Is Utopia a learned joke, a slippery satire, or an earnest attempt to imagine alternatives to life in sixteenth-century Europe? While few may consider Utopia an actual depiction of an existing place, readers have argued for centuries about how seriously to consider the prescriptions that Hythloday offers in his account. (One early editor, Jacopo Sansovino, even included Utopia as one of the realms in his survey of forms of government). In an early age of print, when New World discoveries were still current events, the first editions of Utopia used a number of elements to enhance the illusion.
More plays constantly with reality effects in order to keep his readers slightly off-balance. In Book I, the author and his friends are introduced as characters. In Book II, the description of Utopia itself comes courtesy of a first-person witness—a traveler to the land in question. Beyond the text of Utopia, a series of paratexts and prefatory materials frames our reading experience. These vary widely from edition to edition and translation to translation, as Utopia makes its way across Europe. They include letters discussing Utopia from real people—More’s humanist friends—as well as illustrations, poems, maps, and a Utopian alphabet.
There are also the material qualities of the book itself: the signals it sends through the quality of its printing and binding, as well as its size. Examining the unedited Utopias below can help us reconstruct how these effects might have functioned for the first readers of Utopia, and how they carried over between different versions.
For Utopia was what we would call a best-seller, published in twenty editions and translated from Latin into six different European vernaculars—German, Spanish, Italian, French, English, and Dutch—by the mid seventeenth century. Although this module focuses on two editions that are part of UCLA’s Clark Library collection, most editions added their own paratexts and removed or reorganized others, framing the text for their particular circumstances. The material book that is Utopia thus reproduces in its form the framing, transfer, and translation of information that characterizes Hythlodaeus’ narrative to the assembled company of “More” and his friends.
This third edition of More’s Utopia, published in November 1518, is the most beautifully printed and illustrated version of the text to appear in sixteenth-century Europe. The title translates to “a truly golden little book of a republic’s noble position, and the new island Utopia, no less wholesome than entertaining.”
The second edition of More’s Utopia in English, published in 1556. While the general inferiority of sixteenth-century English printing is obvious when comparing this book to the 1518 Basel edition, Utopia in English reached a much wider audience in Britain than the Latin versions, which would have been accessible only to the learned.