Corruption or collaboration? compositorial “error” and the creation of meaning

Research output: Contribution to conferencePresentation


Printerly interventions are most often treated by textual scholars and editors as ‘corruptions’ which must be removed if readers are to access texts as their authors meant them to be. It is as though any digression from an authorial manuscript (real or imagined) is an error which must be corrected. However, such a straightforwardly negative characterisation does not take into account the fact that often writers expected printers to intervene and make changes to their texts in the move from manuscript to print.

Taking Thomas Middleton’s The Nice Valour (1622) as a starting point, my paper reconsiders the idea of ‘corruption’ by examining early modern perceptions of what printers were supposed to do. I focus on the attempts made by the play’s author character, Lepet, to have his book printed and Middleton’s depiction of the relationship between writer and printer: although Lepet believes the compositor has made many mistakes while setting his text, he never questions the printer’s right to read and interpret his writing. I move on from this depiction of an author who accepts a printer’s role in shaping meaning in the text to examine some instances of ‘compositorial error’ as identified by the Oxford Middleton. I propose that these ‘errors’ are, in fact, examples of printers making valid readings of the texts entrusted to them.

In light of the evidence which suggests that shaping meaning was understood to be part of a printer’s job and that their changes could arise from reasonable interpretations of the text, my paper builds on Jeffrey Masten’s suggestion that ‘corruption’ is just ‘collaboration’ given a negative spin. I argue that before we dismiss printerly interventions as ‘errors’ or ‘corruptions’, it is worth considering what was gained when an early modern printer departed from his copy text.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jul 2014
EventError and Print Culture, 1500-1800 - University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom
Duration: 5 Jul 2014 → … (Event website.)


ConferenceError and Print Culture, 1500-1800
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Period5/07/14 → …
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