Blogging Utopia: (2) paratext

In this second post for the Utopia 2016 series, Cathy Shrank looks at the paratext of More’s Utopia, and the art of blending fact with fiction.

Like many sixteenth-century texts, More’s Utopia comes with various bits of ancillary material that surround the main text. These ancillary elements include things like title-pages, dedications, prefaces, illustrations, tables of contents, indexes, and so on. A collective term for these features is ‘paratext’ (a term coined by Gérard Genette in the 1980s). These features are more than ornamental or extraneous: they play a crucial role in presenting a work and shaping its reception. (Genette calls paratext a ‘threshold’, a point of stepping into or out of the text.)

The paratext to Utopia is unusual, however, as we can see if we think back to More’s letter to Giles, examined in the first post. The letters that frequently precede early modern texts are designed to elicit the support of their addressee. Habitually, authors used these prefatory letters to dedicate their work to someone of influence, whose name then gives a seal of approval to the book. In contrast, More’s letter to Giles actively draws him into the fiction, enrolling him as an eye-witness to a conversation that never took place. He becomes a collaborator in the work that follows, as he is asked to check and supply details. This role is also celebrated on the title-page (another piece of paratext), which prominently acknowledges Giles’ help, as it announces that Utopia is ‘by the author […] Thomas More, with the help of Master Peter Giles, & with the skill of Thierry Martens […] now […] published for the first time’. The position of this acknowledgement creates some ambiguity: is Giles being credited with helping the book into print, or with helping to author it?

Two page spread showing a map of the island of Utopia (left) and Utopian alphabet (right)
Map and alphabet from the paratext to More’s Utopia, c/o British Library (public domain)

From the outset, More’s letter to Giles disturbs our perception of reality by mingling fact and fiction. The same holds true for other pieces of its paratext. The map of Utopia, the Utopian alphabet, the Utopian poem (pictured above) are deliberately, mischievously created to give concrete substance to More’s imagined island. (The inclusion of these bespoke elements would also have represented a financial outlay: unlike many woodcuts, these could not be recycled because they are so specific to the text for which they are designed.)

The paratext to Utopia is also comic in its sheer volume. Utopia is a ‘little book’ (a ‘libellus’, the title-page tells us). Yet it is buttressed with an excess of extraneous material, written by More’s friends and fellow-scholars. Utopia was a resolutely European work in conception and execution, and its paratext reveals a network of learned men (all of whom are ‘in’ on More’s joke) using discussion of the book to consolidate their friendships, and to display those connections to its readers. The Antwerp citizen Giles writes to Jerome Busleyden, a prominent Burgundian statesmen and patron of learning; Busleyden writes in turn to More. Jean Desmarez, a professor from the University of Louvain, writes to Giles (under Desmarez’s Latinate name, Joannes Paludanus) and supplies a poem in praise of Utopia. Further poems, commending More, are supplied by the Dutch humanist Gerard Geldenhouwer (who assisted Martens the printer) and by the neo-Latin poet Cornelis de Schriijver, a friend of Giles from Antwerp: like Desmarez, both these men write under the Latinised version of their names (Noviomagus and Grapheus). The work is a veritable Who’s Who of early sixteenth-century scholars from northern Europe, and subsequent editions only added to this roll-call.

This abundance of ancillary material was mutually beneficial: the contributors gained from advertising their association with each other and above all with More, celebrated as ‘London’s leading light’ in Geldenhouwer’s poem (‘Londini gloria prima’). And More’s book gains from this active and public show of support from some of northern Europe’s leading scholars. This material also sustains the interplay of fact and fiction that characterises the book overall. Amongst the paratext are ‘six lines on the island of Utopia written by Anemolius, poet laureate, and nephew to Hythloday by his sister’. One interpretation of Hythloday’s name is ‘speaker of nonsense’; his poet-nephew is ‘full of wind’ (from the Greek anemolios). Even scholars are not above a fart joke.

Coming shortly: a post on the ‘debate of counsel’ in Book 1 of More’s Utopia, by guest-blogger Dr Joanne Paul.

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