W. (William) Roberts.

The earlier history of English bookselling online

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light and unimportant, the bookseller was compelled,
by a French law of 1342, to lend out books to the
poor students, for which a merely nominal charge
was fixed by the university.

Scarcely anything is known respecting the laws
and regulations of bookselling in this country during
the eleventh, twelfth, and the greater part of the
thirteenth centuries, when literature experienced an
utter stagnation. The manuscripts were especially
inferior ; but the cause of this is not far to seek. The

Bookselling before Printing. 13

tachygraphoi, or swift writers, not only employed a
number of contractions, abbreviations, and symbols,
but many of the commoner words were ' indicated
by single turns of the pen.' Some of these were
employed by the earlier printers.

The year 1276, when Henry III. was king, and
when Roger Bacon was living, is generally regarded as
synchronising with the revival of ' polite ' literature.
Among the notabilia of this period, the figure of
Richard de Bury (1281-1345) stands forth in bold
relief. An indefatigable book-collector, the personal
friend of Petrarch, and one of the most powerful men
in the kingdom, this man has an universal as well las
a particular interest. Not content with amassing an
immense collection, he employed numerous scribes,
bookbinders, and illuminators, to increase the facili-
ties for study. H is ' Philobiblon,' written shortly before
his death, is a delightful classic. ' We wished for
books, not bags,' he exclaims ; ' we delighted more in
folios than florins.' And again : ' O blessed God of
gods in Zion ! What a flood of pleasure rejoiced our
hearts as we visited Paris, the Paradise of the world ;'
for ' there are delightful libraries in cells redolent of
aromatics ; there are flourishing greenhouses of all
sorts of volumes ; there are academic meads trembling
with the earthquakes of Athenian peripatetics pacing
up and down ; there are the Promontories of Par-
nassus and the Porticoes of the Stoics . . . there
in very deed we scattered with an open treasury and
untied purse-strings ; we scattered money with a
light heart, and redeemed inestimable books with
dirt and dust.' Edward III. enabled him to 'oppose

1 4 The Earlier History of English Bookselling.

or advance, to appoint or discharge ; crazy quartos
and tottering folios, precious, however, in our sight
as well as in our affections, flowed in most rapidly
from the great and the small, instead of new year's
gifts and remunerations, and instead of presents and
jewels. Then the cabinets of the most noble monas-
teries were unlocked, caskets were unclasped, and
sleeping volumes which had slumbered for long ages
were roused up ; and those that lay hid in dark
places were overwhelmed with the rays of a new
light.' De Bury very properly denounces sloven-
liness in connection with book-usage, such as
holding a volume with unwashed hands ; handling
with dirty nails ; leaning upon them with greasy
elbows, and munching cheese or fruit over them ;
all of which practices he holds up to especial abhor-

In 1373, the University of Oxford issued a decree
forbidding any one selling books without a licence.
The abuses of the university regulations relative to
booksellers rendered this law necessary. The Rev-
H. Anstey's ' Munimenta Academica ' contains much
valuable information concerning the early history of
booksellers in Oxford, including ' a statute to prevent
the removal of valuable books' from the city. The
statute, in Latin, refers to the large number of book-
sellers in Oxford. These men, not being sworn to
the university, carried off several valuable books and
sold them, to the detriment of the ' sworn stationers.'
The statute, therefore, ' enacted ' that no bookseller,
unless duly sworn, should sell any book, whether his
own or not, exceeding half a mark in value, under

Bookselling before Printing. \ 5

pain of certain specified penalties. In another place we
are informed that, as the duties of the university are
laborious and anxious, ' every one on gradation shall
give clothes to one of the stationers.' In a curious
indenture, dated 1459, ' between the University of
Oxford and the town, to determine what persons
shall be held to be of the privilege of the university,'
the list includes ' alle stacioners.'

It seems almost superfluous to state that tran-
scribing was but one of the many items which the
production of books involved. We quote a few
examples from the wardrobe account (1480), of Ed-
ward III., edited by Sir N. H. Nicolas as illustrating
the importance of binding, gilding and garnishing.
' For vj unces and iij quarters of silk to the laces and
tasselsfor garnysshing of diverse Bookes, price the unce
xiiij */.,vij s. ~x.d. ob. ; for the making of xvj laces and
xvj. tassels made of the said vj unces and iij of silke
price in grete \}s. v\\d! These monies were paid to
Alice Claver, a 'sylkwoman.' And again, to Piers
Bauduyn, stacioner for bynding, gilding and dressing
of a booke called ' Titus Livius,' xxs. ; for bynding,
gilding and dressing of a booke of the Holy Trinitie,
xvjj. ; for bynding, gilding and dressing of a booke
called ' Frossard/ xvjj. ; for bynding, gilding and
dressing of a booke called the Bible, xvjj. ; for bynd-
ing. gilding and dressing of a booke called * Le
Gouvernement of Kinges and Princes,' xvjs. ; for bynd-
ing and dressing of the three smalle bookes of Franche,
price in grete vjs. viiij. ; for the dressing of ij bookes
whereof oon is called ' La Forteresse de Foy ' and the
other called the 'Book of Josephus,' iijj. \\i]d.; and

1 6 The Earlier History of English Bookselling .

for bynding, gilding and dressing of a booke called
the ' Bible Historial,' xxs.

The dissolution of the monasteries entailed a
grievous loss to literature. Even Bale, who re-
garded the monks with anything but a favourable
eye, lamented the destruction. He would not, he
says, have been offended for the general wreck ' if the
chiefe monuments and most notable works of our
most excellent writers had been preserved.' If there
had been in every county in England but one library
for the preservation of noble works, he thinks it
would have been something towards the preservation
of learning for posterity. But to commit such a
wholesale destruction is a ' most horrible infamy.'
Many of those who purchased the monasteries re-
served the books, but not because of any love which
they bore towards learning ' some to serve theyr
jakes, some to scoure theyr candlestyckes, and some
to rubbe their boots.' Many books were sold to the
grocers and soapsellers, whilst several cargoes were
exported to foreign countries. Bale declared that he
knew a ' merchant man, whyche shall at thys tyme
be namelesse,' that bought the contents of two noble
libraries for forty shillings, that the leaves and manu-
scripts thus obtained he used intead of grey paper,
and that the material he secured lasted him for about
twenty years. In another place the same writer
remarked that he found several notable volumes of
antiquity, the titles, dates and commencements of
which he copied. Leland, also, was instrumental in
rescuing a number of chronicles and other books from

Bookselling before Printing. \ 7

We need not, however, traverse the innumerable
byepaths of literary enterprise, be it the persecution
of the authorities, the trials and triumphs of author-
ship, or the subterfuges and anomalies of bookselling.
In touching upon the subject of literary history, a
vast and boundless area at once appears before the
imagination. It is easy enough to begin, but most
difficult to know where and when to leave off, for the
ramifications are endless, and the interest intense.
Indeed, there is no history like unto the history of
books. The hopes, the aspirations, the achievements
and the results of the master-minds of the world can
in no wise be regarded as unimportant. And if book-
selling plays only a subordinate part in any or all of
these attributes, it is at all events a part which cannot
be ignored or overlooked. The influence of the book-
seller, since the time of Pomponius Atticus, has been
great, and it will be our duty in the following pages
to indicate in some small degree the part which he,
as a tradesman, has played in the past three or four
centuries of English History.

1 8 The Earlier History of English Bookselling.



THE new birth the Genesis of modern history,
thought and movement the invention of printing,
had no greater influence upon any phase of life than
upon that of literary enterprise, with which, indeed,
it was synchronous. So closely allied as is the art of
printing with the practice of bookselling, our limits do
not permit of even a cursory view of the initial stages
of the former. It must suffice us, therefore, to state,
as a sort of landmark, that the first press appears to
have been erected at Mayence in 1445, and that one
was not introduced into this country until about 1477,
when Caxton set up at Westminster. Without enter-
ing on the debatable ground as to where or with
whom Caxton learned the art with which his name is
so closely identified, it will be enough to state that in
or about the year above mentioned he commenced a
'vertuous ocupacion and besynese ' in the Almonary
opposite the gatehouse of Westminster.

Caxton was wise and discreet. He knew full well
the pains and penalties to which his continental
brethren had been subjected, and he saw through the
thin veil of righteous hypocrisy. Then, as now, the
men who were loudest in advocating charity were

The Dawn of English Bookselling. \ 9

the quickest to resent, and the severest to punish
those who attempted to put that estimable quality
into force. Religious vade-mecums were naturally the
best 'selling 1 books, and Caxton printed many such,
but he confined his attention principally to the pro-
duction and sale of the old romances and tales of
chivalry at that time so popular. The charm and
fascination of mediaeval England for students at
the present day cannot by any justification be
extended to the dreary stuff with which our fore-
fathers satisfied their mental appetites. Although we
know nearly everything connected with Caxton and
his books, thanks to the energy of Mr. William
Blades there is one particular phase of his booksell-
ing career of which we know scarcelv anything. We
have no clear records relative to the charges made for
the sixty or seventy books which he printed, pub-
lished and sold ; we have little means of arriving at
an approximate calculation as to which sold best,
although several of them ran into a second edition,
and, in the instance of The Golden Legendc' (1483)
a third was called for. But the amount of Caxton's
funeral expenses justify the conclusion that he was of
some considerable importance and wealth, which again,
might have been acquired through channels other than
bookselling. The demand for books at this'period was
not so much due to the increased supply as to the
great reduction in the prices. This reduction, soon
after printing was introduced, amounted to about
four-fifths. In the ' Privy Purse Expenses of Eliza-
beth of York,' 1503, we have the following entry :
' Itm for a prymer and saulter, xx</.'
C 2

2o The Earlier History of English Bookselling.

a sum which Mr. Charles Knight pointed out would
then have bought half a load of barley, and was about
equal to the six days' wage of a labourer. As time
went on, and the people became more enlightened,
the demand for books increased, than which there was
no more effectual way of calling cheap books into

The first printers not only printed a book, but
finished it off in every respect, and then sold it. The
mechanical production was naturally a very tedious
process, and many specimens still in existence are
monuments of patience and artistic skill. The pecu-
liarities of early books were very numerous, and a few
of these are thus pointed out : All the ancient
printers, or at least those of the fifteenth century,
had only very small presses, and two folio pages,
little larger than two pages of foolscap, was the
largest surface they could print. It is probable, also,
that the system of laying down pages, or ' imposing '
them, that we now have, was not then known. Their
mode of procedure was as follows. They took a
certain number of sheets of paper three, four, five,
or more and folded them in the middle, the quan-
tity forming a section. Three sheets, thus folded or
'quired,' is called a ternion; four sheets a quarternion,
and so on. Hence the first sheet would contain the
first two pages of the ternion and the last two pages
that is, pages i and 2 and n and 12. The second
sheet, lying inside the first, would contain pages 3
and 4 and 9 and 10 ; the third sheet having pages 5
and 6 and 7 and 8. If the reader will take three
slips of paper, and fold them in the same manner,

The Dawn of English Bookselling. 2 r

marking the number of the pages, the process will be
easily understood. It is obvious that when a system
of this kind was adopted, there was danger lest the
loose sheets should become disarranged, and not
follow in their proper order. To obviate such an
accident, there was written at the bottom of the first
page of each leaf a Roman numeral, as j, ij, iij, (i,
2, 3), and so on. This plan was originally adopted
by the scribes, and the printers merely imitated it.
But the book being made up of a number of quires,
there was a danger lest the quires themselves should
become disarranged. To prevent this there was at
the foot of each page written a letter of the alphabet.
The first sheet would bear the letter a, the second b,
and so on. When these two indications were pre-
sent, the binder could never be in doubt as to the
order of the different sheets. The first page of the
book was marked a j, the third page a ij, the fifth
page a iij, and so forth. The next quire presented
the letters b j, b ij, b iij, and so on. These indica-
tions at the feet of the pages are known as signatures.
When the page bears one of them it is said to be
' signed,' and where there is no mark of the kind it
is said to be 'unsigned.' In the earliest books the
signatures were written with a pen, and the fact that
many copies which have been preserved do not now
bear signatures, is owing to the fact of their being
written so close to the margin that they have since
been cut off, while the book was being rebound. It
was many years after the invention of typography
that signatures were printed along with the matter
of the pages. The earliest instance we have of the

2 2 The Earlier History of English Bookselling.

use of printed signatures is in the ' Preceptorium
Divine Legis ' of Johannes Nider, printed at Cologne,
by Johann Koelhof, in 1472. It has, however, been
pointed out that the inventor of signatures was
Anthony Zarot, who introduced the art of printing
into Milan, and that they were inserted in an edition
of Terence printed by him in 1470. The point
is purely typographical.

Speaking of early bookbinding, Mr. Charles Knight
Observes that 'the board between which the leaves
were fastened, was as thick as the panel of a door.
This was covered with leather, sometimes embossed
with the most ingenious devices. There were large
brass nails, with ornamental heads, on the outside of
this cover, with magnificent corners to the lids. In
addition, there were clasps. The back was rendered
solid with paste and glue, so as to last for centuries.
Erasmus says of such a book, as for Thomas Aquinas'
Secunda Secunda, no " man can carry it about, much
less get it into his head." An ancient woodcut shews
us the binder hammering at the leaves to make them
flat, and a lad sewing the leaves in a frame, very
much like that still in use.'

The number of copies printed of each impression
could not have been large, probably not more than
a hundred or two at the outside of even very popular
books. The market experienced no glut for a long
period after Caxton. Caxton rarely undertook the
publication of a work unless he had some sort of
guarantee, or unless the persuasions of ' many noble
and divers gentlemen ' resolved themselves into some
tangible proof. In 1483, the scarcity of books

The Dawn of English Bookselling. 2 3

appears to have been so great that an Act of Parlia-
ment was passed to promote their importation from
foreign countries.

In addition to printing and selling, Caxton almost
invariably edited, rearranged, and sometimes wrote
or translated the works which he published, a
practice common with the earlier printers. The
'Noble Hystoryes of Kynge Arthur' (1485), for
example, was ' deuyded in to xxi bookes chapytred
and emprynted and fynysshed, in thabbey west-
mestre.' To nearly every book which he printed
Caxton added prefaces or prologues, explanatory or
otherwise, which are exceedingly characteristic. In
the case of 'the Boke Eneydos' (1490), he states
that 'this present book is not for a rude uplandish
man to labour therein, nor read it ; but only for a
clerke and a noble gentleman, that feeleth and under -
standeth in feats of arms, in love, and in noble
chivalry.' It may be pointed out here that the first
English book printed in England is generally con-
sidered to be ' The Dictes and notable wyse Sayenges
of the Phylosophers ' (1477), translated from the
French by Caxton's patron Earl Rivers. The first
book printed in English is ' The Recuyell of the
Historyes of Troye,' which is a translation from a
French traduction of a Latin work ; it was ' begonne
in Bruges in 1468 and ended in the holy cyte of
Colen 19 Sept. 1471.' The second edition of ' The
Game and Playe of the-Chesse/ without date, but
issued probably about 1481, was the first printed
book in the English language which contained wood-
cuts, but it was not printed in England.

24 The Earlier History of English Bookselling.

As a matter of fact, bookselling was in every way
subordinate to printing with Caxton and his more
immediate successors. His example was emulated by
his apprentices, Wynkyn de Worde (d. 1534), and
Richard Pynson (d. 1530). The former, with a
singular reverence for his master, invariably gives
Caxton's initials the precedence of his own name.
He published over 400 books, whilst his fellow-
labourer issued about half that number. De Worde
carried on business ' in flete strete, at the sygne of
the sonne agaynst the condyth.' A map of London
of the date of Elizabeth shows the conduit to have
been at the south end of Shoe Lane, Fleet Street.
Pynson's was farther up, being situated outside
Temple Bar. The two men printed, in several
instances, editions of the same books, but the spirit
of rivalry was at all times a friendly one. Pynson's
books are, as a general rule, superior in merit and
utility to those of Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde.
It may be pointed out that before the end of the
fifteenth century there were 71 printing presses in
Italy, 50 in Germany, 36 in France, 26 in Spain, 14
in Holland, 7 in Switzerland, 4 each in Austria and
Bohemia, and only 3 in England. But Ames and
Herbert have recorded the names of 350 printers
engaged in producing books in England and Scot-
land between 1471 and 1600; and it is computed
that this number issued about 10,000 publications.

From the earliest times the publication of books
has been a fearful bogey in the eyes both of court
and of church authorities. Book-censorship was
essentially an outcome of monarchism, whose chief

The Dawn of English Bookselling. 25

aim was to terrify where it could not subdue. Pro-
bably the oldest mandate for appointing a book-
censor was that issued by Berthold, Archbishop of
Mentz, which was dated January loth, 1486, and the
contending parties had ' high jinks ' of it for very
many years. So early as 1515, an Act of Parliament
was passed at Edinburgh, forbidding any one to print
or publish any books, ballads, songs, ' blasphematious '
rhymes or tragedies, in Latin or English, until such
had been 'seen, viewed and examined by some wise
and discreet persons' duly appointed. England
appears to have enjoyed a certain amount of im-
munity from the obnoxious interference of the State
until 1526, when anti-popery books were condemned,
and those who sold them liable to the most severe
penalties ; this statute was repealed a few years after
by another law, which sought to suppress Catholic pub-
lications with the same rigour as had just previously
been evinced towards books propagating the Pro-
testant innovation. Dr. Furnivall has published, in
' Political, Religious, and Love Poems/ a curious
'List of Books Proscribed in 1531,' dated the first
Sunday in Advent. It runs thus : ' These bokes
folowyng were opynly at poules crosse by the auto-
rite of my lorde of london vnder his Autentycal
scale, by the doctor that that day prechide, prohibite,
and straytely commaunded of no maner of man to be
vsed, bought, nor solde, nor to be red, vnder payne
of suspencion, and a greter payne, as more large
apperyth in for-sayde autoryte.' The list of thirty
books, includes ' a prologe ' to each of the five books
of Moses, the ' Revelation of Antechriste/ the New

2 6 The Earlier History of English Bookselling.

Testament, with an Introduction to the Epistle to the
Romaynes, the Psalter and the Primer (the last three
in English), two works of Tyndale, and a ' boke of
thorpe or of John Oldecastelle/ In addition to
those specially named, the prohibition applied to
'alle other suspect bokes, both in Englissh and in
laten, as welle now printed or that here-after shall be
printed, and not here afore namyd.'

The Act of 25 Henry VIII., c. 15, sought to pre-
vent printers and booksellers from levying imposi-
tions. The fourth and last section of this statute
runs to the effect that if any complaint be made
either to the King, Lord Chancellor, Lord Treasurer,
or any of the Chief Justices, it should be inquired
into, and judgment meted out by the 'discretions' of
' twelve honest and discreet persons.' The same
officials or functionaries had power also given them
to ' reform and reduce such inhancing of the prices of
printed books from time to time by their discretions,
and to limit prices as well of the books as for the
binding of them/ and where offenders are convicted,
the punishment laid down is that they ' lose and for-
feit for every book sold ' at an unfair price, the sum
of three shillings and fourpence, half of which was to
be given to the king, and the other half to the ag-
grieved party. A similar Act was passed 8 Anne, c.
19, 4, which enforced a penalty of five pounds for
every book sold at a higher price than the ' discreet '
persons should affix to it. The latter Act was re-
pealed 12 George II., c. 36, 3, but the former is
actually still in force, for it has never been expressly

The Dawn of English Bookselling. 2 7

The Stationers' Company took up the hue and cry.
Although this institution originated in 1403, its first
charter was not received until May 4, 1557, during
the reign of Mary. The number of ' seditious and
heretical books, both in prose and verse/ that were
daily issued for the propagation of ' very great and
detestable heresies against the faith and sound
Catholic doctrine of Holy Mother the Church/ be-
came so numerous, that the Government were only
too glad to ' recognise ' the Company, and to entrust
it with the most absolute power. The charter was to
1 provide a proper remedy/ or, in other words, to
check the fast-increasing number of publications so
bitter in their opposition to the Court religion. But,
stringent and emphatic as was this proclamation, its
effect was almost nil.' On June 6, 1558, another
rigorous Act was published from ' our manor of St.
James/ and will be found in Strype's ' Ecclesiastical
Memorials' (ed. 1822, iii., part 2, pp. 130, 131). It
had specific reference to the illegality of seditious
books imported, and others ' covertly printed within
this realm/ whereby ' not only God is dishonoured,
but also encouragement is given to disobey lawful
princes and governors.' This proclamation declared
that not only those who possessed such books, but
also those who, on finding them, do not forthwith
report the same, should be dealt with as rebels.

It will be seen, therefore, how easy it was, in the
absence of any fine definition, for books of whatever
character to be proscribed. There was no appeal
against the decision of the Stationers' Hall represen-
tatives, who had the power entirely in their own hands.

Online LibraryW. (William) RobertsThe earlier history of English bookselling → online text (page 2 of 26)