The Printed Book

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

Books of the English 1500 to 1800 Part 4

The main occupation of these presses was the printing of pamphlets. The Civil War was a conflict of words and arguments as well as of arms, and whole regiments of pamphlets were pressed into the service on each side, charge and counter-charge making a clash and din, amid which literature itself was wellnigh lost sight of. The Parliamentary party, although the professed champions of liberty, found this freedom but little to their taste. They soon endeavored to put a curb upon the press, and it was their action that called forth Milton's protest on behalf of the liberty of unlicensed printing. But the Areopagitica (1644) fell upon deaf ears, and the news press, at least, continued to be the object of a strict censorship.

Having regard to the comparatively small field open to English printers of the sixteenth century, and the official restrictions and vexations to which they were subjected, we need not be surprised that printing in this country did not attain any great degree of excellence. But, apart from technical merit, the production of the great body of Elizabethan literature from the small number of existing presses is a sufficiently noteworthy performance. Up to the middle of the century English books retain much of their early character, but by about 1570 or 1580 roman type had come into general use, displacing the old black-letter for almost all books except Bibles, law books, and a few other classes. Italic letter was also used to a considerable extent, but chiefly in a subsidiary capacity, and it never, in England, acquired the vogue which it attained on the continent.

Throughout the sixteenth century a border was a common adornment of the title page, and the wording of the title was usually fairly brief and simple. These borders were of various kinds, architectural and arabesque ornament predominating; and in the second half of the century an effective border built up of small ornaments was frequently employed. Titles, in the Stewart period, tend to become verbose. The border, for which there is no longer room, disappears; and the title, sprawling down the page in a confused variety of types, either wraps the subject of the work in a maze of words, or usurps the function of a list of contents. In controversial works the title page sometimes affords opening for a telling home-thrust at an adversary. Fancy titles, which give no indication of the subject matter of the book, are frequently adopted; while the lure of alliterative titles continued to be a snare to writers of pious tractates.

From the accession of Charles I the censorship of literature, which had relaxed somewhat in the previous reign, was exercised with fresh vigor; but on the abolition of the Star Chamber in 1641 all restraint vanished for the time being, and by 1649 the number of printing houses in London had increased to more than sixty.