15.02.05, Gillespie and Powell, eds., A Companion to the Early Printed Book in Britain, 1476-1558

Main Article Content

Mark Rankin

The Medieval Review 15.02.05

Gillespie, Vincent, and Susan Powell. A Companion to the Early Printed Book in Britain, 1476-1558. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2014. Pp. xviii, 385. ISBN: 9781843843634 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Mark Rankin
James Madison University

In recent years valuable studies in the origins of English printing and the transition from manuscript modes of production to those of print have applied principles in the history of the book to specific questions concerning book ownership, the nature of reading, and the wider circulation of texts. None of these studies, not even the excellent Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume III: 1400-1557 (1999), grapples solely with the early printed book as an artefact in itself. A Companion to the Early Printed Book in Britain, 1476-1558 fills this gap. As co-editor Susan Powell notes in her editorial preface, the volume represents an expansion of topics which she had outlined in an April 2009 lecture at a conference on fifteenth-century religious writing at the University of Oxford. We have the co-editors and Boydell & Brewer to thank for seeing the need for this volume and for arranging it so lucidly. It now joins the multi-volume Cambridge History of the Book in Britain (CHBB) and other studies in offering an authoritative account of this subject. Indeed, the essays collected here speak to concerns that are also shared by the contributors to volume three of the CHBB, and scholars will find fruit in reading both of these volumes side by side.

Because of its very specific focus, the co-editors of this Companion have encouraged contributors to wrestle with questions that pertain specifically to this formative period in English printing. The volume contains four sections, which address "The Printed Book Trade," "The Printed Book as Artefact," "Patrons, Purchasers, and Products," and "The Cultural Capital of Print." All of the chapters conclude with a very helpful bibliography. Somewhat unusually for an essay collection of this kind, the sub-sections hold together very well, with themes in one section reinforcing issues taken up by another section. The contributors are all established scholars, and the collection as a whole provides, among other gems, a series of "firsts" that make this book an invaluable reference tool. Thus a 1459 Mainz Durandus, bought in 1465 by James Goldwell of All Souls, Oxford, is the first known printed book purchased by an Englishman; Rufinus's Exposicio [...] in simbolum apostolorum (1478) (STC 21443) is the first book printed in Oxford; Wynkyn de Worde is the first English printer to exploit a market for contemporary English verse, by distributing the writings of Stephen Hawes; and so forth and so on.

The book also presents a particularly clear understanding of the nature and scope of the Latin trade in imported books during the period in question, and thus helps to place the domestic trade in its proper perspective in a way that some studies neglect. From the 1460s Goldwell and other Englishmen frequently purchased printed books while abroad. Indeed, Alan Coates's chapter on the Latin trade demonstrates that it flourished even after the establishment of William Caxton's printing enterprise in Westminster in 1476. Academic books in particular formed a large segment of this trade, but schoolbooks and clerical books also entered the country in large numbers, and a thriving market for second-hand Latin books also developed. Daniel Wakelin's essay on Humanism and printing builds upon Coates's insights by situating the domestic trade in humanist print within the broader story of continental learned printing. One of this Companion's distinguishing features is its fine attention to personalities that comprised the book trade. Thus Coates provides considerable information on clerical elites and their agents who acquired books printed abroad, including the Cologne bookseller and publisher Franz Birckmann, and Wakelin details how the Oxford printer Theodoric Rood expressed his view that domestic printing in Latin had exceeded continental exemplars. Like to this is Anne F. Sutton's chapter on merchants, who functioned substantially as book importers and publishers during these years. This kind of clarity is symptomatic of this entire book, which builds upon existing knowledge with considerable insight and encyclopedic candor.

Available space does not allow a detailed summary of all chapters; indeed, this reviewer cannot stress strongly enough that anyone interested in this subject simply must acquire the book. All of the essays are valuable, and only a summary of high points can be offered here. In their contribution on "Printers, Publishers and Promoters to 1558," Tamara Atkin and A. S. G. Edwards discuss the interplay of political and economic forces and markets in the book trade. Their overview of the major printers offers useful insight into how such printers developed stable markets, on the one hand, and attempted new ventures of various kinds, on the other hand. Pamela Robinson's chapter on paper and type provides bibliographical information on both that can be used to undertake further analyses. Readers find a detailed summary of Caxton's, De Worde's, and Pynson's specific types and papers, including Caxton's remarkable use of twenty-six different paper stocks in his Royal book (1485-86), as determined by watermark evidence. Complementing this, Alexandra Gillespie demonstrates that England's first printers and booksellers were frequently themselves binders and argues that bookbinding techniques afford a point of continuity between systems of manuscript and print production of books. These techniques deserve greater attention by historians of the book, she rightly shows. Her chapter supplements Julia Boffey's, which offers detailed discussion of specific examples of books that document contact between the two systems of production. Martha Driver's ensuing contribution on woodcuts supplies an overview of book illustration to c.1530 and reveals the ways in which printed and hand-decorated illustrations could take on fluid meaning, as woodcuts were often repurposed in other printed books and in sammelbande volumes (i.e., user-made books that bound together separate works into a single book).

Essays within this Companion pair with each other with remarkable synergy. In her discussion of lay reading and book ownership, Mary C. Erler's insightful account of the bookish nature of Margaret Beaufort's household very helpfully complements Brenda M. Hosington's essay on women as translators in early Tudor England. Her analysis of specific women translators overturns influential assumptions that female translation was a largely private affair during these years. In fact, Lady Beaufort and other women, including Margaret Roper, Catherine Parr, Mary Tudor, and the princess Elizabeth Tudor, "understood the power of translation as a conduit for religious and political thought" (270). Susan Powell's, James C. Clark's, and James Willoughby's discussion of the reception and use of print among the secular and regular clergy, and in the universities and chantries, respectively, is particularly thorough and insightful. Powell and Clark bring together known patterns of book acquisition during the incunabular period, on the one hand, with issues concerning the development of libraries (and their dissolution) and clerical authorship during the reign of Henry VIII, on the other hand. For his part, Willoughby brings into focus, seemingly for the first time, the libraries of non-university clerical institutions as a body of neglected evidence among historians of the book. Likewise Thomas Betteridge's and Lucy Wooding's essays extend current investigation into uses of print by the English Catholic establishment, with Wooding showing that approaches to printing during the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-58) continued earlier trends in pre-Reformation English uses of print.

I wish to make special mention of Andrew Hope's chapter on the clandestine publication abroad of evangelical English books during the 1520s. Hope presents new information on the publication of English Bibles by William Tyndale and others. Although this information is not definitive, it is extremely suggestive. In particular, Hope lays the ground work for scholars to conduct further research on the involvement of Franz Birckmann as publisher of English New Testaments printed in Cologne and Antwerp, and he offers the helpful observation that the distribution channels for disseminating sixteenth-century heretical printing were established during the 1520s, principally (although not exclusively) from Antwerp.

In sum, A Companion to the Early Printed Book in Britain, 1476-1558 is an essential volume and deserves a place on every shelf. This is a book that no one will regret acquiring and whose insights should definitively shape future discussion of this subject.

Article Details

Author Biography

Mark Rankin

James Madison University