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New Golden Legends: Golden Saints of the Nineteenth Century

from II - Interpretations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 September 2012

Clare A. Simmons
Affiliation:
The Ohio State University
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Summary

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the British printing and publishing industry underwent a transformation of such a scale that some observers seem to have found parallels with William Caxton's first introduction of the printing press into England. Early printed books produced by Caxton, his successor Wynken de Worde, and others became sought-after collectibles. While the bibliomania of the early 1800s was limited to the wealthy, it helped foster an interest in the book both for its contents (generally, the older the better) and for its appearance. As the number of readers expanded, new forms of publication, and especially periodicals, brought not only words but also style to a broader reading public. The word “style” connotes both the imitation of earlier forms (homage, pastiche, parody, or a combination of all three) and the visual appearance of earlier forms made possible by new methods in printing. Many of the new periodicals of this time, including the most familiar example, Punch, which commenced publication in 1841, display not their newness but their indebtedness to tradition by imitating the kinds of lettering used by Caxton and other early printers and by incorporating illuminated letters and illustrations in the style of medieval texts. Some of them also adopt medieval genres. At the same time, these publications often show a discomfort with the kind of medieval recuperation on which their success depends.

One of the most popular of Caxton's productions was the Golden Legend, Jacques de Voragine's thirteenth-century compilation of devotional stories rendered into English. Caxton’s apprentice Wynken de Worde continued to produce editions at least into the 1520s, and nineteenth-century writers often make reference to these later editions, which presumably were more accessible. The concept of the legend, and to some extent this debt to the early history of printing, was reworked by authors in the early 1800s, perhaps the supreme example being Thomas Hood’s bizarre poem “Miss Kilmansegg and her Precious Leg,” subtitled “A Golden Leg-end.” A poem about what might now be called a bionic leg might at first consideration seem far removed from medievalism.

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Chapter
Information
Studies in Medievalism XVIII
Defining Medievalism(s) II
, pp. 229 - 243
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2009

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