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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.

XII. English Prose in the Fifteenth Century, I

§ 14. Copyists and Booksellers

The scanty notices, during the fifteenth century, of making and selling of books no more indicate a general lack of them than the names of Fortescue and Pecock represent the literature in demand. The monasteries had long ceased to supply the market, and professional scribes were employed. The stationers’s guild, in existence much earlier, was incorporated in 1403, and had a hall in Milk street. “Paternoster Rewe” was well known. In Oxford, scribes, parchmenters, illuminators and bookbinders were distinct from stationers before 1373, and, apparently, in Cambridge also. Other book centres were Bury and Lincoln, where king John of France had made purchases of many expensive books in the preceding century, and, probably, several other cathedral or scholastic cities had store of books. Prices were stable, and materials cheap: in the fourteenth century a dozen skins of parchment cost 3[char]s., through most of the fifteenth century a quaternion of parchment was 3[char]d. and the writing of it 16d., i.e. 2d. a page, but small-paged books could be copied at 1d. the page. Sometimes a limner charged by the number of letters, at 1d. or 4d. the hundred, according to quality, no doubt. Legal documents were paid for at special rates. The trade does not seem to have been very remunerative, for the scrivener who did a good deal of copying for Sir John Paston writes from sanctuary to beg for payment and would be grateful for the gift of an old gown. At the universities, however, regulations may have succeeded in “protecting” the scribes. As early as 1373, Oxford reduced “the excessive number of booksellers” by forbidding outsiders who were bringing volumes of great value from other places, to expose any books for sale at more than half-a-mark—cheap text-books they might sell, but the university stationers were not to have their accustomed profits taken from them by competition. Not that students usually possessed their own books, though William Paston sent to London for his brother’s “nominal” and “book of sophistry”; the tutors or the stationers loaned or hired out books at regular charges. Certainly, the large Latin volumes made for the colleges were much more expensive than Paston’s purchases. These handsome folios and quartos, as a rule, cost from 40s. to 50s., always calculated in marks (13s. 4d.), and were, usually, standard theological works, although Peterhouse, which ventured upon books of natural science and a Vergil, seems to have smuggled FitzRalph’s revolutionary sermon into the works of Augustine, and Ockham’s Defensor into a commentary. Prices, of course, varied according to the beauty of the volume: a primer for a princess might cost 63s. 6d., one Bible cost “not over 5 mark, so I trowe he wyl geve it,” while another cost but 26s. 8d. Several of the Pastons had books and were chary of lending them; Anne possessed The Siege of Thebes, Walter, The Book of Seven Sages, John mentions The Meeting of the Duke and the Emperor, and Sir John had a library of English books.

These books are of different kinds, and often, as then was usual, included various works by several hands—the volume which contained two of Chaucer’s poems contained also Lydgate’s The Temple of Glass and The Grene Knight. Another included The Dethe of Arthur begynyng at Cassabelaun, Guy of Warwick, Richard “Cur de Lyon” and a Chronicle to Edwarde the iii. One was didactic, comprising a book about the mass, Meditations of Chylde Y potis and the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, a recent devotional work. Several are old fashioned ballads—Guy [char] Colbronde (an Anglo-Norman tale), A Balade of the Goos (probably Lydgate’). Troylus appears alone, and De Amicitia was lent to William of Worcester, Fastolf’s ill-requited scholar-servant, who afterwards translated it. One book is mentioned as “in preente,” The Pleye off the Chess

Sir John, indeed, was in the fashion in patronising literature and the drama, for he complained that one of his servants whom he had kept “thys three yer to pleye Seynt Jorge and Robin Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham” had suddenly deserted him: “he is ‘goon into Bernysdale,’” like the sturdy outlaw in the ballad to which this is an early allusion. But his taste is still medieval: romances of the old kind were shortly to go out of fashion. Up to the close of the century, however, such books, along with useful manuals of all kinds, were, evidently, plentiful enough, as may be gathered from the number of scriveners and their poor pay; Sir john Paston had bought his volume of chronicle and romances from “myn ostesse at The George,” and one or two had been given by his friends; even the niggardly Fastolf had translations executed for him, like the Lady Margaret or the duchess of Burgundy; literature had become an amusement.