When I was in New York in November, at the Met even, I managed to miss Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance, which is now headed to London. (I’m always a complete nerd for conservation videos, so here’s one from the Met about restoration work done on a few of the Gossaert pictures before the exhibition.) Maev Kennedy wrote a pretty conventional if interesting article about the London show in the Guardian recently, highlighting that the secular, sensual touch Gossaert brought to the conventional religious material of the early Renaissance is what makes his work really interesting. His work was also something of a bridge between southern and northern Renaissances – after visiting Rome in 1508 and internalizing the lightness and vividness of Michelangelo and Raphael, he brought this sensibility to the more reserved, mannered style of the Low Countries. I was also drawn to the readily identifiable emotions of some of the subjects in the gallery from the Guardian piece, the tender indulgence of the mother in “Virgin and Child” (#1 in the gallery), and especially to the dead-tired figure of Christ in “The Mocking of Christ” (#4), so vivid among the two-dimensional ignoramuses who mock him, his eyes raw from crying, dark from lack of sleep, but still hopeful – he looks to me (and I mean this with all respect and empathy) like a drag queen the morning after a bad night.

But this being me, what fascinated me most was the “Portrait of a Merchant” (c. 1530), pictured above, the materials of writing it depicts, and the insights into early modern books and writing it allows.
(Below the break, paper and binders and grocers, oh my.)

The merchant’s priggish expression, so beautifully rendered in alabaster skin tones, is fitting for a man who was in on the ground floor of bourgeois, merchant-class early modern Europe. I love the loose papers of various sizes suspended ingeniously by wire above his head – would he have pulled them down with as little attention as we pay to pulling off another Post It note? – labelled, according to this piece on the blog Head for Art, “miscellaneous letters” and “miscellaneous drafts.” But I especially love the notebook he’s writing in (again, there are great shots of these details on the Head for Art blog), which are a useful gloss on how writing and books happened in the Renaissance. For one, even after the advent of printing in the late 15th century, manuscript writing – letters, notebooks, waste books, ledgers – persisted, and though we know quite a lot about printed texts in the Renaissance, we know quite a bit less about how manuscript culture developed as printing began to flourish (you’ll notice that from here on out my notes are mostly about printed materials, alas). Notice that the gatherings of paper he has before him are stitched together but not bound – this is how books, too, would have been bought all over Europe in the early modern period. Some stationers (the broader, historically appropriate umbrella term that covers the role of printers, booksellers, bookbinders, and various other overlapping trades) who printed the texts would have had business associations with binders, but more often than not book buyers, especially noble ones, would have employed a binder to bound the loose, pamphlet-like texts in covers, usually of calf, goat, or sheep skin. When Nicholas Ling printed the first quarto of Hamlet (which I’ve also mentioned here) in 1603, it would have come unbound like the gatherings before the merchant, to be bound at the owner’s expense.

The difference between a “literary” text like Hamlet (an incredibly problematic term) and a business-related text like the one being written in the painting above seems obvious, but these spheres actually have a lot of overlap. The booktrade was and is, after all, a trade, and the business documents of Philip Henslowe, who owned Shakespeare’s competing acting company, the Admiral’s Men, are the most important source for understanding the business of theater in London during most of Shakespeare’s career, 1592-1609. From Henslowe’s Diary we learn, for example, that theaters spent far more on costumes than on paying writers and, since the early modern sensibility is far more miscellaneous than our own (in part because paper was far more expensive), a few recipes and an herbal cure for “the ague” (a fever). On the more explicitly literary side of things, merchants, or at least one grocer, was one of the most influential tastemakers in late Elizabethan London. In 1597 John Bodenham, a member of the grocer’s guild in London, collaborated with the stationer Nicholas Ling (the same one who published the first quarto of Hamlet) on a commonplace book called Politeuphuia, Wits Common Wealth.

Though we are familiar with modern commonplace books like Bartlett’s Quotations, it is hard to convey briefly how central to the intellectual life of the Renaissance was the practice of extracting useful quotations (or sententiae, sentences) from a whole host of sources and collating them by subject in a book like Politeuphuia. In some cases, reading classical historians like Livy or more contemporary commentators like Machiavelli was done not necessarily for “edification” or “entertainment” (though these were probably byproducts), but purely to extract commonplaces for use in speeches or letters – reading that is directed to different ends than our own, for the most part. Commonplace books were traditionally made up of short excerpts from classical or Christian authorities, but Bodenham and Ling’s commonplace book Politeuphuia was radical in that it included commonplaces from contemporary English writers. The shifting counterweight of vernacular languages against Latin had been coming slowly since, among others, Dante wrote La Commedia (1321) to show the poetic potential of Florentine Italian and Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales (c. 1400) partly with the same aim for English, but this was the first time living vernacular writers in English were deemed worthy of inclusion in a commonplace book. Suddenly, like Horace or St. Augustine, Shakespeare and some of his contemporaries were writers considered worthy of being cited in cultivated letters or tracts – Shakespeare has been canonical, in one way or another, ever since. And it wasn’t a critic or another poet who initiated this trend – it was a grocer named John Bodenham, who may not have looked so different from the prim merchant pictured above.

The picture of the title page of Politeuphuia is from the copy housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library, retrieved via Early English Books Online (subscription required). In talking about binding and stationers I’m indebted to Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography (1972) and an essay by Helen Smith (one of my former professors at York), “The Publishing Trade in Shakespeare’s Time.” That essay and the one in which I first read about Politeuphuia and other late Elizabethan commonplace books, “Reading and Authorship: The Circulation of Shakespeare 1590-1619” by Peter Stallybrass and Roger Chartier, are in a book edited by Andrew Murphy, A Concise Companion to Shakespeare and the Text (2007). How commonplacing influenced the reading habits of early modern intellectuals is treated in a case study by Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, “Studied for Action: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy,” Past and Present 129 (Nov. 1990), p. 30-78.