinks out of the race’ to remain ‘fugitive and cloister’d’ is no virtue at all (‘a blank vertue, not a pure’); a ‘survey of vice is … necessary to the constituting of human vertue’, and ‘the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth’.

‘God helpe the man so wrapt in Errours endlesse traine,’ laments Spenser’s Una, watching on as Redcrosse battles with Error. But to enter the world of Error is also to enter the world of print. When The Faerie Queene was published in 1590, it was accompanied with a list of ‘Faults escaped in the Print’; in the reprint of 1596, many of these escapees remained, still on the loose in a Spenserian landscape, and ‘blacke as inke’.

[*] The exhibition catalogue is Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible, edited by Helen Moore and Julian Reid (Bodleian Library, 208 pp., £19.99, April 2011, 978 1 85124 349 5).