Thursday, December 3, 2015

2015.12.02

Kamil Boldan, Bořek Neškudla, Petr Voit, The Reception of Antiquity in Bohemian Book Culture from the Beginning of Printing until 1547. Europa Humanistica, 12; BOH, 1. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2014. Pp. 260. ISBN 9782503551791. €70.00.

Reviewed by Emmanouil Kalkanis, Thessaloniki (emmanouil.Kalkanis@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Prepared within the project Europa Humanistica. Literary and Language Reception of Texts of the Antiquity in the Czech Lands from 1470 to 1600 of the Faculty of Arts, Charles University Prague, and supported by the Czech Science Foundation, this engaging volume presents the historical development of book printing as well as important printers and editors of the time of transition from manuscript to print book culture in Bohemia and Moravia during the period 1450–1550, but more strictly within the years 1458–1547. As its title suggests, the book is a study of the reception of antiquity "at a period when humanist tendencies were gaining ground in cultural and social life and when book printing began to win the dominating role over manuscript production" (7).

The volume opens with a thorough description of the historical, social, and technical background influencing the development of book printing in Bohemia and Moravia and the impact of book production on the contemporary Czech society. Here, we find a brief but quite persuasive description of the extent to which the growth of the newly emerged Utraquist movement led to the decline of social and economic contacts between the Kingdom of Bohemia and Catholic states in Europe. Together with the reduced activity of Prague University, this had a detrimental effect on the development of book printing in Bohemia. The introduction also points to the educated readers' preference for foreign books, mainly in Latin, instead of the low quality of first local prints. This multi-faceted process largely resulted in a weak reception of humanism and classical antiquity in Czech culture, although signs of the former have already been identified in Bohemia in previous centuries.

After a brief account of Utraquism — a religious movement that was the direct successor of the Hussite movement — the authors move on to explain the concept of humanism in Czech historiography. Here we learn that the definition of the distinctive character of humanism in Czech lands "was a gradual process for literary historians" (14). Following this, the book discusses which of the historical prerequisites for a positive reception of antiquity were absent in Bohemian culture and society. The most important ones are: the limited political and cultural influence of the Roman Empire on Bohemia; the absence of any important links of medieval and early-modern Czech historians with antiquity; the lack of any serious stimulus to the study of the culture, history, and mythology of the ancient societies due to Bohemia's preoccupation with its own identity; and the Utraquists' regard of the tradition of antiquity as pagan as well as a manifestation of adherence to papal Rome.

Two significant issues are also adequately addressed in the sixty-two page introduction. First, the authors discuss humanism and classical literature in the libraries of Bohemia and Moravia. There is evidence, they suggest, that even in post-Hussite Bohemia, and in the countryside distant from larger cultural centres, it was possible to build an excellent humanist library, comparable with the most important collections of central Europe. The library of Castle Hasištejn is a very characteristic example of a book repository that made a practice of acquiring works as first prints immediately after their publication. It is worth mentioning, however, that the dissemination and promotion of humanism at the Utraquist Prague University was a very difficult task; some further notes on the place of classical authors in the academic curriculum at that point would have been desireable. Likewise, the book provides little information on the representation of classical works in libraries in the 16th century, which should have reflected the considerable diversity of ideas in Czech society. But this was, in fact, as the authors explain, beyond the scope of this project. Second, the book offers a brief overview of the five determinants of Czech book printing in pursuit of antiquity. The main determinant seems to be the high level of imported books from German-speaking countries and Italy. Second, in Bohemia, the distinctive feature of domestic book printing was language, while in Moravia it was the genre of published texts. Third was the attitude of the Czech incunabula printers to typography. Fourth, the fact that it was unprofitable to produce more than a few hundred copies of any one title, as reading had not yet become a daily habit in the burgher classes who constituted the market for incunabula printers and their successors . Finally, the somewhat rudimentary and therefore spontaneous character of the literary community in the country.

Having become familiar with the concept of humanism in Czech historiography and the knowledge as well as awareness of antiquity in Bohemia, the reader is now ready to appreciate the bio-bibliographical entries themselves, which are, one must admit, the most interesting part of the book. The entries are organized into 12 chapters, each presenting a printer or editor of printed books before 1550 with a summary of his publishing activities. I will briefly summarize them here, as this review intends to give an overview of the volume, not a critique of each contribution, for which extensive research has been done. Every entry about the life and work of a printer is followed by a bibliographical outline of his output inasfar as it had some link with antiquity — either by the author or by the content. The entries are chronologically ordered and give standard information such as heading, Latin or Czech titles, format, bibliographical literature, and facsimile or edition entry. As the authors explicitly state at the back of the book, "the aim of this publication is not … to reproduce whole editions of the publisher's paratexts but to publish those parts of texts that are relevant to the literary, cultural and social context of the time" (203). This is entirely fair given the size of the book and the massive amount of information that was gathered.

Among the twelve printers, it is hardly easy to distinguish more — or less — important ones, as they all receive considerable attention. The Printer of "Statuta Ernesti" of Plzeň (entry No. 1) can be credited with the oldest print in the country, The Trojan Chronicle, a Czech adaptation of an originally Latin romance recounting the legends of the Trojan War for the medieval reader. In the case of Johann Alakraw of Vimperk (entry No. 2), typography was meticulous and the appearance of his prints was closer to the standard of the contemporary production abroad. Next, the Printer of the Bible (entry No. 5) — named after the oldest preserved print attesting the existence of the print shop, the Bible of Prague — appears to have been the most productive Bohemian craftsman of the 15th and 16th centuries, though in lesser quality than others abroad. Mikuláš Bakalár of Plzeň (entry No. 6) appears to have shaped the international context of Czech printing. His production suggests that only one third of his publishing plan was devoted to religious literature, while ancient literature was of marginal importance. In the case of Mikuláš Konáč of Prague (entry No. 8), there was a desire to consolidate and educate a broader readership, though with limited tools. Notably, while prefaces and dedications were not a novelty among Czech publishers of the beginning of the 16th century, in Konáč's output they were common. For example, the epistolary preface in Lukianos that is addressed to an unnamed recipient, expresses anxiety about the reception of a complex work of literature in Czech language (141).

A two-page editorial note follows the bio-bibliographical entries, providing some interesting information regarding the book outline as well as some comments on the idiosyncrasies of language including spelling, vocabulary, and syntax. This, however, would have been more useful if it had been placed at the beginning of the book, before the introduction, acting as a preface. A twenty-page bibliography comes next. Finally, following a detailed index of persons and places, there are twenty-four black-and-white illustrations depicting pages from several published works mentioned in the text such as Augustine, Aelius Donatus, Aesop, Johannes Chrysostomus, Lucian, Cato, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and Petrarch. Although not a common feature in scholarly accounts, one would expect to learn why the authors chose these particular pages over others. Moving these illustrations to the main text instead of putting them at the end of the book would also be handier. These are only minor criticisms that should not hinder the appreciation of a well-written and informative book.

It is important to note that the book was not the work of one individual only. The parts dealing with general history, the history of libraries, book printing of the 15th century as well as four bio-bibliographical entries (1–4) were written by Kamil Boldan, who also compiled the index. Bořek Neškudla was responsible for the parts dealing with general history, the history of education, and the reception of antiquity; he also participated in the edition of entry no. 10 and was responsible for the English translation. The parts dealing with book printing of the 16th century and the rest of the bio-bibliographical entries with text editing and editorial comment were written by Petr Voit.

Minor translation flaws are rare. The text is easily readable, engaging, and informative, helping even the non-specialist or amateur enthusiast to follow the authors' narration and understand their argument. One might wonder, however, whether the book's focus on certain individuals does not tend to overlook other protagonists in the printing business.

Overall, the book successfully attempts to show the extent to which, from the Middle Ages, antiquity was only at the margins of literary and scholarly interests in Bohemia, although this was not the case in countries that had once been part of the Roman Empire. What we learn is that even the Utraquist leaders from the milieu of Prague University were not enthusiastic about the dissemination of knowledge and awareness of the Classics. Indeed, the authors have produced a unique synthesis of historical and cultural evidence, supported by a well presented biographical–bibliographical supplement with passages from literary editions devoted to those Bohemian and Moravian printers who attempted to explore and exploit the tradition of antiquity as far as their individual or social resources permitted. In conclusion, The Reception of Antiquity in Bohemian Book Culture from the Beginning of Printing until 1547 can be read, studied or consulted not only by scholars and librarians, but also by those who want to deepen their knowledge of the rather fascinating subject of reception, for which a cross-disciplinary approach has lately been successfully established in academia. Without a doubt, this genuine contribution to the fields of reception studies and historiography should be available in any serious research library.

Table of Contents

A. The Reception of Antiquity in Bohemian Book Culture from the Beginning of Printing until 1547
1. Historical Backgound
2. Humanism in Utraquist Bohemia
3. The Reception of Antiquity
4. Humanism and Classical Literature in the Libraries of Bohemia
5. Five Determinants of Czech Book Printing in Pursuit of Antiquity
B. Biographies
1. The Printer of "Statuta Ernesti" (Plzeň)
2. Johann Alakraw (Vimperk)
3. Konrad Stahel – Mathias Preinlein (Brno, Olomouc)
4. The Printer of the 1487 Psalter (Prague) = Martin z Tišnova ? (Kutná Hora)
5. The Printer of the 1488 Bible (Prague)
6. Mikuláš Bakalář (Plzeň)
7. Pavel Olivetský z Olivetu (Litomyšl)
8. Mikuláš Konáč z Hodíškova (Prague)
9. Mikuláš Klaudyán (Mladá Boleslav)
10. Oldřich Velenský z Mnichova (Bělá pod Bezdězem)
11. Jan Pekk (Plzeň)
12. Bartoloměj Netolický z Netolic (Praha)

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