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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XIII. The Introduction of Printing into England and the Early Work of the Press

§ 1. The First Products of the New Art

WITH the advent of printing, books, from being expensive and the property of the few, became cheap and were scattered far and wide. The change was gradual, for an increased demand for books could not grow up at once; but, by the time printing was introduced into England, the art was widespread and books were freely circulated. From a study of the productions of the various presses of different countries can be determined, more or less accurately, the general requirements of the reading public. This is especially the case in England, where no books were printed for exportation. It is proposed, therefore, in the present chapter to examine the work produced by the earlier English printers as a means of ascertaining the general literary taste of the period in this country.

It was was soon after the year 1450 that the first products of the new art appeared at Mainz. In 1465, two German printers, Sweynheym and Pannartz, migrated to Italy, setting up a pres at Subiaco and Pannartz, migrated to Italy, setting up a press at Subiaco and moving, two years later, to Rome. Switzerland followed soon after Italy, and, in 1470 the first French press began work at Paris. In all these cases, the first printers had been Germans. The northern Netherlands, which have persistently claimed to be the birth-place of printing, have no authentic date earlier than 1471, when two native printers began work at Utrecht. Belgium and Austria-Hungary follow in 1473 and Spain in 1474. There are thus eight European countries which precede England, and at no less than seventy towns were printers at work before Caxton started at Westminster. So, too, as regards the quality and quantity of books produced, England takes but a poor place, the total number of books of every kind, including different editions printed here before the end of the fifteenth century, only reaching the total of about three hundred and seventy. On the other hand, it must be remembered that the literary value of the books printed in England is high; for, unlike other countries, most of the productions of the press are in the vernacular.