Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 1. The Incorporation of the Stationers’ Company

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVIII. The Book-Trade, 1557–1625

§ 1. The Incorporation of the Stationers’ Company

THE OUTSTANDING feature in the history of English printing and bookselling in the second half of the sixteenth century is the incorporation of the Stationers’ company. This organisation of the trade was the means whereby a strong dual control over the output of the press was acquired, in the first place by the state, for political and ecclesiastical reasons, and, secondly, by the company itself, for the domestic regulation of the trade.

The guild or fraternity of scriveners and others connected with the production and sale of books, which had been formed in 1403, had, with the increased trade in books and the introduction of printing, developed in course of time into the craft of Stationers; and, as all persons carrying on any business in the city of London connected with the book-trade were required to become members of the craft, this association had long exercised considerable influence in fixing and controlling trade customs. Prompted by the desire of increased power, the craft, in 1557, procured a royal charter of incorporation which invested the fraternity not only with a more formal dignity, but, also, with a greater authority over the trade. The government of the new corporation was vested in a master and two wardens to be elected annually, and the list of original members of the company, as set forth in the charter, contains ninetyseven names. In 1560, the development of the association was completed by its admission as one of the liveried companies of the city.

Under the rules of the company, every member was required to enter in the register the name of any book or copy which he claimed as his property and desired to print, paying at the same time, a fee for the entry. Besides these entries of books, the registers also contain records of the admission of freemen, the taking of apprentices, and other matters relating to the affairs of the company. The registers served, primarily, as an account of the fees received by the wardens; and the book entries were, doubtless, also intended to prevent disputes as to who might possess the right to print any particular work. It should be observed that the registers by no means include everything which appeared from the press. Those who held special privileges or monopolies for printing a certain book or, maybe, a whole class of books, were not, apparently, under obligation to enter such books, and the royal printers were also superior to the rule so far as the works included in their patent were concerned. But, notwithstanding these lacunae, the registers of the company form a marvellous storehouse of information concerning the productions of the press during the period which they cover.