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

Completed Project

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.

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