Transmission in the 15th century: Seminar on the History of the Book – David Rundle

Under the title, ‘Transfer, Transmission and Reception: thoughts from the fifteenth century on how ideas (fail to) spread,’ David Rundle (Lecturer in History at the University of Essex) delivered the last of this term’s Seminars in the History of the Book as a contemplation on the theme of transmission.

Starting from the history of Poggio Bracciolini’s service in the household of Henry Beaufort from 1418 to 1422, Rundle examined several histories of cultural transmission between Italian and English humanists in the 15th century. The handwriting, marginal notes, and provenance histories of manuscripts now in London, Florence, the Vatican, Oxford, and Padua which he has examined as part of his work on humanist scribes inspired him to ask whether models assuming the slow transmission of ideas – the reliance on the necessarily limited activities of individuals – the dispersal of ideas always from a central hub towards the barbarian rim – had ‘misconfigured the cultural geography of Europe’ in the 15th century.

He suggested this set of assumptions should be replaced with a multiplicity of histories that recognized the ‘strength of weak ties’ (in a model borrowed from sociological research into networks and innovation) formed by the long-distance travels of a few individuals, and the potential for the influence of ‘barbarian’ England on the ‘centre’. This was instanced in the copies of Greek manuscripts taken by Antonio Beccaria on his return to Italy after he was in England as secretary to Duke Humfrey of Gloucester, c. 1438 – c. 1446.

Rundle’s presentation suggested that the focus of scholarship about the spread of humanism in this period could usefully shift from emphasis on how a text was read, to how it arrived in front of the reader – a concern shared with historians of texts in the age of print.

Discussion at the seminar touched on the evaluation of English music in humanist circles; the role of universities; and how a rhetoric of cultural distance provided a motive for the uptake of ideas and the desire for books.

bonæ litteræ (blog)
The University of Essex Centre for Bibliographical History
Bodleian MS. Rawl. C 298, (Poggio, De infelicitate principum dialogus)

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