The Printed Book

by Harry G. Aldis, M.A. Cambridge at the University Press 1916

Books of the English 1500 to 1800

In the early years of the sixteenth century Wynkyn de Worde and Pynson were the chief printers in England. The volume of printing going on in the country since its introduction by Caxton was slowly increasing, and fresh presses were being set up. The more prominent names include Robert Copland, a printer of literary habits; John Rastell, a printer of law books; and Thomas Berthelet, who, on the death of Pynson in 1530, succeeded to the office of king's printer. The books which came from the native press continued to be of a strictly insular character, and for but very few of them could there be any demand beyond the seas. It was still found more profitable to import books from the continent than to reprint them here; and some of the foreign printers were now printing books especially for the English market. The majority of these books were liturgical works of English use, and, until they were displaced in the reign of Henry VIII, a large trade in them was carried on, mostly by French printers. Chief among these were Antoine Verard and Fran90is Regnault of Paris, the latter of whom had also a book shop in London.

In 1538, an edition of Coverdale's version of the Bible which Regnault was printing was seized and publicly burned in Paris. Jan van Doesborch catered for a different public when he printed at Antwerp, between 1508 and 1530, Tyll Howleglas, Robin Hood, and other popular English stories. For a hundred years after the middle of the century most of the books printed abroad for sale in England were concerned with religious and political controversy and had to be imported and circulated surreptitiously.

The most important event of the sixteenth century affecting the production of books in England was the incorporation of the Stationers' Company in 1557. Under the charter of incorporation no one was permitted to print anything for sale unless he were a member of the Company; and every member was required to enter in the Company's register the name of any book or copy which he claimed as his property and desired to print. The craft of printing was thus brought within strict compass, and a supervision inaugurated which was to exercise an important influence upon the production and distribution of books in this kingdom for the next hundred and fifty years.

As printing increased and the power of the press as an organ for the dissemination of ideas and opinions among the people became more evident, both church and state developed a desire to obtain control over the output of printed literature. The Stationers' Company, with its charter powers, appears to have been regarded as a convenient agent for the exercise of such control, and from the middle of the sixteenth to the end of the seventeenth century the press was subjected to continual attempts to regulate it in accordance with the views of those in authority for the time being.