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Worthy of faith?: Authors and readers in early modernity

Abstract

© 2007 Selection and editorial matter, John Jeffries Martin; individual chapters, the contributors. This chapter will consider how the traditional (classical Roman and Europeanmedieval) definition of the “author” as “one worthy of faith” (the faith of thereader, obviously) is put increasingly to the test during the early modern period, as the notion of literary writing gradually moves from epistemological (vatic) and/or ethical-rhetorical models toward what Terry Eagleton has called “the ideology of the aesthetic” – that is, toward suspension of readerly belief in the moral fidelity and intellectual credibility of the literary writer. In a classic formulation, the literary author as a distinctive “personal” and individual presence, indeed as willful demideity “making worlds,” first emerges in what we sometimes still call the Renaissance: first in the Italy of Dante and Petrarch, and then, gradually, spreads throughout the nascent vernacular traditions of western Europe. What follows will rehearse some clichés of the topic, one hopes in an appealing way, and lay out to shift the terms of the discussion in others. In particular, I will focus on the intuitively obvious, yet not always thoroughly explored, point that any notion of authorship is intricately tied to ideas, and realities, of readership. More especially, I will explore, on the one hand, the question of authorial control over the meaning of a text as this takes shape in the experience of its readers and, on the other, how such readers may either trustingly embrace the offered sense of the text or willfully recast it.

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