W. (William) Roberts.

The earlier history of English bookselling online

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' A little row of Naphtha-lamps, with its line of Naphtha-light, burns clear and
holy through the dead Night of the Past : they who are gone are still here :
though hidden they are revealed, though dead they yet speak.'




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IN planning a ' History of English Bookselling ' I
found myself compelled to adopt one of two alterna-
tives. In one, the History would have consisted of
a complete list of Booksellers, with exhaustive
bibliographies of each, and full extracts from the
Stationers' Registers, an account of the Company's
Masters and other officers, and verbatim reprints of
Charters granted at different times to the fraternity
to individual members as well as to the Company.
Biographical data of the earlier booksellers would
also have had to be considered, but it is scarcely
necessary to remind those who have interested them-
selves in the earlier aspects of literary activity that
biography is a singularly deficient element. If next
to nothing is known of Marlowe and Shakespeare, their
predecessors and their contemporaries, it is scarcely
reasonable to expect much information about the
lives of men who played a very subordinate part in
general history. Some private animosity or profes-

viii Prejace.

sional jealousy often throws a little light upon their
history or methods of work, but it rarely amounts to
anything more than this. A ' History of Bookselling '
on these lines, therefore, would not only be a portly
volume, but it is difficult to see how the matter could
be digested into a readable form. The appearance
of Mr. Arber's unparalleled monument of single-
handed labour, moreover, was another reason for dis-
carding a scheme which could, by no possibility, be
considered as enumerating every book published,
for fresh books of the early printers and booksellers
are constantly being discovered in public or private
libraries, the auction-room or the bookshop. To
attempt to say the last word on a subject with such
endless ramifications, would be ridiculous.

Of the second alternative, the reader has now an
opportunity of judging. I may, however, point out
that the present volume only brings my scheme up to
the earlier part of the last century. I have purposely
omitted chapters on several interesting phases such
as Booksellers' Signs, Sale Catalogues, and Retail
Catalogues, the wholesale and retail prices of certain
books, Booksellers as publishers of newspapers, and
many others, with which I purpose dealing fully in
a future volume, should the present instalment be
favourably received.

Preface. ix

It is rather an extraordinary fact that so interesting
a section in literary history as Bookselling should have
so long remained undone. My own aim has been to
write a readable book on an interesting subject, taking
care, at the same time, to be as accurate as possible.
I cannot hope to have produced a work free of errors,
which would, perhaps, be unique in literary history.
Depending on statements at second-hand is too often
a matter of leaning on a broken reed, but it is fre-
quently the only one available. And even with the
splendid resources of the British Museum, and a
modest private collection (gleanings of several years
from various sources), of Bibliopoliana, there are
many points which I have not been able to clear up

The books which have been consulted -in the pro-
gress of the work are too numerous to be here speci-
fied, but the principal are Notes and Queries, Gentle
man's Magazine, Nichols' ' Literary Anecdotes,' Mr.
W. C. Hazlitt's admirable bibliographical works, Mr.
Ouaritch's equally useful catalogues, D'Israeli's works,
Timperley's 'Dictionary,' the Bibliographer, Mr.
Arber's ' Reprints,' Dunton's ' Life and Errors,' and
many more to which due acknowledgment is given in
the proper places. The British Museum ' Catalogue
of Early English Books ' has also been most useful.

x Preface.

Very many facts, derived from the newspapers of the
earlier part of the last century, are now published for
the first time in book form. I need hardly mention
that I should at all times be grateful for any fresh
information relative to the fraternity as a body, or to
any of its individual members.

In conclusion, it may be pointed out that where
the Christian names of persons incidentally mentioned
are omitted in the body of the work, they will
generally be found in the Index, in which, also, a few
slips in the text detected too late for correction are

January 5, 1889.











xii Contents.











CARLYLE has, truthfully we think, declared that
1 ten ordinary histories of kings and courtiers were
well exchanged against the tenth part of one good
History of Booksellers.' In the history of the whole
world no movement can be pointed at whose inception
involved so many issues, or whose importance has
proved so universal and so enduring, as the history
of books, which is practically the history of human
thought itself. Literature and its most primary cog-
nate never had separate existences, for in ages long
anterior to those of books, as we now understand the
term, we shall find traces of bookselling by way of
bartering one commodity for another, when money had
only a comparative value, or was almost unknown.

We shall confine ourselves, however, so far as pos-
sible, in this chapter to a brief consideration of the
origin and rise of bookselling in England. In the early
centuries of the Christian era, men had no time, in the
making and unmaking of towns, cities, and countries,


2 The Earlier History of English Bookselling.

to devote to literature, which indeed offered but few
attractions to those who could neither read nor write.
The cultivation of the soil, or the various methods of
offence and defence in the event of war, were almost the
only two alternatives, besides hunting and fishing,
which the early inhabitants of Great Britain possessed
to pass away the time. The seventh century, which
both Hallam and Guizot considered as the nadir of the
human mind in Europe, was only the intense darkness
which preceded almost heralded a bright and lumin-
ous dawn, for the eighth century is a splendid landmark
in the literary history of this country. Previous to this,
the quality of the manuscripts was generally inferior,
and the collectors few. Benedict Biscop (629-690) , may
be regarded as the first real and enthusiastic collector^
and, in a sense, propagator of books. This famous
person, who founded the monastery of Wearmouth in
the year 674, made no less than five journeys to Rome
for the almost express purpose of collecting books,
besides commissioning his friends on various parts of
the continent to collect others for him. The Venerable
Bede (673-735), wno was greatly indebted to the
library formed by Benedict Biscop, was also a great
patron and purchaser of books, and was instrumental
in saving many a fine manuscript from destruction.
Boniface (680-755), the Saxon missionary, had suffi-
cient of the bibliomaniac element in him to make up
for half-a-dozen men. His demands for books were
simply insatiable, and there was scarcely any one of
note from whom he had not begged copies of some-
thing. One of his most constant friends seems to have
been the Abbess Eadburga, who sent him a number

Bookselling before Printing. 3

of books transcribed either by herself or her scholars.
On one occasion he presented the Abbess with a silver
pen. The century to which we are referring was pro-
ductive of some very beautiful manuscripts, of which
a few are still in existence. Books not only largely
increased in numbers, but several libraries, private and
public, sprang into existence.

The monks may be regarded as our very earliest
booksellers. The preservation of literary treasures,
the making and disposal of books, were for many cen-
turies confined to the cloister. Whatever their faults
may have been and these were unquestionably
numerous it is only right and fair that we should
accord them the merit of preserving much of our early
literature and records. Among them were many who
possessed an artistic taste at once exquisite and
strangely out of harmony with the times, and an in
dustry which completely overcame all opposition.
The Benedictines more especially distinguished them-
selves in the beauty of their manuscripts, and to this
order, which was the most widely diffused, we may
attribute the preservation of many valuable works other
than religious, for in exhorting his brethren to read,
copy, and collect books, Benedict does not appear to
have laid down any stipulation as to whether the books
were to be heathen or the reverse. We may rest as-
sured that the monks did not inquire too particularly
into the question. The energy to which we have
referred, which also sometimes found a vent in the
committal of original thoughts to paper, or rather
parchment, cannot be regarded as wholly satisfac-
tory. Writing material was at certain periods both

B 2

4 The Earlier History of English Bookselling.

costly and difficult to obtain, and the over-zealous
monks did not hesitate to erase the writing on old
manuscripts and substitute their own notions. Of
these palimpsests or rescripts, as they are now called,
there are several in existence, and to this cause may
be attributed the loss of many a classic, and the exist-
ence of many more in a corrupted condition. Boc-
caccio, when travelling through Apulia, found all the
books in the library of Mount Cassino covered with
dust, and on examining these he discovered book after
book with entire sections cut out, and others without
any margins. He was informed that it was the work
of the monks, who did it to earn a penny, to make
little psalters for children ; with the white margins
they made mass books for women. There can be
hardly any doubt that the same or analogous causes
contributed to our own losses in England.

The greater number of manuscripts written prior to
the eleventh century fell into the hands of the Danes,
and perished in consequence. The Danish invasions of
the dying years of the tenth century resulted in the
destruction of fifty -three monasteries ; and William of
Malmesbury alludes to the ancient libraries of con-
ventual churches destroyed by these free-booters,
' Ecclesiae in quibus numerosae a prisco bibliothecae
continebantur, cum libris a Danis incensae.'

A number of inaccuracies and misleading state-
ments concerning the books and literature of the
'dark ages' have been promulgated through the
works of Robertson and Warton. Most of these
were ably and categorically refuted by the late Rev.
S. R. Maitland, in the pages of the long-defunct

Bookselling before Printing. 5

British Magazine. These refutations have been
published in book form under the title of ' The Dark
Ages.' The statements derived, by these writers,
from Latin and French authors, are often twisted
into meanings quite the reverse to what was originally
intended ; and they are, moreover, advanced as
examples of a general rule. But they are purely
exceptional cases. Books were, it is true, both dear
and scarce, but only so in a comparative point of
view. Robertson, quoting from ' Histoire Litteraire
de la France par des religieux Be'n&dictins,' &c.,
states that ' the prices of books became so high, that
persons of a moderate fortune could not afford to
purchase them. The Countess of Anjou paid for a
copy of the Homilies of Haimon, Bishop of Halber-
stadt, two hundred sheep, five quarters of wheat, and
the same quantity of rye and millett.' And again,
quoting from another source, he says, ' Even so late
as the year 1471, when Louis XI. borrowed the
works of Rasis, the Arabian philosopher, from the
Faculty of Medicine in Paris, he not only deposited
as a pledge a considerable quantity of plate, but was
obliged to procure a nobleman to join with him as
a surety in a deed, binding himself under a great
forfeiture to restore it.' These two instances, while
interesting in themselves, along with- a number of
others so commonly cited, really do not prove that
books were so very expensive in early times, any
more than certain recent purchases of single volumes
at from 3OOO/. to SCXDO/. each illustrate the present
prices in literature. Unique books have, and always
will have, unique values. No book or manuscript

6 The Earlier History of English Bookselling.

volume which preceded the introduction of printing
has an exact counterpart. The quality and price
were more varied than is generally thought, and the
subject-matter was most usually of little moment
when compared with the extent to which it was illus-
trated or illuminated a work of the most important
and delicate nature. Many books, especially those
used in the Church Service, were, observes Mr.
Maitland, ' frequently written with great care and
pains, illuminated and gilded with almost incredible
industry, bound in, or covered with, plates of gold,
silver, or carved ivory, adorned with gems, and even
enriched with relics.'

The following extract from a letter of the thirteenth
century, addressed to Alphonsus, King of Naples, by
' Parrome ' Antonius Bonoriia Becatellus refers to
the expense of books : ' You lately wrote to me
from Florence that the works of Titus Livius are
there to be sold in very handsome books, and that
the price of each book is 120 crowns of gold.
Therefore, I entreat your majesty, that you cause to
be bought for us Livy, which we used to call the
king of books/ Ames, the author of ' Typographical
Antiquities,' possessed a folio MS. of the ' Roman
de la Rose,' which was sold before the palace-gate at
Paris, about 1400, for forty crowns, or 33/. 6s. 6d.
In a blank leaf of this copy was written ' Cest lyvir
cost a palas du Parys quarante corones d'or, sans

The value, extrinsic and intrinsic, of books during
the three or four centuries previous to the invention
of printing, is one of great importance and interest.

Bookselling before Printing. 7

But the few and fragmentary facts which have been
handed down to us preclude the possibility of drawing
any very general inferences. Books in those days
were treasured up as heirlooms, and duly bequeathed
in a fittingly serious and even reverend manner.
From one source we learn that Thomas Walleworth,
a canon residentiary of York, and rector of Heming-
burgh, bequeathed to his chaplain or curate, ' parvum
Pontiforium meum, cum quo sepulchrum Domini
nostri Jesu Christi pereyre visitavi.' The EarJ
of Warren, in 1347, left to his son William a
bible which he had had ' made ' in France. A year
later, John de-Harpham, vicar of Outthorne, leaves to
Nicholas, an apothecary at Beverley, ' unum librum
de Phisica ;' and in 1349, the head of the house of
Percy bequeathed his daughter ' de natura animalium,
in gallico.' Examples of the jealous care with which
books were regarded can be multiplied ad infinitum.
Warton mentions several in his ' History of English
Poetry/ Among the constitutions given to the monks
of England by Archbishop Lanfranc, in the year
1072, the following injunction occurs : At the be-
ginning of Lent, the librarian is ordered to deliver a
book to each of the religious : a whole year was
allowed for the perusal of this book : and at the
returning Lent, those monks who had neglected to
read the books they had respectively received, are
commanded to prostrate themselves before the abbot,
and to supplicate his indulgence. Warton alludes to
this regulation as being parti)' occasioned by the low
state of literature which Lanfranc found in the
English monasteries. But, he adds, at the same

8 The Earlier History of English Bookselling.

time it was a matter of necessity, and is in great
measure to be referred to the scarcity of copies of
useful and suitable authors. The same writer points
out that when a single book was bequeathed to a friend
or relation, it was almost invariably with numerous
restrictions and stipulations. And ' if any person
gave a book to a religious house, he believed that so
valuable a donation merited eternal salvation, and
he offered it on the altar with great ceremony.' It
was, in addition to this, quite a frequent practice to
lend money on the deposit of a book, and the uni-
versities appear to have kept public chests for the
reception of these books.

Comparatively few books with valuable appendages
have come down to us. This fact is easily accounted
for. Valuable personal property, then as now, was
not regarded by everybody as sacred, and many
cases of forcible robbery might be cited. These
robberies were not always committed by the Philis-
tines. Circumstances often compelled the clergy to
strip their books of their valuable adornments. As,
for example, the heavy tax levied by William II. to
raise sufficient money to purchase Normandy. On
this occasion, Godfred, Abbot of Malmesbury, stripped
the valuable adornments from off twelve copies of
the Gospels. And again, William de Longchamp
pawned thirteen copies of the Gospels one of which
belonged to King Edgar, and was of great value in
order to contribute towards the redemption of
Richard I. Fires also were the cause of much
destruction, especially that of Hide Abbey, near
Winchester, in 1141, when we are told that 'the

Bookselling before Printing. 9

monks got out of the ashes sixty pounds of silver and
fifteen pounds of gold, and various other things, which
they brought to the bishop.' But numerous robberies
were effected by monks and Abbots.

In several monasteries the transcription of books
gradually became regulated upon a strictly commer-
cial basis. The monies derived from the sales were
added to the revenues of the Abbey, and books re-
ceived in exchange were placed in the library. The
practice of exchanging duplicate copies was a frequent
one between the monasteries. From a statute date
1264 it would appear that the Dominicans were
strictly prohibited from selling their books. The
Scriptorium was an institution found in nearly every
monastery : the Scriptoria were on the same principle
but in smaller rooms. The monk most intimate with
the particular author, whose work was being tran-
scribed, dictated clearly and distinctly to a number
of writers, from whom great diligence and care were
exacted. The scribes were generally placed at
stated distances from each other, on long seats fitted
up for the purpose. The Armarian (custos librorum)
was responsible for all the manuscripts ; had to give
out the work, and also the material, such as knives,
parchment, &c. The original, or that of which
copies were taken, was always retained, and usually
one example at least of the ' copy.' And we can
well imagine the monks, in the long dreamy summer
afternoons, killing time by inscribing the names of
works in their possession, and sometimes delineating
a portrait of the author whom they most liked.

Transcribing by secular students dates back to the

i o The Earlier History of English Bookselling.

seventh century, but it did not take a decided stand
as a trade for some centuries afterwards. There were
nearly half-a-dozen sections. The stationarii were
those who copied, the librarii sold or lent, the relieurs
bound, the enlumineurs illustrated, and the parche-
mineurs sold parchment. Competition was the cause
of splitting the stationarii into more than one sec-
tion, the more noteworthy being designated notarii
and antiquarii. A strong professional jealousy was
the result The latter devoted their time more parti-
cularly to transcribing from, and renovating, old books.
But they did not confine their attention to their
speciality. And we learn from Astle that they
deprived ' the common scriptores of a great part of
their business, so that they found it difficult to gain
a subsistence for themselves and their, families.' In
consequence of this the ' scriptores ' sought more
expeditious methods of transcribing books ; ' they
formed the letters smaller, and made use of more
conjunctions and abbreviations than had been usual.
They proceeded in this manner till the letters became
exceedingly small and extremely difficult to be read.'
Whitaker ('Ancient Cathedrals of Cornwall,' ii. 321),
quoting from Gale, states that books were brought into
England for sale so early as the year 705. But 'the
trade ' had only an abstract form of existence for a
very long time afterwards, and then it was almost
solely confined to the monks. In the matter of
lending books, certain rules appear to have been
adopted. In most cases a security exceeding the
value real or fictitious of the book lent was
insisted upon. Where a monastery possessed dupli-

Bookselling before Printing. 1 1

cates, it was not difficult to borrow, but if the book
happened to be unique it was rarely allowed off the
premises. The three most popular ' heathen ' books
were Boethius' ' Consolation of Philosophy,' Quintius
Curtius' ' History of Alexander the Great/ and the
' Gesta Romanorum,' the last being perhaps the
most widely-read of the three. Each monk had a
lamp erected over his bed, so as to allow him to
study after retiring to rest. We may be sure that he
did not burn much midnight oil in perusing heavy
doctrinal treatises.

About the middle of the twelfth century it seems
that the manner of publishing new works was to
have them read over for three days successively,
before one of the universities, or other judges ap-
pointed by the public.

With the slow but sure march of progress, the demand
for books greatly increased. The universities soon
stepped in with a code of laws and regulations which
reserved to themselves the immediate supervision over
the public transcribers. The booksellers during the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were necessarily
men of judgment and learning, and the oath was
administered to them with great solemnity. Their
profits were subject to limitation. A charge of about
five per cent, was made to any one connected with
the university for the loan of certain books, whilst
citizens not university men made at a rate of nearly
one-third more. Stationers could not by any means
be denounced as drinking wine out of the skulls
of their authors in those times ; and we learn that
the prices allowed to stationers in 1 303 for the use

1 2 The Earlier History of English Bookselling.

of their copies was excessively small. A treatise on
the Gospel of Matthew, 37 pages, was lent for i sol ;
one on Mark, 20 pages, 17 deniers ; St. Thomas on
Metaphysics, 3 sols ; a treatise on Canon Law, 1 20
pages, 7 sols, and St. Thomas on the Soul, 19 pages,

13 deniers. It may be pointed out that a sol is now
equivalent to a halfpenny, and that a denier is a
twelfth part thereof.

French bookselling was for a very long period in
advance of that in this country. In 1259 the manu-
script vendors became so numerous that special
regulations were instituted respecting them. Censor-
ship of the press antedated printing by at least a
couple of centuries. Examiners were appointed by
the universities ; and this movement was an effective
counterpoise to the evil intentions of dishonest
traders. If an imperfect or corrupt copy was de-
tected, it was immediately confiscated, and no com-
pensation allowed. The booksellers could neither
buy books nor sell them without leave ; and they
were also compelled to expose a priced list of those
in their possession. As if all these restrictions were

Online LibraryW. (William) RobertsThe earlier history of English bookselling → online text (page 1 of 26)