The Project

Transmission relies on the fact of ‘publication’. But what does ‘publishing’ mean in the context of a manuscript culture, in which books were copied slowly and singly by hand? What did it mean to ‘publish’ a book in Western Europe in the Middle Ages? This project attempts to answer that question.  

MedPub’s research hypothesis is that publication strategies were not a constant but were liable to change, and that different social, literary, institutional, and technical milieux fostered different approaches to publishing. That proposition is encapsulated in the different processes of publication used by Ralph the Monk, towards the start of our period, and Leonardo Bruni towards the end. Ralph the Monk, an author from Normandy who ended his career in England in the early twelfth century, possessed limited control over the publication of his treatise De peccatore. The work was initially circulated without his permission. When Ralph subsequently reclaimed and properly published it, publication was a petty event within only a small circle of monks. That experience contrasts profoundly with that of the publication of Historiarum Florentini populi libri XII by Leonardo Bruni († 1444). Bruni published his work in instalments. These acts constituted grand municipal events, sometimes associated with major civic festivities. So, whereas publishing might be mainly a semi-private business in the eleventh century, it could be a grand affair in the fifteenth. The act of publishing evolved over time, reacting to changes in the wider world.  

We seek to make two contributions. The first concerns the study of Latin literature. The act of publishing completes the authorial process, and if one fails to appreciate that act, one’s understanding of literature from any period will remain defective. The project, therefore, seeks to establish the key parameters for the process of publishing during its medieval period. Our investigations focus on the activities of authors, and secondarily of their circles, as they made preparations for the primary stages of circulation. Our case-studies build on the relevant historical record, text-critical evidence, and the physical evidence of manuscripts.  

Secondly, the project seeks to complement the perception of societal and cultural changes that took place during the period from c. 1000 and 1500. For the purposes of that undertaking, we define ‘publishing’ as a social act, involving at least two parties, an author and an audience, not necessarily always brought together. The former prepares a literary work and then makes it available to the latter. Medieval publishing was probably more often a more complex process. It could engage more parties than the two, such as commentators, dedicatees, and commissioners. The social status of these networks ranged from mediocre to grand. They could consist of otherwise unknown monks; or they could include popes and emperors. We propose that the composition of such literary networks was broadly reactive to large-scale societal and cultural changes. If so, networks of publishing can serve as a vantage point for the observation of continuity and change in medieval societies. We shall collect and analyse an abundance of data of publishing networks in order to trace how their composition in various contexts may reflect the wider world.