Image: British Library, Egerton MS 1821

Canons and Contingence: Art Histories of the Book in England and America

This symposium is organized by Sonja Drimmer, Assistant Professor of Medieval Art & Architecture in the Department of the History of Art & Architecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


Recent scholarship in bibliography and the history of the book has attended to the ways in which
bibliographic media resist, defy, and elude uniformity, even under the greatest technological pressures to
conform. Whether through variables in the production process or through the vagaries of transmission and
consumption, each manuscript or printed book carries with it the traces of a unique history. Yet
bibliographers and historians of the book have long neglected the role of the visual in these histories,
perceiving the pictorial as supplemental to the book, an import from some other medium. At the same time,
the book itself has never featured in art history’s triumvirate of media: painting, sculpture, and architecture.
In the belief that the book itself is an important medium in the history of art, this symposium brings together
scholars who explore how the visual and pictorial features of bibliographic media behave (and can be made
to behave) in defiant ways.

As a spur to consider the visual activation of books’ elusive behavior, this symposium convenes under the
title, “Canons and Contingence.” The term “canon” evokes thoughts of rigid standards, ideals of perfection,
criteria for authenticity, and it seems to prioritize regulatory structures. Yet, within the study of the book,
the “canon” allows for more difference than is generally realized, a difference encoded in its history. Since
the fourth century invention of the Eusebian Canon Tables, which cross-reference and compare each of the
four Gospels, the technology of the book has been one that physically facilitates the contingence of disparate
materials. Far from flattening difference, the Canon Table was designed to foster comparison and bring
difference to the fore. While canons, particularly literary canons, loom large over the history of the book,
this event will showcase speakers whose work on the visual features of bibliographic media challenges the
hegemonic nature of the canon. Whether it is through the dispersal of authorial agency, encouragement to
reconsider notions and narratives expressed in word, revision of content for new audiences, the visual
features and pictorial contents of bibliographic media are integral to the book’s identity as a site that
generates contingence.

Just as this event forges links between the fields of history, literature, and art history, its geographical focus
unites transatlantic cultures by globalizing the study of medieval English and early modern North American
materials. It brings together six scholars who work on a range of subjects within the transatlantic world
in order to encourage discussion across disciplines and challenge the idea of canons.