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Antiquity and newfangleness

By Andrew Zurcher

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?

June Aegloga Sexta. Source: New York Public Library.
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 digitizing works such as in 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 scholarly editions, 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 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 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.

Andrew Zurcher Fellow and Director of Studies at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge and member of the Oxford Scholarly Editions Online editorial board. He teaches and researches English literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and especially the works of Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Milton. In addition to a longstanding research interest in the legal history of the period, he has been particularly concerned with the manuscript and early printed forms in which early modern literary works circulated. He is one of the general editors of the forthcoming OUP edition of the Collected Works of Edmund Spenser, and is contributing to OUP’s new edition of the works of Sir Thomas Browne. He is currently editing The Oxford Handbook of Renaissance Poetry.

Oxford Scholarly Editions Online is coming soon. To discover more about it, view this series of videos about the launch of the project.

Recent Comments

  1. Michael Lamb

    Why the newfangled spelling of ‘newfangledness’? And what is the point of the link to the Oxford Dictionaries definition, which says nothing of any such spelling?

  2. Alice

    @Michael

    Newfangleness is a word and defined in the OED (http://oed.com/view/Entry/126555). However, the OED is behind a paywall and I wanted to give people who didn’t understand the word a rough meaning, so I linked to the closest approximate word in our free online dictionary OxfordDictionaries.com.

    “Newfangleness”, derived from the adjective “newfangle”, is now usually found in literary analysis and in regional or colloquial usage. “Newfangledness” derives from the verb “newfangle” and is far more commonly used.

    I deferred to the author’s style and preference. I apologize for the confusion and you can find out more about these words in their rather fascinating entries (Chaucer!) in the OED.

    –Blog Editor Alice

  3. Michael Lamb

    Thank you Alice. The point of my complaint (and I suppose it was a complaint, so I appreciate your anodyne response to it) was the pointlessness of linking to a dictionary, however Oxonian, the approximateness of whose entry is so unenlightening. Would it have been a breach of OUP protocol to link to any of the online dictionaries which do list the d-less form, even if all but the OED that say anything at all about its currency flatly say it’s obsolete, and the 1989 edition of the OED itself says “rare or obsolete”? Does this protocol judge it less disconcerting to link to an online Oxford dictionary that doesn’t list it at all? I have checked the many hardback editions of the many Oxford dictionaries I have at home, and they all list it, albeit they also say only “rare or obsolete”. That’s one up on Collins, which like oxforddictionaries.com doesn’t acknowledge its existence at all in any of the hardback editions I have of that, except for a mention of C14 “newefangel” in the etymology.

    The OED article you link to does now say “Now archaic, literary, and regional” as reflected in your reply, but nothing about the colloquial usage you mention. I take it this is in the lit crit community. Unless of course you mean usage which is so colloquial as to espouse “corn beef” (NOT what it says on the tin!) “box set” (not what it says on the box either!) etc.

    I rejoice at your punctilio in deferring to the author’s style and preference, but where do you suppose this literary usage comes from? Isn’t the archaizing spelling no less a newfangled spelling of ‘newfangledness’ for the purpose of jargonistic specificity? 

  4. [...] writing career is very odd. He burst on to the scene at a relatively late age when he published The Shepheadres Calender in 1579, then published no more poetry until the first edition of The Faerie Queene in 1590, which [...]

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