BA Politics and Modern History / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Beyond the Text: The Book and its Body

Unit code ITAL30432
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Italian Studies
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This course unit will provide an introduction to the discipline of book history via a study of some of the incarnations of the seminal Italian book, Dante’s Divine Comedy. Rather than focusing on the authored text, however, we will investigate instead the material form of the book, through manuscript, print, and digital media. In this way, we can analyse both the relationship between the text and its material form and wider issues around the production, dissemination and reception of the book-object in various reading communities. The course will use, where appropriate, primary material held in the John Rylands Library (e.g., manuscripts, incunabula, early print books, etc.).


Available as a free choice option subject to language skills and with the agreement of the course convenor.


This course seeks to expand students’ knowledge and understanding of Italian literary studies by introducing students to the discipline of book history and material-textual studies, and thereby going ‘beyond the text’. It is unique amongst offerings in the department in that it has a major practical hands-on component in the study of the book, with students learning through through their own independent research. We will trace various physical manifestations of one text (Dante’s Commedia) over a very long period of time, and from this, draw conclusions about his changing place in various reading communities and cultures. Throughout, you will be encouraged to make connections between the literary text, its material features and its place in literary histories. The three pieces of assessed coursework are therefore designed to assess your understanding of each of these key areas and also to provide a record of your discoveries in the class.

Learning outcomes

Students who satisfactorily complete the course will be able to:  

  • distinguish between the literary text and the container(s) in which it travels, and appreciate the expressive forms of the book beyond the text 
  • demonstrate an understanding of the interrelationship between changing media and the material history of textual transmission from medieval manuscript to modern day digital forms 
  • appreciate the key stages in the history of the book and the importance of dissemination media in conditioning the literary and cultural reception of Dante’s work.


The first week of the course serves as a general introduction to the principles of book history, and the particular resources of the John Rylands Library of the University of Manchester. Students will be given a short set of foundational readings and activities to do over this period. The next two-week block will focus on medieval textualities, considering the context in which Dante’s work was produced and some aspects of the production and circulation of texts in Trecento Italy; the classroom sessions are then developed by a close-up seminar on Italian manuscripts in the Rylands.  The next three weeks will focus on the Italian Renaissance book and Dante’s reception in Italy from the fifteenth to seventeenth century, once again combining classroom seminars with a hands-on session in the Rylands. 

We will then consider the modern reception history of Dante from the eighteenth century to the present. The group project work and presentations will all take place in this part of the course, and will allow you to examine aspects of Dantean print and digital productions in depth. The final week of classes will return to the idea of the book itself, and its material and immaterial forms.  

Teaching and learning methods

A total of 33 contact hours (three hours a week over 11 teaching weeks), combining lectures, classroom seminars, primary-source workshops in the John Rylands Library, the preparation of a collaborative online wiki, and group presentations. Learning will also involve electronic seminars using digitized resources where appropriate. 

The Blackboard site will also include additional video resources including some produced for the course by the convenor, and other external videos, as well as extensive links to external scholarly websites (English- and Italian-language).


Extensive resources will be available via Blackboard, including materials to aid students in preparing for classes and assessment as well as links to on-line resources.

An innovative feature of this course, aligning teaching, independent student learning, and assessment, is the use of and production of electronic scholarly resources, in the form of the ‘Dante wiki’. Each student will contribute to a project (max 4 projects), preparing content for a group wiki to be hosted in Blackboard 9, and participating in a group presentation of the project to the rest of the class. The individual contribution to the group project is worth 25% of the final mark, based on c. 1000 words of online content which is assessed individually. Access to the group wikis will be restricted to the group members until the submission deadline, after which they will be available to the class as a whole as a shared resource for the final summative essay.

Students will also have the opportunity to keep an online reflective journal of their learning, in which they can record various elements (such as library workshops, secondary reading, seminar presentations) as they go along. While not compulsory, this will provide a valuable resource to draw on for the final comparative essay, and can be shared with other students. 

Knowledge and understanding

Students who complete the course will be able to demonstrate:

-an advanced knowledge of the cultural history of Dante’s Commedia in a range of historic and medial contexts from Trecento Italy to twenty-first century computer games.

- a detailed knowledge of manuscript and hand-press book production techniques.

-facility in both the critical theory and applied practice of book history and textual studies.

-how to make a book.

Intellectual skills

The following intellectual skills will be developed in this unit:

- the ability to undertake independent learning, including primary research, and to reflect on achievements

-the ability to situate historically specific literary productions within macro narratives of taste and transmission

-the ability to use critical theory to enrich one’s understanding of the text and book-object.

- the ability to challenge the master narratives of the Italian canon .

Practical skills

-To acquire a high level of verbal and written competence in in a variety of different assessment types and activities, including rare book case-study, essay, group presentation, and wiki writing.

-To gain experience in the handling and description of rare books and manuscripts, and to develop expertise in the use of bibliographical resources such as print and electronic handlists and catalogues.

-To deepen awareness of contemporary digital media forms and their production and dissemination mechanisms.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

The ability to undertake independent research on a primary source, drawing on expert secondary resources.

The ability to write succinctly for the web and to learn the basics of wiki construction.

The ability to work independently and in a team, and to co-produce electronic resources.

The ability to think and argue critically and coherently, orally and in writing.

The ability to manage time and work to deadlines.

The ability to design learning activities for peers.

Employability skills

Advanced awareness of physical and electronic media forms, and experience in producing electronic resources.
Evidence of ability to undertake independent research.
Written communication
Advanced facility in writing in a variety of text-types and for a variety of different aims.
Specific expertise in bibliographical, library, and information skills in Special Collections and beyond.

Assessment methods


2000-word Case Study - 35%

Wiki contribution, 1000 words of individual content - 25%

3000-word Comparative Essay - 40%

Feedback methods

Summative written work will be returned with written feedback by the tutor as soon as practicable and within 15 working days at the latest (i. e., feedback on the commentary by the end of Week 10, feedback on the wiki and essay by the end of the January exam period.

Formative feedback will be given on a case-study draft by Week 6.

Global feedback on written work will be given in class and may also be posted on Blackboard, as necessary. The timetable will also include two workshops on case-study writing (Week 5) and essay writing (Week 10), using peer feedback mechanisms.

In addition, oral feedback on the unassessed student-led workshops on the wiki projects will be given as soon as practicable and within 15 working days at the latest.

Additional one-to-one feedback is available during consultation hours or by appointment.

Recommended reading

Kathleen Speight, ‘The John Rylands Library Dante Collection’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 44 (1961- 1962), 175-212 [available in eScholar]

A copy of Dante’s Commedia in Italian, based on the critical text established by Giorgio Petrocchi.

The Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship, ed. by Neil Fraistat and Julia Flanders (Cambridge: CUP, 2013)

The Book History Reader, ed. by David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery (London and New York: Routledge, 2002). Includes excerpts from the key works on book history: an excellent introduction to the field. ¿

Brian Richardson, Print Culture in Renaissance Italy 1470-1600 (Cambridge: CUP, 1994)

Printing, Writing and Readers in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge: CUP, 1999) ¿

 Peter L. Shillingsburg, From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary Texts (Cambridge: CUP, 2006)

The full course reading list is available via the Library Resource List.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Seminars 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Guyda Armstrong Unit coordinator

Additional notes




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