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Matthew McLean and Sara Barker, eds., International Exchange in the Early Modern Book World
by Rachel Stenner

International Exchange in the Early Modern Book World. Edited by Matthew McLean and Sara Barker. Brill, 2016. xxi + 383 pp. ISBN: 978-9004316447. $181.00 cloth. 

This fascinating collection explores the material and cultural movement of texts, and the impediments to that movement, in and around Early Modern Europe. Breadth of coverage is matched by depth of analysis and the reader will find both seams and nuggets of value in its four sections: “The International Book Trade: Business without Borders,” “Cultural Transmissions and Political Exchange,” “Libraries, Collections, Ownership,” and “Moving Music and Translating Tongues: Literature and Music between Countries.” The collection carefully avoids badging its concerns as transnational, in tune with Warren Boutcher’s closing problematization of that term’s presupposition of the nation state, and hence its accuracy for Early Modernity. The contributors’ watchwords, nonetheless, are mobility, exchange, reciprocity, movement, and other phrases that express what Anston Bosman’s essay calls the “intercultural alchemy” (306) of linguistic or cultural translation. Touching on numerous regional book cultures, especially those of Italy and France, this volume demonstrates that books, passing from from author, to producer, to reader as travelling objects of favour or trade, are in fact ideal objects to think through the transnational. Moreover, the collection shows with impressive scholarship both the range of ways in which that movement occurred and the pressures and tensions to which it was subject.

As Boutcher writes in a closing piece that refracts many of the contributors’ concerns, the book trade (alongside figurations of cultural mobility and inquiries into language communities) represents one privileged site in the excavation of the interlinked Europe of the Early Modern period. On the topic of the book trade, the collection presents a rich array of fresh data, several of the essays exploring new sources or using quantitative methods. Valentina Sebastiani’s impressive opener argues that Erasmus’s works were bestsellers not just because he was greatly admired but largely through the efficient distribution and marketing networks he was able to exploit. The extent of his success provoked astonishment at the time—as well it might, nearly four million copies of his works entering the European book market between 1500 and 1536.

Publishing strategy, rather than commercial success, emerges as a core theme of the collection. This is one way in which it will contribute to the ongoing recovery of the agency and complexity of the book trade in this crucial period of its development. The essays provide case studies from the English and continental markets that exhibit the divergent approaches taken by Early Modern publishers. This is an area which critics can still gloss over with the myth of the Early Modern publisher as an entirely risk averse, ruthless proto-capitalist and the book therefore promotes a finer-grained understanding of the trade and its imperatives. Several essays do this by exploring foreign language publishing or the actions of booksellers with hybrid cultural status. Nina Lamal’s analysis of Italian accounts of the Dutch revolt links the linguistic and physical movement of texts to show the direct influence of publishing strategy on the translation of political works. Texts such as Guido Bentivoglio’s History on the Wars in Flanders (first published in Cologne in 1639) were carefully adapted and fashioned for the tastes of readers in their new climates of reception.

While some readers sought political or doctrinal affirmation, others desired novelty, as evidenced in Malcolm Walsby’s discussion of Christopher Plantin. Walsby posits that Plantin, just one of the many publishers who operated in an international market, took the high-risk approach of embracing novelty in his output and was adept at framing his products for local tastes. His success earned him the begrudging respect of his French rivals despite his outsider status. Plantin is a major figure in the history of European publishing but, like other printer-publishers, his ventures were not uniformly successful, as Benito Rial Costas highlights in his analysis of Plantin’s religious printing for the Spanish crown. Plantin was supported in this endeavour by a papal brief, and an agreement with Philip II, but even the personal involvement of the monarch did not stop the printer’s Antwerp-produced volumes eventually falling foul of his local competitors’ ability to better satisfy the tastes of the Spanish clergy.

Differences in national confessional communities by contrast aided certain book producers who did not possess the creative flair of a market leader such as Plantin. Giovanna Granata’s essay on ownership data collected from Italian religious orders shows that Italian publishers sought to “systematically meet the new counter-Reformation spiritual needs of the readers” (238). Matthew Laube focuses on the music printing of the Calvinist publisher Jerome Commelin, who designed his titlepages to circulate across linguistic and confessional borders. This material passport was supplemented by the international nature of Calvinism, which opened up broader markets to Commelin than other publishers could access.

By illuminating the activities of printer-publishers and those whom they supplied, this collection details the human relationships that motivate transactions and facilitate exchange. The essays by Angela Nuovo and Shanti Graheli demonstrate this particularly colorfully. Nuovo uses the correspondence of the Gabiano publishing family to understand the interactions between a bookman and his client, and between the family headquarters in Venice and a branch office in Lyon. Graheli describes the library of the French statesman and lawyer Claude Expilly and his need to deploy both social strategies and personal connections to assemble his collection in Grenoble during the Wars of Religion. As an avid reader, Expilly supplemented his acquisitions from the French book trade with gifts and tokens of esteem sent for review by his friends. Graheli concludes from this that the book trade proper was accompanied by private circulation of volumes and information: “this commerce des lettres was not about books: it was about people and how they related to teach other” (189).

The essays in this volume are at their strongest when they are able to press their data for broader conclusions, as Graheli does, or question their governing categories. For example, Caroline Duroselle-Melish builds on the publishing history of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s natural encyclopaedia to blur the boundaries between center and periphery. This work was officially printed on the fringes of the European book trade in Bologna and was pirated throughout the seventeenth century in the much more active learned printing hub of Frankfurt. Yet, its origins at the geographical margins and its illicit exploitation at the center did not damage the encyclopaedia but promoted it through a mutually supportive, albeit makeshift, partnership between publishing locales. The cultural and political associations of place are also central to the fine essay by Zsuzsa Barbarics-Hermanik, which is one of the collection’s most thought-provoking because it gives sustained attention to the category of exchange. By reading the sixteenth-century library catalogues of the Habsburg emperors and the Ottoman sultans, Barbarics-Hermanik discerns that the two empires shared socio-cultural values and practices even though these coexisted with intense military conflicts. This essay portrays the intriguing figures that she calls “transcultural intermediaries,” polyglot individuals such as ambassadors, envoys, and physicians who were able to initiate “transcultural interplay” (107) between the empires thanks to their ability to engage the codes of both cultures.

Travelling players, and plays themselves, prove to be the cultural intermediaries in Anton Bosman’s masterful consideration of the circulation of printed and performed drama as it was translated throughout a northern European culture area. In Bosman’s view, translation was central to the construction and dissemination of Early Modern plays; he sees drama and theater as media in motion rather than either fixed texts or practices belonging to a particular national culture or literature. Warren Boutcher too is resistant to the institutionalization of national literary cultures. His essay admits that national literatures were incipient in the period but sets them against a “multilingual, multiconfessional, European world of intertraffic” (357) to reframe Early Modern literature as an extensive and mobile body of cultural artefacts. Literature scholars seeking a broader, and perhaps more familiar, context for the local histories of this volume will find this contribution rewarding. Indeed, the volume as a whole would benefit from a more discursive introduction that articulated from the outset the many fruitful connections between the essays, but with sixteen of them, this is already a long book. What is lost to synthesis is gained by pragmatism and the content itself readily provokes illuminating comparisons.

This collection will appeal to several groups of readers, foremost among them Book Historians and those interested in the web of inquiries uncovering transnational energies (and their precursors) in the period. Spenserians following the trace of David Wilson-Okamura’s international Spenser will find much deep context. Those of us keen to position Spenser within the book trade or understand the strategies of his publishers will find nuances to critical understanding of European book selling and circulation. Further, the increasing number of Spenserians interested in the poet’s afterlives, particularly his relation to Milton, will find useful the discussions of Humphrey Moseley by Lamal and Boutcher. If the reader puts down this book feeling a slight disorientation arising from the level of detail it contains, that dense texture provides numerous entry points into the daunting subject of the continental book trade. The careful blend of study by Historians, literary scholars and European language specialists ensures that this is a wide-ranging and admirable contribution to the interdiscipline of Book History and to our understanding of an interconnected Early Modern Europe. 


Rachel Stenner
University of Sheffield


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Rachel Stenner, "Matthew McLean and Sara Barker, eds., International Exchange in the Early Modern Book World," Spenser Review 47.1.11 (Winter 2017). Accessed December 2nd, 2022.
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