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Vanda Anastacio, Nieves Baranda, Marie-Louise Coolahan

Early Modern Manuscript Culture and the Reception of Women’s Writing


Manuscripts are disturbing objects in reception studies. When dealing with print publication it is assumed (possibly over optimistically) that at least a few hundred copies of that textual object circulated – although private editions, kidnapped or prohibited works, accidental losses (among other circumstances) are part of the dissemination history and problematize the relationship between such terms as large public reception and publishing. Evaluation of manuscript reading and reception might be easier if circulation of handwritten texts had stopped when printing presses proliferated but manuscripts were used for several centuries after 1450. At least between 1450 and 1800, manuscript and print coexisted in happy accord. This means manuscripts cannot simply be dismissed as private documents that lacked any significant reception. Many of these texts were never written for print publication but were widely disseminated in the more traditional way: in handwritten form. This paper will present statistics (based on the WomenWriters, Bieses, and Perdita databases) in order to illuminate the modes of dissemination used for women’s writing in Spain, Portugal and England.

One of the features of manuscript transmission is that many poems (or other short literary units) are preserved in unique copies. Moreover, many manuscripts compiling these poems are miscellanies, containing varied works by different writers. This leads us to another important feature: authors’ names are rarely declared on the title-page, so the author-function (in Foucault’s sense) is displaced, internally attached to each individual text, meaning limited authorial visibility. The reader has to read the manuscript to find authors’ names – and these are often lacking, further emphasising the irrelevance of the author-function for many compilers and readers. Hence, authorship (whether male or female) becomes a secondary issue, subordinate to the use-value, for the compiler or copyist, of the text itself. Catalogues are inefficient tools for dealing with these materials; each manuscript volume must be searched internally to identify contents by women writers. In these cases, the description unit cannot be the book/volume but the unitary text in that volume – be it a poem, letter, prayer, essay or article (if we extend the discussion to magazines and newspapers).

This problem leads us to another key characteristic of manuscript culture: textual instability. While print editions tend toward uniformity, preserving the same text under the same title (notwithstanding variants), manuscripts offer unstable texts. The manuscript copy of a text can shorten, excerpt, interpolate, amplify, alter the text – or even simply introduce textual errors. In Spain this is especially frequent for religious works written in convents as different versions of the same textual production (we’d rather not call it work) are produced for different purposes, meaning that contents can vary between copies. This is true for titles too. For example, in the Bieses database we decided to create a link between different titles referring to the same work; e.g. the five copies of Estefanía de la Encarnación’s religious work contain the same text but are referred to as either El tabernáculo místico [The mystic tabernacle] or Fábrica del tabernáculo de Dios [Setting of God’s tabernacle].

The same instability pertains to authors and authorial attribution. Anonymous texts are very frequent, demonstrating that gender consciousness is not necessarily a feature of reception at all. Where women’s texts have been copied but not attributed, their anonymous reception should be noted.

The number of surviving manuscript copies of a text (although often an underestimate of the quantity made) indicates how widely it was disseminated. The location and situation where they were made should also be noted. The manuscript itself is an important indicator of the quality of reception. A presentation copy (e.g. the manuscripts of Esther Inglis) speaks to the text’s value for a reader with high economic status; a holograph copy (written by the author herself) may attest no reception at all or be re-used within religious, professional, or familial contexts. The act of copying a female-authored text into a manuscript miscellany yields useful information regarding its reception. For example, the compilation of a political tract among satirical pieces by other authors tells us about the context in which it was read; the adaptation by Robert Overton of poems by the Anglo-Welsh author, Katherine Philips, for his memorial manuscript to his dead wife indicates their aesthetic as well as practical value for him; the compilation of extracts from the writings of St Teresa into English devotional manuscripts points to their transnational utility. Manuscript texts such as the letters exchanged in Portugal between the Marquise of Alorna and her father yield important information not only about the circulation of the Marquise’s texts beyond the monastery but also about her reading practices and reception of others’ writings.

In the Middle Ages and early modern period, reading was seldom a private secluded activity. Various forms of oral dissemination – religious reading for meditation, domestic reading, shared reading at court, at legal inns, on streets – will be discussed. For example, we have many references in letters to nuns sending poems from one convent to another, asking for them or giving notice of what was sung. This mode of circulation occurred from Spain to France; reception and influence of this form of poetry, first in Spanish later in French, is attested among Discalced Carmelites who favored this form of indoctrination and learning. These modes of circulation should be registered through the creation of tags such as ‘oral reception: family/convent/court’, which record the ways in which oral dissemination could multiply the impact of the female author’s work.

SvD, 29 May 2013

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