Praised be printers

04 January 2011

Raymond Chapman learns of their craft


The Book in the Renaissance
Andrew Pettegree
Yale University Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

IT IS a commonplace of cultural history that the invention of printing by movable type was a powerful influence in the parallel movements that we call the Renaissance and the Reformation. Most of us know less about the development of the craft, the conflicts that it aroused, and the varieties of texts which emerged from the presses. This book tells of these things and opens our understanding of them.

Books did not begin with printing, but the new craft massively increased the number of copies of any work which could be produced and distributed. Facts and ideas which had previously been copied by hand could now be read by thousands. Some European towns became centres of the printing trade, particularly in Italy, France, and Germany. England played a comparatively small part: printing was mainly confined to London, and many books sold in this country were imported from abroad. Students of literature, however, know how much we owe to the London printers for the preservation of Elizabethan drama and other genres, even though much has perished.

Not all books were scholarly works: popular pamphlets and broadsides were produced in large numbers, and many of these ephemera have left no trace, or only single copies. The loss of more important works was also great, through the depredations of time, warfare, and sometimes wholesale destruction by authority. Letter print came to be supplemented by diagrams and illustrations for technical works, and the art of cartography reached a new level.

Amid all this variety, religious works remained the single largest category: a majority, incidentally, that remained in publishers’ lists until well into the 19th century. The Reformation acted as a catalyst to the trade, and polemicists on both sides found an outlet for their ideas. Other changes in society increased the demand; stronger central government needed investments for control and stability. Censorship and banning of certain books or even the whole works of an author was the dark side of the new learning.

Libraries multiplied in number and increased in size, in universities, private collections, and even some parish churches, like the chained library at St Wulfram’s, Grantham. Andrew Pettegree gives a detailed account of all these matters, and teaches us not to be simplistic about the “printed book”. This is a book of remarkable scholarship, rich in detailed evidence, but easy to read, with the help of section headings in each chapter. It is a book worth reading right through and then keeping for reference.

The Revd Dr Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London.

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