The History of the Chapter in the West is a project on the survival and metamorphosis of an editorial device first developed in classical antiquity: the chapter. First known as a kephalaion, capitulum, or caput, the chapter arose as a finding device within long, often heterogenous prose texts, prior even to the advent of the codex. By the 4th century it was no longer unusual for texts to be composed in capitula; but it is with the advent of the fictional prose narratives we call the novel that the chapter, both ubiquitous and innocuous, developed into a compositional practice, even a way of thinking about biographical time. A technique of discontinuous reading that finds a home in a form for continuous, immersive reading, the chapter is a case study in adaptive reuse and slow change.
As an attempt to explore the deep time of literary history, the project explores examples that span two millennia, with particular reference to some specific moments and trajectories:
— The division of the Gospels into chapters in early 4th and 5th-century codices; the practices of textual segmentation in the scriptoria of 4th-century Caesarea, 6th-century Vivarium, and the early 13th-century revision of those chapters into the quite different form we have today;
— The use of chapters in ancient and medieval compendia, such as Aulus Gellius’s Attic Nights and Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences;
— The time-scales of action and human agency implied by late-medieval prose chapterings, such as Caxton’s chaptering of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur in his 1485 printing of the text, or the mises en proses of Chrétien de Troyes’s poems carried out in the Burgundian court circle of the fifteenth century;
— The vibrant set of discussions, controversies, and experiments with the chapter during the eighteenth century in Britain, spawned by reconsiderations of the printed Bible and furthered by the novel of the time;
— The honing of the chapter, in the nineteenth century novel (particularly in the Bildungsroman), into a way of thinking about the segmented nature of biographical memory, as well as the temporal frames– the day; the year– in which that segmenting occurs;
— The modernist play with the chapter form that both dissolved and reaffirmed the unit of the chapter as a significant measure of human experience.
For more on the project, see “The Chapter: A History.”