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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

§ 18. The Book Trade

The printers of Antwerp always continued to be connected with the English book trade; but the year 1525, which saw the cessation of John of Doesborch’s press with its popular little books, witnessed also the publication at Worms of Tindale’s New Testament, which marks an entire change in the character of the books printed abroad. After this time, the foreign presses issued nothing but religious and controversial books, the work of refugees whose religious or political opinions had made them outcasts from their own country. The reformation seems to have dealt a blow at both books of amusement and books of education, and story-books and grammars almost ceased to be published.

In taking a general survey of the English press during the first fifty years of its existence, several points stand out very prominently. One, in especial, is the comparative scarcity of books by contemporary writers. Skelton, who flourished during this period, is very badly represented, and Stephen Hawes but little better. But, when we consider how very many of these early books have come down to our time only in single copies or even fragments out of an edition of some hundreds, it is only natural to suppose that a great number must have utterly disappeared. This would be especially the case with small poetical books and romances; but others, of which copies might have been expected to be preserved, are lost. There is no trace of The epitaph of the King of Scotland, written by Petrus Carmelianus and “stuffed full of womanly abuse,” which, according to Erasmus, was printed by Pynson in 1513. Of the several books relating to the impostures of the Maid of Kent which are known to have been printed, not a fragment now remains. Perhaps their popularity was the cause of their destruction. It seems impossible that writings on contemporary events could escape being printed. For instance, Dunbar’s poem “London thou art the flower of cities all,” composed on his visit to London in 1501 and circulated in manuscript, is just what an enterprising printer would have seized upon. Yet we have no evidence of its existence in a printed form. The popular demand was for reprints of older works and translations of French poems and romances; there is hardly any genuine original work printed in the period.

Another point which has been commented upon is the entire absence of any classical books. Apart from books evidently intended for school use, such as Cicero pro Milone, printed at Oxford about 1483, and the Terence printed by Pynson in 1495–7, the only book to which we can point is Pynson’s edition of Vergil, printed about 1520. But the reason here is not far to seek. There were no restrictions on the importation of foreign books, and English printers could not possibly compete either in accuracy and neatness or in cheapness with the foreign productions of this class. Very wisely they left them alone. Thus, the output of the English presses shows rather the popular, than the general, demand. To discover this, it would be necessary to find a day-book or ledger of some London bookseller similar to that of John Dorne the Oxford bookseller of 1520. This latter, being the accounts of a bookseller in a university town, furnishes no fair criterion of general taste; though, even at the fairs where the most general trade was done in books, his English books formed but a small proportion of his sales.

The seeming neglect by the age of the work of its own more important writers is balanced by the precipitancy of modern writers, who have hitherto skipped from Skelton to Surrey without a pause, entirely ignoring the minor authors and translators whose books supplied the main reading of the English public.