Two ways of looking at the same book

title page of the 1518 Latin edition

As I’ve written about before, in my Undergraduate Seminars students devote the bulk of their research time to crafting a biography of the book they’ve chosen as their primary focus. They find out who wrote the book and who printed and published it, they speculate on who the book’s intended audience was and on how the book might have been received, and they trace the afterlife of the book through the owners of their copy and the later editions and translations of their text. In the past students have chosen a wide range of books, sometimes drawn to them because of their author or subject, sometimes drawn to them by their physical characteristics. I’ve had students work on Paradise Lost, on a book of hours, on a traveler’s history of Ceylon. But last fall was the first time I had two students end up choosing the same work: the third edition of the English translation of Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1597. Luckily, the Folger owns two copies of this particular book, so each student was able to work on her own book, thus reducing the stress both on a single volume and on the students themselves. From my perspective, this surprising coincidence had the benefit of demonstrating how two different scholars can work with the same material but come up with two different approaches and stories.

title page of the 1551 English edition

Here’s some basic publication information about Utopia and this edition of it, drawn from their research: Thomas More wrote his Latin political parable in 1515-1516, during his stay in Antwerp and his return to London. With the encouragement of his friends Peter Giles and Desiderius Erasmus, More’s work was published in Louvain in 1516. Other Latin editions of the work quickly followed, including in Paris in 1517 and two different printings in Basel in 1518. It wasn’t long before the work began to appear in translation as well, including in German (Basel 1524) and Italian (Venice 1548). The first English edition was a translation by Ralph Robinson and was published in London in 1551 by Abraham Vele; a second, revised edition was published in London in 1556. The third edition of this work—the one my students focused on—was published by Thomas Creede in London in 1597. Subsequent English editions were published in 1624, 1639, 1684, throughout the 1700s, and, of course, up until today.

map of Utopia from 1518 edition

Those are the bare bones of the work’s publication history and where this edition fits into that sequence. Where it gets fun is what to do with this skeleton of facts. The student working with copy 1, Sarah, focused on how the English translation affected who the audience would be. If the Latin text was geared toward the international community of humanists, the English translation lost much of the original’s humor and put the work in the context of the New World travel narratives that were popular at the time. Sarah notes as well that the three English editions were graphically plainer than the earlier Latin ones, without the illustrations of the characters or the map of the island. At the same time, the use of a blackletter font emphasizes the English characteristics of the book. The student working with copy 2, Chiara, saw the book’s history through the lens of religious strife, noting the relatively long gap between the work’s composition and its first appearance in England. Given the translator’s introduction, which criticizes More’s Catholicism while arguing that some value can be found in Utopia despite its religious taint, Chiara argues that the work only became palatable in England after the intensive religious strife of the early part of the century started to diminish.

One book, two students, two different stories. It’s a great example of how we all read facts through our own lenses. And it’s part of what makes working with students in our Library so exciting: no matter how much I think I know about the works they might be studying, they always have their own way of understanding them.

Author: Sarah Werner

SARAH WERNER is Digital Media Strategist at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Editor of The Collation. She blogs about books and reading, writes about modern performance and Renaissance drama, and is known in some corners of the web as @wynkenhimself.

2 Comments

  1. What a wonderful assignment. Most of my teaching is in the 20th century, and it can be rather difficult to do this kind of thing for in-copyright texts … but I’m going to find a way to steal these ideas!

    • Thanks, Alan–I can hardly think of higher praise than you stealing from this! I’d be curious to hear how something like this goes with modern texts. It seems to be that the problem isn’t copyright but the sheer number of works out there. It’s because there was so comparatively little printed material in the Renaissance that it’s possible for catalogs like ESTC and USTC to track them. But I bet the general idea of tracking a book from makers to intended audience to users could work with nearly anything!

      More details about the course, including, soon, assignment descriptions, are at the course website: sarahwerner.net/FolgerBooks.

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