Englishing the Virgin: Enclosure, Dissemination, and the Early English Book
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Englishing the Virgin: Enclosure, Dissemination, and the Early English Book


Englishing the Virgin argues that the vocabulary and iconography of Marian devotion became, for early English writers and printers, the currency of literary expression in the mother tongue. Reading texts on female virtue, from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale of Melibee to the encomia of the 1557 Songes and Sonettes printed by Richard Tottel, this dissertation provides an account of how the Virgin Mary and her followers, especially women living the enclosed life within religious houses or in the isolation of the desert, occupied a central role in the development of the early English book. More than the chief subjects of the majority of the early books printed in England, the imitation of both Christ and his mother were two of the key strategies of the press. The early English book, as conceptualized by Geoffrey Chaucer and his first printers, was a Marian book: it was a record of the suffering of mother and child, of the singular promise offered by the fecund virgin womb, and the bound, wounded text. Connecting the Book of Margery Kempe to the printed books of William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde, this dissertation concludes that the development of the early printed book in England did not mark a swift break with the Catholic past of England. Rather, the first printers of the English book drew from the devotional cultures of the enclosed women to whom the first vernacular prose texts were addressed. The symbolism of enclosure, especially de Worde’s presentation of a womb-like book, helped to make possible the widespread dissemination of the vernacular text, whether sacred or secular, in England.

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