Reading Nobility: Authority and Early English Print Public Deposited

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  • March 20, 2019
  • Stewart, Vaughn
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • Reading Nobility examines the paratextual, literary, historical, and physical ways print books serve as brokers of authority. Over the course of four chapters, I analyze how English printers—with a primary focus on the incunabular period from 1476-1500—invoke concepts of nobility, negotiating authority newly accessible to emerging readerships. The first chapter focuses on Caxton's paratexts and expands upon an already interesting lexical insight: “noble” is Caxton's most used adjective. Through word frequency analysis, I find that “noble” occurs much more frequently in prefatory paratextual material than elsewhere in Caxton's works. To answer why such a pattern exists, I examine the paratexts to the Recuyell of the Histories of Troye and the Eneydos. I argue that the frequency of “noble” does not display Caxton's careful word choice but, instead, manifests larger social anxieties of Caxton's milieu that linguistically rise to the surface in his paratexts. The next chapter explores how Caxton's editions of Chaucer inaugurate the printer as a necessary intermediary between the reader and a spiritually authentic Chaucer. Caxton serves as a conduit through which authoritative versions of Chaucer's works flow, a model that has a lasting impact on the poet's subsequent presentation in printings from Copland, Rastell, De Worde, and Pynson. Caxton thus instantiates printers as necessary mediators who provide readers an authentic, vivid, and accessible Chaucer. In the third chapter, I show how early print chronicles—specifically those by Caxton and the St. Albans Printer—legitimize the new technology of textual production by linking it to royal and religious authority. The final chapter examines Caxton's 1483 edition of the Confessio Amantis, oddly printed with gaps left for illustrations. An analysis of multiple copies held in the United States and England reveals that owners occasionally exploited these spaces to add optional embellishment. Considering the Confessio Amantis's manuscript history of “standardized” deluxe volumes, I argue that Caxton made his edition socially nimble through its optional embellishment as purchasers could elect to elevate the status of their texts and, in turn, themselves.
Date of publication
Resource type
Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Legassie, Shayne
  • O'Neill, Patrick
  • Wittig, Joseph S.
  • Wolfe, Jessica
  • Leinbaugh, Theodore
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2016

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