The Old Printer and the Modern Press_

Eighteen and Fifty Four_

Charles Knight_

In 1844 I wrote, and published in my series of 'The Weekly Volume,' William Caxton, a Biography. That little work sold as largely as any of the collection. It will not be reprinted, as I have cancelled the stereotype plates.

In the present work I have remodelled that biography; rendering it a more compact narrative of the state of knowledge before the invention of printing, of the personal history of the man who brought the invention to England, and of the nature of his efforts to diffuse information amongst his countrymen. This account forms the First Part of this volume.

The Second Part embraces a very broad view of the Progress of the Press to our own day, especially in relation to the important subject of Cheap Popular Literature.

In treating of the remarkable revolution of our times in the prices of books, I cannot avoid incidentally noticing some of my own labours in that direction. I have done so as slightly as possible; and, I trust, in the impartial spirit of an honest chronicler.

The First of Chapters_

We shall find it, we think, a more agreeable, as well as more instructive course, to look at the general subject of the supply of books in connexion with the orders of people who were to use them, rather than presenting a number of scattered facts, to exhibit the relative prices and scarcity of books in what are called the middle ages.

The Old Printer_

The Weald of Kent—Caxton's School-days—French disused—English taught—Variations in English—Books before Printing—Libraries—Transcribers—Books for the Great—Book Trade—No Books for the People—Changes produced by Printing

In the first book printed in the English language, the subject of which was the 'Histories of Troy,' William Caxton, the translator of the work from the French, in his prologue or preface, says, by way of apology for his simpleness and imperfectness in the French and English languages, "In France was I never, and was born and learned mine English in Kent, in the Weald, where I doubt not is spoken as broad and rude English as in any place of England." The Weald of Kent is now a fertile district, rich in corn-land and pasture, with farm-houses and villages spread over its surface, intersected by good roads, and a railway running through the heart of it, bringing the scattered inhabitants closer and closer to each other. But at the period when William Caxton was born, and learnt his English in the Weald, it was a wild district with a scanty population; its inhabitants had little intercourse with the towns, the affairs of the busy world went on without their knowledge and assistance, they were more separated from the great body of their countrymen than a settler in Canada or Australia is at the present day. It is easy to understand therefore why they should have spoken a "broad and rude English" at the time of Caxton's boyhood, during the reign of Henry V. and the beginning of that of Henry VI. William Lambarde, who wrote a hundred and fifty years after this period, having published his 'Perambulation of Kent' in 1570, mentions as a common opinion touching this Weald of Kent, "that it was a great while together in manner nothing else but a desert and waste wilderness, not planted with towns or peopled with men as the outsides of the shire were, but stored and stuffed with herds of deer and droves of hogs only;" and he goes on to say that, "although the property of the Weald was at the first belonging to certain known owners, yet it was not then allotted into tenancies." The Weald of Kent came to be taken, he says, "even as men were contented to inhabit it, and by piecemeal to rid it of the wood, and to break it up with the plough." In some lonely farm, then, of this wild district, are we, upon the best of evidence, his own words, to fix the birth-place and the earliest home of the first English printer.

The father of William Caxton was in all probability a proprietor of land. At any rate, he desired to bestow upon his son all the advantages of education which that age could furnish. The honest printer, many years after his school-days, looks back upon that spring-time of his life with feelings that make us honour the simple worth of his character. In his 'Life of Charles the Great,' printed in 1485, he says, "I have emprised [undertaken] and concluded in myself to reduce [translate] this said book into our English, as all along and plainly ye may read, hear, and see, in this book here following. Beseeching all them that shall find fault in the same to correct and amend it, and also to pardon me of the rude and simple reducing. And though so be there no gay terms, nor subtle nor new eloquence, yet I hope that it shall be understood, and to that intent I have specially reduced it after the simple cunning that God hath lent to me, whereof I humbly and with all my heart thank Him, and also am bounden to pray for my father's and mother's souls, that in my youth set me to school, by which, by the sufferance of God, I get my living I hope truly. And that I may so do and continue, I beseech Him to grant me of His grace; and so to labour and occupy myself virtuously, that I may come out of debt and deadly sin, that after this life I may come to His bliss in heaven." Caxton seems to have had the rare happiness to have had his father about him to a late period of his life. According to a record in the accounts of the churchwardens of the parish church of St. Margaret's, Westminster, in which parish the first printer carried on his business, it appears that one William Caxton, who is conjectured to have been the father, was buried on the 18th of May, 1480.

Some time before the period of Caxton's boyhood, a great change had taken place in the general system of education in England. In the time of Edward III., about half a century before the period of which we speak, the children in the grammar-schools were not taught English at all. It was the policy of the first Norman kings, long continued by their successors, to get rid of the old English or Saxon language altogether; and to make the people familiar with the Norman French, the language of the conquerors. The new statutes of the realm were written in French; so were the decisions of the judges, and the commentaries on the laws in general. Ralph Higden, in a sort of chronicle which Caxton printed, says, "Children in schools, against the usage and manner of all other nations, be compelled for to leave their own language, and for to construe their lessons and their things in French; and so they have since Normans came first into England. Also gentlemen be taught for to speak French from the time that they rocked in their cradle, and can speak and play with a child's brooch [stick or other toy], and uplandish men [countrymen] will liken themselves to gentlemen, and delight with great business for to speak French, to be told of." John de Trevisa, the translator of Higden's 'Polychronicon,' writing some forty years later, "This manner was much used before the Great Plague, and is since some deal changed; for Sir John Cornewaile, a master of grammar, changed the teaching in grammar-schools, and construction in French; and other schoolmasters use the same way now, in the year of our Lord 1385, the ninth year of King Richard II., and leave all French in schools, and use all construction in English. Wherein they have advantage one way:—that is, that they learn the sooner their grammar; and in another, disadvantage, for now they learn no French, which is hurt for them that shall pass the sea." It was this change of system, operating upon his early instruction, which caused Caxton, as a translator, to be so diffident of his own capacity to render faithfully what was before him out of French into English. Indeed from his earliest youth to the close of his literary career, the English language was constantly varying, through the introduction of new words and phrases; and there was a marked distinction between the courtly dialect and that of the commonalty. We have seen how he speaks of the broad and rude English of his native Weald. But towards the close of his life, in a book printed by him in 1490, he mentions the difficulty he had in pleasing "some gentlemen, which late blamed me, saying, that in my translations I had over curious terms, which could not be understood of common people, and desired me to use old and homely terms in my translations. And fain would I satisfy every man; and so to do, took an old book and read therein; and certainly the English was so rude and broad that I could not well understand it. And also my Lord Abbot of Westminster did show to me late certain evidences written in old English, for to reduce it into our English now used, and certainly it was written in such wise that it was more like to Dutch than English; I could not reduce nor bring it to be understood. And certainly our language now used varieth far from that which was used and spoken when I was born: for we Englishmen be born under the domination of the moon, which is never stedfast, but ever wavering, waxing one season, and waneth and decreaseth another season; and that common English that is spoken in one shire varieth from another. Insomuch that in my days happened that certain merchants were in a ship in Thames, for to have sailed over the sea into Zealand, and for lack of wind they tarried at Foreland, and went to land for to refresh them; and one of them named Sheffelde, a mercer, came into an house and asked for meat, and especially he asked after eggs; and the good wife answered, that she could speak no French; and the merchant was angry, for he also could speak no French, but would have had eggs, and she understood him not. And then at last, another said that he would have eyren; then the good wife said that she understood him well. Lo, what should a man in these days now write, eggs or eyren? certainly it is hard to please every man, by cause of diversity and change of language. For in these days, every man that is in any reputation in his country will utter his communication and matters in such manners and terms that few men shall understand them. And some honest and good clerks have been with me, and desired me to write the most curious terms that I could find. And thus between plain, rude, and curious, I stand abashed; but in my judgment, the common terms that be daily used be lighter [easier] to be understood than the old and ancient English." In these days, when the same language with very slight variations is spoken from one end of the land to the other, it is difficult to imagine a state of things such as Caxton describes, in which the "common English which is spoken in one shire varieth from another," and there was a marked distinction between plain terms and curious terms. Easy and rapid communication, and above all the circulation of books, newspapers, and other periodical works, all free from provincial expressions, have made the "over curious terms which could not be understood of common people" more familiar to them than the "old and homely terms" which their forefathers used in their several counties, according to the restricted meanings which they retained in their local use. When there were no books amongst the community in general, there could be no universality of language. Of this want of books we may properly exhibit some details, chiefly to show one of the most remarkable differences which the lapse of four centuries has produced in our country.

We shall find it, we think, a more agreeable, as well as more instructive course, to look at the general subject of the supply of books in connexion with the orders of people who were to use them, rather than presenting a number of scattered facts, to exhibit the relative prices and scarcity of books in what are called the middle ages. We will first take the clergy, the scholars of those days. The mode in which books were multiplied by transcribers in the monasteries is clearly described by Richard de Bury, bishop of Durham, in his 'Philobiblon,' a treatise on the love of books, written by him in Latin in 1344:—"As it is necessary for a state to provide military arms, and prepare plentiful stores of provisions for soldiers who are about to fight, so it is evidently worth the labour of the church militant to fortify itself against the attacks of pagans and heretics with a multitude of sound books. But because everything that is serviceable to mortals suffers the waste of mortality through lapse of time, it is necessary for volumes corroded by age to be restored by renovated successors, that perpetuity, repugnant to the nature of the individual, may be conceded to the species. Hence it is that Ecclesiastes significantly says, in the 12th chapter, 'There is no end of making many books.' For as the bodies of books suffer continual detriment from a combined mixture of contraries in their composition, so a remedy is found out by the prudence of clerks, by which a holy book paying the debt of nature may obtain an hereditary substitute, and a seed may be raised up like to the most holy deceased, and that saying of Ecclesiasticus, chapter 30, be verified, 'The father is dead, and as it were not dead, for he hath left behind him a son like unto himself.'" The invention of paper, about a century and a half before Richard de Bury wrote, and its general employment instead of vellum for manuscripts in ordinary use, was a great step towards the multiplication of books. Transcribers necessarily became more numerous; but for a long period they wholly belonged to the monastic orders, and the books were essentially for the use of the clergy. Richard de Bury says, with the most supreme contempt for all others, whatever be their rank, "Laymen, to whom it matters not whether they look at a book turned wrong side upwards or spread before them in its natural order, are altogether unworthy of any communion with books." But even to the privileged classes he is not sparing of his reproach as to the misuse of books. He reprobates the unwashed hands, the dirty nails, the greasy elbows leaning upon the volume, the munching of fruit and cheese over the open leaves, which were the marks of careless and idle readers. With a solemn reverence for a book at which we may smile, but with a smile of respect, he says, "Let there be a mature decorum in opening and closing of volumes, that they may neither be unclasped with precipitous haste, nor thrown aside after inspection without being duly closed." The good bishop bestowed certain portions of his valuable library upon a company of scholars residing in a Hall at Oxford; and one of his chapters is entitled 'A provident arrangement by which books may be lent to strangers,' meaning, by strangers, students of Oxford not belonging to that Hall. One of these arrangements is as follows:—"Five of the scholars dwelling in the aforesaid Hall are to be appointed by the master of the same Hall, to whom the custody of the books is to be deputed. Of which five, three, and in no case fewer, shall be competent to lend any books for inspection and use only; but for copying and transcribing we will not allow any book to pass without the walls of the house. Therefore, when any scholar, whether secular or religious, whom we have deemed qualified for the present favour, shall demand the loan of a book, the keepers must carefully consider whether they have a duplicate of that book; and if so, they may lend it to him, taking a security which in their opinion shall exceed in value the book delivered." Anthony Wood, who in the seventeenth century wrote the lives of eminent Oxford men, speaks of this library which was given to Durham College (now Trinity College) as containing more books than all the bishops of England had then in their custody. He adds, "After they had been received they were for many years kept in chests, under the custody of several scholars deputed for that purpose." In the time of Henry IV. a library was built in that college, and then, says Wood, "the said books were put into pews, or studies, and chained to them." The statutes of St. Mary's College, Oxford, in the reign of Henry VI., are quoted by Warton, in his 'History of English Poetry,' as furnishing a remarkable instance of the inconveniences and impediments to study which must have been produced by a scarcity of books: "Let no scholar occupy a book in the library above one hour, or two hours at most, so that others shall be hindered from the use of the same." This certainly shows the scarcity of books; but not such a scarcity as at an early period of the Church, when one book was given out by the librarian to each of a religious fraternity at the beginning of Lent, to be read diligently during the year, and to be returned, the following Lent. The original practice of keeping the books in chests would seem to indicate that they could not be very frequently changed by the readers; and the subsequent plan of chaining them to the desks gives the notion that, like many other things tempting by their rarity, they could not be safely trusted in the hands of those who might rather covet the possession than the use. It was a very common thing to write in the first leaf of a book, "Cursed be he who shall steal or tear out the leaves, or in any way injure this book."


[Transcriber at Work.]

We have abundant evidence, whatever be the scarcity of books as compared with the growth of scholarship, that the ecclesiastics laboured most diligently to multiply books for their own establishments. In every great abbey there was a room called the Scriptorium, where boys and novices were constantly employed in multiplying the service-books of the choir, and the less valuable books for the library; whilst the monks themselves laboured in their cells upon bibles and missals. Equal pains were taken in providing books for those who received a liberal education in collegiate establishments. Warton says, "At the foundation of Winchester College, one or more transcribers were hired and employed by the founder to make books for the library. They transcribed and took their commons within the college, as appears by computations of expenses on their account now remaining." But there are several indications that even kings and nobles had not the advantages of scholars by profession; and, possessing few books of their own, had sometimes to borrow of their more favoured subjects. We find it recorded that the Prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, had lent to King Henry V. the works of St. Gregory, and he complains that after the king's death the book had been detained by the Prior of Shene. The same king had borrowed from the Lady Westmoreland two books that had not been returned, and a petition is still extant in which she begs his successors in authority to let her have them back again. Lewis XI. of France wishing to borrow a book from the Faculty of Medicine at Paris, they would not allow the king to have it till he had deposited a quantity of valuable plate in pledge, and given a joint bond with one of his nobles for its due return. The books that were to be found in the palaces of the great, a little while before the invention of printing, were for the most part highly illuminated manuscripts, and bound in the most expensive style. In the wardrobe accounts of King Edward IV. we find that Piers Bauduyn is paid for "binding, gilding, and dressing" of two books, twenty shillings each, and of four books, sixteen shillings each. Now twenty shillings in those days would have bought an ox. But the cost of this binding and garnishing does not stop here; for there were delivered to the binder six yards of velvet, six yards of silk, laces, tassels, copper and gilt clasps, and gilt nails. The price of velvet and silk in those days was enormous. We may reasonably conclude that these royal books were as much for show as for use. One of the books thus garnished by Edward IV.'s binder is called 'Le Bible Historiaux' (The Historical Bible), and there are several copies of the same book in manuscript in the British Museum. In one of them the following paragraph is written in French: "This book was taken from the King of France at the battle of Poitiers; and the good Count of Salisbury, William Mountague, bought it for a hundred marks, and gave it to his lady Elizabeth, the good Countess.... Which book the said Countess assigned to her executors to sell for forty livres." We learn from another source that the great not only procured books by purchase, but employed transcribers to make them for their libraries. We find, from the manuscript account of the expenses of Sir John Howard, afterwards Duke of Norfolk, that in 1467 Thomas Lympnor, that is, Thomas the Limner, of Bury, was paid the sum of fifty shillings and twopence for a book which he had transcribed and ornamented, including the vellum and binding. The Limner's bill is made up of a number of items,—for whole vignettes, and half vignettes, and capital letters, and flourishing, and plain writing. This curious account is printed in the 'Paston Letters.' A letter of Sir John Paston, who is writing to his mother in 1474, shows how scarce money was in those days for the purchase of luxuries like books. He says, "As for the books that were Sir James's (the Priest's), if it like you that I may have them, I am not able to buy them, but somewhat would I give, and the remainder, with a good devout heart, by my troth, I will pray for his soul.... If any of them are claimed hereafter, in faith I will restore it." The custom of borrowing books and not returning them was as old, we see, as the days of the Red and White Roses. John Paston left an inventory of his books, eleven in number, although some of the eleven contained various little tracts bound together. One of the items in this catalogue is, "A Book of Troilus, which William B———— hath had near ten years, and lent it to Dame Wingfeld, and there I saw it."

But, even in the days before printing, there was a small book-trade; and schemes were devised for making books of some general use. In Paris, in the middle of the 14th century, the booksellers were commanded to keep books for hire; and, in a register of the University of Paris, Chevillier found a list of the books so circulated, and the price of reading each. The hire of a Bible was ten sous. That the ecclesiastics and lawyers constituted the great bulk of readers, and that the addition of a book, even to the private library of a student, was a rare occurrence, is evident from the absolute necessity for manuscript books being dear. If the number of readers had increased—if there had been more candidates for the learned professions—if the nobility had discovered the shame of their ignorance—if learning had made its way to the franklin's hall—manuscript books could never have been cheap. But from the hour when a first large expense of transferring the letters, syllables, words, and sentences of a manuscript to moveable type was ascertained to be the means of multiplying copies to the extent of any demand, then the greater the demand the greater the cheapness.

If the nobles, the higher gentry, and even the lawyers and ecclesiastics, were indifferently provided with books, we cannot expect that the yeomen had any books whatever. The merchants and citizens were probably somewhat better provided. The labourers, who were scarcely yet fully established in their freedom from bondage to one lord, were probably, as a class, wholly unable to use books at all. Shakspere, in all likelihood, did not much exaggerate the feelings of ignorant men, who at the same time were oppressed men, when he put these words in the mouth of Jack Cade when addressing Lord Say: "Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm, in erecting a grammar-school: and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used; and, contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill." The poet has a little deranged the exact order of events, as poets are justified in doing, who look at history not with chronological accuracy, but with a broad view of the connexion between events and principles. The insurrection of Cade preceded the introduction of printing and paper-mills into England. Although during four centuries we have yet to lament that the people have not had the full benefit which the art of printing is calculated to bestow upon them, we may be sure that during its progress the general amelioration of society has been certain, though gradual. There can no longer be any necessary exclusiveness in the possession of books, and in the advantages which the knowledge of books is calculated to bestow on all men. The late Mr. Southey, a just and liberal thinker, but, like many others of ardent feelings, sometimes mistaken and oftener misrepresented, has truly pointed out the difference between the state of society when William Caxton was raised up to do his work amongst us and the present state. The following is an extract from his 'Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society:' "One of the first effects of printing was to make proud men look upon learning as disgraced, by being thus brought within reach of the common people. Till that time learning, such as it was, had been confined to courts and convents, the low birth of the clergy being overlooked, because they were privileged by their order. But when laymen in humble life were enabled to procure books, the pride of aristocracy took an absurd course, insomuch that at one time it was deemed derogatory for a nobleman if he could read or write. Even scholars themselves complained that the reputation of learning, and the respect due to it, and its rewards, were lowered when it was thrown open to all men; and it was seriously proposed to prohibit the printing of any book that could be afforded for sale below the price of three soldi. This base and invidious feeling was perhaps never so directly avowed in other countries as in Italy, the land where literature was first restored; and yet in this more liberal island ignorance was for some generations considered to be a mark of distinction by which a man of gentle birth chose, not unfrequently, to make it apparent that he was no more obliged to live by the toil of his brain, than by the sweat of his brow. The same changes in society, which rendered it no longer possible for this class of men to pass their lives in idleness, have completely put an end to this barbarous pride. It is as obsolete as the fashion of long finger-nails, which in some parts of the East are still the distinctive mark of those who labour not with their hands. All classes are now brought within the reach of your current literature,—that literature which, like a moral atmosphere, is, as it were, the medium of intellectual life, and on the quality of which, according as it may be salubrious or noxious, the health of the public mind depends."