Antiquity and newfangleness: Re-editing the Renaissance text in the digital age

January 10, 2012

Authored by Andrew Zurcher, Fellow and Director of Studies at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge

The ‘Februarie’ eclogue of Edmund Spenser’s pastoral collection, The Shepheardes Calender, was first published in 1579. It presents a conversation between two shepherds, a brash ‘Heardmans boye’ called Cuddie and an old stick-in-the-mud named Thenot. The two of them meet on a cold winter day and get into an argument about age: Cuddie thinks Thenot is a wasted and weak-kneed whinger, while Thenot blames Cuddie for his heedless and slightly arrogant headstrongness. To support his position, Thenot tells a moralising tale about an ambitious young briar and a hoary oak. In his eagerness to flaunt his brave blooms full in the sun, the briar persuades a local husbandman to chop down the mossy tree; but the end of the tale turns bitter for the little plant when, deprived of the sheltering support of his onetime neighbour, he is utterly blown away in a heavy gale. Thenot is in the middle of applying the moral of his tale when Cuddie interrupts, and leaves in a huff — petulant and dismissive to the last. As the eclogue breaks off, the reader is caught in an old-fashioned and hackneyed dilemma: is it better to embrace the beautiful but rootless new, or cling to the solid, gnarled old?

The Shepheardes Calender poses this gnarled horn of a problem in the middle of a printed book that, itself, has already begun to play in a very material way with the tensions between antiquity and newfangleness. Spenser’s eclogues are conspicuously modeled on those of Theocritus and Virgil, Marot and Mantuan. The poems were first published elaborated with E.K.’s prefaces, his introductions (or ‘Arguments’) to each of the twelve ‘aeglogae’, and his explanatory notes. These annotations are presented in a Roman type that contrasts visually with the black letter of Spenser’s poetry, framing it in a style that emulated early modern editions of Virgil’s eclogues, as well as the theological and legal texts that, in this humanist period, were often produced entirely engulfed in glosses and comments. Each of the eclogues is also accompanied by a woodcut, done in a rough style, and concludes with an ‘embleme’ apiece for each of the eclogue’s interlocutors. These archaising features belie the novelty of Spenser’s project — the first complete set of original pastoral poems in English, and a collection that, in its allegorical engagement with the history of England’s recent and successive reformations, put this country and its fledgling literary culture on the map. Here at last was England’s Virgil, said Spenser himself. Just look at his book. But is it an old book, or a new book? Is it new-old, or old-new? What is the meaning of the new, if it be not interpreted by the old?

One of the most exciting aspects of the Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO) project is that it, like Spenser’s Calender, gets to ask these questions at a crisis moment in the history of reading and writing. Spenser produced his eclogues in the first century of print, at a time when this technology was reaching a new height of bibliographical experimentation and complexity. He wanted his readers to ask themselves about the experience of reading, the authority (even identity) of the author and of the text, the importance of layout, the materiality of the reading experience. These are questions that we, too, must ask ourselves. In the year when the Kindle caught Fire, and in a freak historical recursiveness we all began to read and write (like Romans) on tablets, we are all ourselves assisting in the invention of a new praxis of reading. Words on the page are now, in many uncomplicated contexts, simply words on a screen. But what happens when we take the material complexity of a text like The Shepheardes Calender, or Ben Jonson’s Timber, or Discoveries, or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and present it not as a book, but rather as a menu of options which the individual user controls? As we digitise Oxford University Press’s scholarly editions, readying them for release on OSEO, we are not simply taking pictures of old books, and shoving them into cyberspace. We are trying to imagine the future of reading. And we are trying to take care of works that, like The Shepheardes Calender, already seem to be self-conscious about, even resistant to, the changes we are making to them.

The editions to be published as part of the OSEO project will be, in an important sense, historical documents that reflect the tastes and the scholarship of the editors who produced them at particular moments in scholarly history (in some cases — for new publications — our own moments). But they will also be brash, freshly-keyed texts, searchable and manipulable in a range of different ways. Users will be able to leap about the text quick as a click, toggle paratexts (original marginal comments and notes, editor’s introductions, glosses etc.) both on and off, and compare multiple editions alongside one another in a personal workspace. Some features of the original paper editions will be retained; for example, users will be able to match the scrolling text to its original pagination, so facilitating secure citation from some of Oxford’s landmark editions. But other features of the printed text will, inevitably, be lost, from the brittle snap of an old page, to the obsolete running-titles and the inane marginalia of yesterday’s undergraduates. In thinking about how to embrace the new possibilities of electronic publication, with all the advantages of search technology, side by side comparison, and cutting and pasting, we have had to think carefully, too, about what can — safely? — be lost. There is no question that the research and reading practices of both scholars and students are changing, and OSEO is at the forefront of imagining and creating this change in the scholarly context. In this complex process of intimately interleaving the old with the new, we must ensure that we give Thenot no cause for complaint.

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