I've been reading about the history of printing in England recently. I jumped in about 150 years late with the Wither project, so I'm going back to the start and working from there.
It all started when I got a copy of Bowyer's History & Origin of Printing. It's not a rare book, but it's not common either. I found one in what looks like a late 19th/early 20th century quarter leather binding, tightback, very well done, unsigned, priced at about one-third of what seems to be the book's going price. It essentially is a reprint of an earlier publication - Middleton's A Dissertation Concerning the Origin of Printing in England (1735) - and the first English version of Meermam's Origines typographicae (1765; not exactly a translation of the original's Latin, more like a condensed version), each appended with comments and notes by Bowyer, a prominent London printer. It also includes an appendix on early Hebrew printing in England (I bought it while working on the Griffo project, hence the interest in Hebrew printing).
The problem is that reading about the introduction of printing to England quickly becomes entwined with a debate over who actually invented what we call printing. Sigh.
The central thesis of Middleton's book is an argument that Caxton was England’s first printer; it was a question at the time due to a book published in Oxford that had dropped an X from the publication date, thus appearing to predate Caxton’s first publication. Middleton’s essay begins with reference to a pamphlet by one Richard Atkyns, published in 1664, in which he refers to the “Lambeth manuscript,” which lays out the details of how the first book was printed in Oxford.
So before I could get too far into Middleton, I needed to find a copy of Atkyns’ pamphlet. Nothing online, either for sale or digitized. However, it had been reprinted, apparently only once since 1664, in A Pair on Printing (Bird & Bull Press, 1982). It’s one of Henry Morris’s more modest publications. Turns out I have a copy, purchased when Wessel & Lieberman were closing, but I'd never really opened it. It reprints the Atkyns’ pamphlet in facsimile, which is unfortunate because the original, like much English printing of the time, is not very lovely, and the facsimile seems to make it even worse. The whole thing would have been more engaging if Henry had set it in type.
Anyway, I made my way through that, and then returned to Middleton. Like Bowyer, his pamphlet is uncommon but not rare, and not too dear when found (three figures, not four). I found one quite inexpensive because (1) it was disbound and some sheets had become separated, and (2) some monster had cropped out the small (& not terribly interesting; see above) engraving that appeared on the title page. I just wanted to see and read the original, so I wasn’t fussed.
The title page actually had been neatly repaired (and I like old paper repairs), and reconstituting the sheets and putting them in a case was simple enough. I even had some 17th century laid paper that matched well, for the endsheets.
I won’t ruin the story, but Middleton's main point was that no one had ever been able to actually find the Lambeth MS, and in fact there were reasons to believe Atkyns had made the whole story up.
Now I was ready to return to Bowyer, and see what he had to say about Middleton’s argument. It gets in the deep weeds pretty quick, and his comments have references to Meermam’s essay, so I jumped over to skim that. His central thesis was that the invention of printing with type originated at Haarlem with Laurens Coster. This led to the Coster v Gutenberg bun-fight that raged through the 19th century, which is recounted in a chapter of William Blades’ Books in Chains (1892), so I got lost down that tributary for a few days. (I’m not sure why this set of Meerman sold for so much, it can be had for a tenth the price these days. Perhaps because each volume is bound separately here. Not sure if Large paper actually means a large-paper issue, or just that this copy still has most of its original margins.)
(For a concise summary of the Mainz/Haarlem debate, see McMurtrie’s Dutch Claims to the Invention of Printing.)
Coming back to the original topic of study - the introduction of printing to Britain - I was led to Ralph Willett’s Memoir on the Origin of Printing, which originally appeared in the journal Archaeologia (Volume 11, 1792). That volume also included his "Observations on the Origin of Printing." The Memoir was reprinted by S. Hodgson, Newcastle, 1818 in what looks like 16mo, set in a crisp Brevier roman, well printed (with a handpress) on laid paper, and in an edition of just 32 copies (although this is not stated). It was reprinted by Hodgson in 1820 in an edition of 150 copies. The latter is not uncommon. I found a copy of the 1818 printing, and suspect the seller’s pricing was influenced to my benefit by the number of 1820 copies online (this number appears to have drastically declined in the past three months, to one).
In the Memoir Willett mounts a thorough refutation of the Lambeth MS story, points out various flaws in the arguments of Bowyer and Meerman, and weighs in with his vote for Mainz as the origin for printing with type. Unfortunately he also stumps for Oxford’s primacy, based solely on the printed date, so he got that one wrong.
To find a definitive answer to this Oxford/Caxton question, I tracked down a copy of The Early Oxford Press 1468-1640 (1895). Appendix A, p. 247 makes short work of the debate: it was a typo, should have been 1478, Caxton wins. I knew that, I just needed a reference to quote if ever I encountered a Costerian, as Blades called them. Most of The Early Oxford Press is a straightforward bibliography of publications, but the appendices at the back make for interesting reading, along with a handful of reproductions and three sewn-in leaves from 17th century books printed at Oxford! All 16mo in size. The book doesn’t have a colophon, but the note below appears at the bottom of the List of Illustrations page:
There is no number in my copy, but each of the leaves is penciled 688, so I’m guessing maybe that’s the copy number. The content of the leaves appear to correspond with the titles. The wording suggests there might be copies outside the 700, without leaves, but even in 1895 I suspect 700 copies was enough to meet demand for this title. Maybe the publisher was hoping for a second edition.
This wandering among sources and references also led me to a piece of ephemera from the Vale Press, Famous Woodcut Illustrations of the Fifteenth & Early Sixteenth Centuries (1897). Ricketts was too much a fan of the Morris aesthetic for my taste, but this is a lovely piece of handpress printing, my copy folded (8 pp.) and sewn but uncut at the head. It’s a guide to an exhibition Hacon & Ricketts mounted.
One history of English printing I don’t have, and probably won’t get, is Palmer's General History of Printing (1732). When found it’s priced an order of magnitude above the books mentioned here, and from what I’ve read, it does not tempt. Interesting that it does not seem to ever have been reprinted.
I’m also reading Colin Clair’s A History of Printing in Britain (1965), which skates along at a higher level than Middleton, Bowyer and Willett. I have no idea where all this is going. I’m finding it all fascinating, but what I enjoy most are the books themselves.
AND ANOTHER THING!
This maybe is news only to me, but I found a great bibliosite, Architectures of the Book. Interesting & well-written articles on esoteric topics like grangerizing (an HM favorite). And Canadian no less - go Huskies!