BA Italian Studies / Course details

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:
Introduction to the History of the Book

Course unit fact file
Unit code ITAL30431
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by
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. In addition to focusing on the authored text, however, we will also investigate 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.). 


No prior knowledge of Italian required. SALC Free choice unit.


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 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.


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

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

Assessment methods

Assessment task  

Formative or Summative 


Weighting within unit (if summative) 

Book case-study 




Dante Wiki contribution 









Feedback methods

Written feedback on summative written work


Feedback will be given on a case-study draft


Global feedback on written work will be given in class and may also be posted on Blackboard, as necessary


Oral feedback on the unassessed student-led workshops on the wiki projects


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 or in translation.
  • 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)

NB: The full course reading list is available via the Library Resource List, with many secondary readings in digitized form.

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

3 hours weekly for 11 weeks of teaching plus two consultation hours weekly. The tutor will also provide an additional 10 hours of contact time to support the preparation of summative assessments, including practical case-study support in the John Rylands Library. 

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