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The Book of the Incipit: Beginnings in the Fourteenth Century

D. Vance Smith
Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttsq5v
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  • Book Info
    The Book of the Incipit
    Book Description:

    In the first book to examine one of the most peculiar features of one of the greatest and most perplexing poems of England’s late Middle Ages-the successive attempts of Piers Plowman to begin, and to keep beginning-D. Vance Smith compels us to rethink beginning, as concept and practice, in both medieval and contemporary terms.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9258-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preliminary
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. INCIPIT A Fourteenth-Century Incipit
    (pp. 1-41)

    Much of the writing in medieval London began in three streets next to Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The ambiguity of the English past tense “began” in this beginning, the incipit of this book, shows already the difficulty we have in talking about beginning, in deciding whether we are talking about the origin of writing itself or individual acts of writing, what happens whenever pen is put to parchment. If this writing that begins in medieval London is not a uniquely original event, then we have to decide how to imagine those individual acts of beginning to write. They must be habitual...

  5. INITIUM Incipits and the Intentions of Vernacular Writing
    (pp. 42-60)

    As massivesummaeof theology and digests of law began to be produced regularly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, new ways of organizing books had to be invented. Single works contained a range of topics that could not conceivably be contained in the mind. Indeed, works likedistinctionesand concordances, which gave a preacher everything he needed to know about important words in order to construct a sermon, clearly were not intended to be read sequentially. They exploited, in fact, some of the innovations that helped to organize larger and more complicated works. Readers could turn to indexes that...

  6. EXORDIUM Making Beginnings: Disposition and Inscription
    (pp. 61-81)

    We have seen that texts in the Middle Ages begin well before the moment marked by the incipit. Part of the work itself is the conceptual history of the poem, the kinds of mental discipline, exercise, and design that lead to the performance of the idea in language. This mental prehistory is perhaps more important, of course, for the writer of a work, or for rhetoricians, than for its audience. For all practical purposes, the work begins with its incipit, a moment that is just as charged with significance and just as complex as the act of “inventing” the work...

  7. THEMA The Book That Makes Itself
    (pp. 82-112)

    It should be abundantly clear by now that, in terms of its use of beginnings to order the poem,Piers Plowmanis a complicated and aberrant text. Yet its preoccupation with beginnings reiterates its location in history as a textual product of the High Middle Ages; it is a poem that, like most others, mirrors the outward world, the world that is itself a divinely authored book. IfPiers Plowmanis a book about the world, however, it is a world far stranger than those in other medieval books. Its peculiarordocertainly does not reflect the measured calculus of...

  8. ORIGO Genealogy: Engenderment and Digression
    (pp. 113-139)

    And so the book has still not begun. That is, its beginnings still emerge from the world outside the book, gesturing toward the ways in which one might make a beginning if one were to begin the book all over again, or gesturing toward the other beginnings that make this one possible. That is to say that we are still discussing theprincipium extrinsecus,the beginnings in the book that are not its own, but that provide it with its authoritative models of beginning. Yet the book also investigates beginnings that appear explicitly as figures that resist undoing and extirpation:...

  9. CONDITORA The Archive of Grammar: Beginning and Documentary Remembrance
    (pp. 140-170)

    The previous chapter argued that familial beginnings, those imagined as stemming from the family or as being somehow analogous to the engendering of a family, are a compelling form of intrinsic beginning. But they are a kind of beginning that is not sustainable, resting on the absence of the progenitor, the obliteration of the familial origin in the emergence of successors, of new forms, of new progenitors. If thefamiliaitself is not a stabilizing principle, if its structure can be revised by the very form it uses to represent itself—genealogy—then what resources are available to fix the...

  10. PRINCIPIUM Beginning Perfection: The Theology of Inception
    (pp. 171-212)

    One of the most highly charged theological issues of the fourteenth century was the role that the will played in salvation. It is one of the issues that divided theologians, virtually defining who belonged to the relatively conservative tradition associated with Augustine, which argued for the primacy of grace, and who belonged to the group sometimes called themoderni,which argued that works played a critical role. What has not been noticed before is the extent to which this debate focuses on beginnings, concerned with the moment at which grace begins its work. As we will see in a moment,...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 213-260)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 261-282)
  13. Index
    (pp. 283-296)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 297-301)