Legal knowledge and the emergence of print
Textuality and materiality in early modern legal books


The new attention to materiality that marked the historical studies in the last years raised a significant interest in studying those particular artefacts, which are books. This new attitude brought a “methodological thunderstorm” in book studies. Scholars paid attention to the books as material objects, belonging to their universe of practices; they focused on the reader as the main performer of the process of «reception» of a text in different contexts, and manifested a new awareness of the importance of social and economic factors in the production of knowledge.   

This “methodological thunderstorm” did so far not have a major influence on legal historical studies. Apart from a few important exceptions, for example in legal bibliography, legal historians were mainly focusing on legal texts, on the ‘content’, on the ‘meaning’, on legal ‘thought’. Only recently, scholars such as Antonio Manuel Hespanha manifested the need to « bridge the gap between material bibliography and legal history » (Hespanha, 2008).

This project aims to investigate if and to what extent the emergence of print had an impact on the production, organization, management, and circulation of legal knowledge in the early modern period. It aims also to understand if legal knowledge, embedded, stored and mobilized in the materiality of a new medium, was received and then put into practice in a new way.

Who was the author of legal books in the early modern period? Did the new technical possibilities of identical reproduction have an impact on how the so-called “author” thought and reworked her texts? Moreover, did the printing press influence the production of new normative literary genres? Furthermore, did the regulation of the book production and book trade, such as the license and the privilege system, affect how legal knowledge was produced? Finally, how did the readership of legal books change? To sum up: which were the consequences for a history of legal communication?

These are some of the questions that the project aims to answer, by looking at the Manual de Confessores by the celebrated canon law professor Martín de Azpilcueta (1492-1586). Azpilcueta was one of the most important canon lawyers and moral theologians of the time. His Manual, first published in 1552, and based on the reworking of a Manual composed by an anonymous Franciscan friar and printed by Azpilcueta in 1549, was one of the most influential works of moral theology in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It was a ‘bestseller’ in the book trade: a condensation of religious normativity, which, we could say, had a ´global´ circulation.

As I demonstrated in the previous research project dedicated to the Knowledge of the Pragmatici, the Manual was a pragmatic book, conceived to put into practice the learned normative knowledge, which was ‘condensed and epitomized’ in it. Moreover, the pragmatic nature of the book requested a constant process of update and transformation. For this reason, the book had an incredible number of editions and translations during the author’s life, and many of them were viewed as opportunities for rethinking, updating, reorganizing, and managing the legal knowledge within the book in a new way. What historiography has up to now considered “the” Manual was comprised of many different manuals: the erudite 1573 large in quarto Latin Enchiridion was very different from the first small 1549 in 8° Portuguese Manual.

By looking the editorial history of the Manual, as well as the archival material related to the production of the different editions and translations of the book, the project will first investigate the complex and fluid question of the “authorship” of early modern legal books. Particular attention will be given to the problems related to the starting point of the story, the 1549 edition of the Manual de confessores, written by the anonymous Franciscan Friar, which was printed with Azpilcueta’s introduction and his explanations of several obscure points. Through a systematic study of the licences and privileges of print granted to Azpilcueta by the kings of Portugal and Spain as well as by the Pope, I will try to understand to which extent the license and privilege system had an impact in the “invention” of the author of the book and, on the other hand, if and how this system, and the institutional protection which stayed behind it, contributed to the success of the book.

Particular attention will be given to the figures of the printers involved with the main editions of the Manual (Juan Barreira and Juan Alvares, Coimbra; Andrea de Portonariis, Salamanca; Vittorio Eliano, Rome) and to the way in which the technical choices of the printers and, in general, of the different actors involved in the production of the object “book”, could be or not partially regulated or agreed with the authors.

More in general, the project aims to analyze the influence of the instability of early modern printed books on normative knowledge, by analyzing systematically the transformations of the Manual from an edition to the other, which will be visualized in the framework of the project “Hyperazpilcueta”. I will try to understand if and how the printing press was used as a tool for rethinking and reworking the text. I will analyze what systematically changed from an edition to the other, studying which kind of update was perceived as necessary, in the different political and institutional contexts in which the book was transformed and then printed. Particular attention will be paid to the way in which the information that constituted the main object of the normative updates of the Manual and came from a world that was more and more global, circulated and entered in the Manual almost in real-time.

The linguistic issue will be central as well. Working systematically on the different editions and self-translations, through which the Manual crossed, again and again, the geographical and linguistic boundaries becoming more and more universal, I will try to understand how the self-translation process of the book, the fact of re-thinking a normative text in another language, for a different audience, and in a different context, could lead to semantic transformation.

Finally, by looking at the different editions of the book as material objects I will try to understand how the different forms (size, layout, presence of finding devices), of each edition, could have an impact on the intended readership and then on the possible reception of the normative knowledge. The several compendia of the Manual will be taken into account as well, to see how the normative knowledge was further “epitomized” and “condensed” to be put into practice by a broader and less erudite audience.

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