Frets and Knots

Anthony Grafton

  • A History of Cambridge University Press. Vol. I: Printing and the Book Trade in Cambridge, 1534-1698 by David McKitterick
    Cambridge, 500 pp, £65.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 521 30801 1

David McKitterick’s Printing and the Book Trade in Cambridge, 1534-1698 is the first of three projected volumes on the history of the book’s own publisher, the Cambridge University Press. Though the book stretches to 387 pages of text and almost another hundred pages of notes, it does not reach the point around 1700 when Richard Bentley reshaped the Press into a major player, as he tried to reshape Horace, Paradise Lost and Trinity College, where McKitterick is fellow and librarian. In the 1710s the appearance of Bentley’s Horace and Newton’s Principia on CUP’s list gave it extraordinary distinction. In the period that McKitterick addresses here, however, the University’s printers confined themselves to humbler tasks. Textbooks and tripos verses, dictionaries and almanacs, English Bibles, theological polemics and lawsuits against the London booksellers who regarded the existence of the Cambridge Press as an affront – these, not radical revisions of transmitted texts and world pictures, occupied the likes of Thomas Thomas and Cantrell Legge. Format and coverage conspire to make the book seem an exercise in that nostalgic obsession with the minutiae of the local past to which Cambridge dons succumb even more readily than their colleagues in other ancient seats of learning.

Such thoughts do an injustice to the book and its author. The book begins not with Cambridge printers but with the growth of trade and transport, the changes in readers’ tastes and the improved engravers’ tools that combined to reshape the nature and production of books in England. When he focuses on the crowded streets and courts of Cambridge, he takes pains to show how religious controversy and pedagogical needs, quarrels over craft organisation and innovations in technology interacted in that uniquely contested and productive place, the printer’s shop. The book is studded with details of authors’ lives and publishers’ practices – with a wealth of precise and striking observations that only a professional bibliographer or a redoubtable bookseller of the old school could have amassed.

McKitterick’s book tells several stories, starting with a narrative about print and privilege. The genealogy of CUP – though not its history – stretches back to 1534, when Henry VIII allowed the University, by royal charter, to appoint three printers who could work in Cambridge. The University was to approve the printers’ choice of books, which could be sold both in Cambridge and elsewhere. Permission to do this, granted at the instance of certain Cambridge stationers, both ratified their position and imposed control over their stock – no small matter then, when officials hunted Lutheran error in every stack of pamphlets.

McKitterick traces the contests between the London trade and the Cambridge outliers who were a thorn in the side of that larger, jealous cartel – not without reason, since they tested London monopolies, book by book, provoking lawsuits and confiscations. He illuminates the relations between the Cambridge printers and the University authorities who until 1695 were supposed to license their books. His meticulous survey of the archival and bibliographical evidence shows how intermittently the University exercised its control. Cambridge printers regularly, though not always deliberately, subverted a system which in theory required them to register every title and include a printed imprimatur in every text. Even during the mid-century decades of the Civil War and Interregnum, the authorities left the bookmen to expand their market shares in peace. When ‘Master Crumwell, a Member of the House of Commons’, intervened in January 1642/3 to prevent the publication of a defence of royal authority by Lionel Gatford, he confiscated the text and arrested the author at night, ‘quietly reposed in Jesus-Colledge’ – but left the publishers alone. In the mid and late 17th century, John Hayes and the entrepreneur John Field, whose Bibles were so inaccurate that he was later suspected of taking bribes to alter the text in Acts, worked in relative harmony with the Stationers, collaborating with London printers; Hayes’s press was in the end sold to CUP and he became its salaried employee.

A second story, more explicitly bibliographical, follows the methods and rhythms of the printers’ working lives. In the wake of brilliant studies by McKenzie, Robert Darnton and others, McKitterick reconstructs the economics of book production: the costs of type, copper plates and paper, the sizes of editions, the prices per sheet of the resulting books (slightly lower than London ones). Moving from the warehouse to the workplace, he also depicts the compositors’ and pressmen’s working conditions – 12 hours a day, six days a week, starting at 6 a.m., for 1s 8d a day, with the perk of a copy of each book and an occasional ex gratia payment (as when the printers had to be encouraged to hasten their production of the verses that mourned the death of the Queen in the winter of 1694-5). The amount of work that a printer could turn out in a day – 1250 perfected sheets – limited the size of editions of ordinary books and imparted a certain logic to production patterns. In practice, however, conditions were hard and work irregular. Piecework governed the printer’s week; frequent outbreaks of plague, even more frequent outbreaks of Cambridge weather and seasonal variations in daylight – not much of which penetrated the papered windows in winter – regularly interrupted schedules. Some workers – like Thomas Vautrollier, arrested in 1599 when he joined in ‘a rowdy musical parade through the streets at night’ – provided their own diversions. The picture that emerges, though not unexpected, is a clear and convincing portrait of a pre-industrial workplace.

McKitterick’s third story is that of the procession of strong characters who served as the University’s printers, their struggles, their choices, their programmes and their chief allies among the senior members of the University. In 1583, not the traditionally accepted date of 1584, Thomas Thomas, a Puritan fellow of King’s, apparently set to work on the first Cambridge University Press project – a plain text of Book II of Pliny’s Natural History. No copy survives of this little book, which was aimed at students following the university lectures in philosophy. McKitterick, who reproduces the single extant sheet, suggests that it may not even have been completed. But the enterprise continued and Thomas went on to publish William Temple’s edition of Ramus’s Dialectica, Georg Sabinus’s commentary on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and English and Continental theologians. His intellectual ambitions rose high enough for him to turn out a text of Plato’s Menexenus, the first book in Greek to be printed in Cambridge and the first Greek text of one of Plato’s works to be published in England. His social ambitions (or perhaps a simple desire to keep his press working) are shown by his production of bookplates for Sir Francis Walsingham. His economic ambitions led him to compile and publish his own successful Latin-English dictionary, in defiance of the Stationers’ monopoly.

Few of Thomas’s immediate successors shared his learning or sophistication. Looking back in 1619, John Legate recalled that Thomas ‘was about thirty years ago a famous Printer among your Cantabrigians; yea something more than a Printer such as we now are, who understand the Latin we print no more than Bellerophon the letters he carried, and who sell in our shops nothing of our own except the paper black with the press’s sweat.’ McKitterick makes a precise census of the mountains of schoolbooks which, with a nose for marketing that modern publishers must envy, Thomas Buck and Roger Daniel shovelled forth to meet the demands of England’s extraordinarily expansive network of grammar schools. Of the six thousand copies of Evaldus Gallus’s Pueriles confabulatiunculae they turned out in 1632-3, not a single one survives – mute testimony to the zeal with which schoolboys read the book to pieces. He analyses the production and disposition of John Field’s innovative folio Authorised Version of 1659. And he brings to light the remarkable efforts of James Duport, Regius Professor of Greek and Vice-Master of Trinity, to make the Press a major producer of Greek texts in the years after the Restoration.

McKitterick lays due weight on the Cambridge Press’s intellectual success stories: such as the precocious (1643) publication of Abraham Whelock’s edition of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, in Anglo-Saxon as well as Latin. But he nowhere exaggerates the enterprise’s intellectual seriousness. Though Field printed John Ray’s pioneering catalogue of plants from the Cambridge region in 1660, the bookseller William Nealand actually served as publisher. In other cases, too, prosperous and enterprising local booksellers proved more ambitious and forward-looking than the official Printers. And many texts regularly recommended by tutors and read by students were systematically ignored by the Cambridge Press. In one of a good many instructive digressions McKitterick studies the teaching practices of the influential Joseph Mede of Christ’s College, who asked his pupils every evening, ‘“What Doubts have you met in your studies to day?” ... For he supposed that To doubt nothing and To understand nothing were verifiable alike.’ Mede’s recommendations, and the books listed as belonging to Cambridge undergraduates of his time, reveal how heavily students had to depend, even for core texts, on second-hand copies of books printed only once at Cambridge and on the products of presses in London, Amsterdam and Leiden.

McKitterick’s most arresting chapter concerns relations between authors and printers in Cambridge. Present-day authors horrified by the conditions of academic publishing may find it instructive to contemplate the travails of their predecessors – for whom publication was less a simple act of individual creativity than a complex process of collaboration and struggle. Like us, 17th-century authors had their work vetted – and sometimes radically altered – by local scholars who advised them and made connections with printers (acting, to be sure, as independent agents rather than as publishers’ formal referees). Like us, they sometimes saw their work severely edited – and found nonetheless that even the most draconian copy-editor missed glaring errors. (True, none of the Cambridge editors described by McKitterick rivals the severity shown at Oxford by John Fell, who rewrote Anthony Wood’s history of Oxford, studding it with insults directed at Thomas Hobbes.) Like us, they received proofs disfigured by monstrous errors, not all of which they succeeded in removing from the final books. And like us, they often had the chance to subsidise – or even pay for – the publication of their most original and scholarly books, while their royalties generally took the form of free copies of their own work. They even anticipated the preening efforts to gain attention and patronage so often criticised as a novelty in modern academic life. Though they could not appear on talk shows, write as journalists or speak at conferences, they happily showed off in the brochures of verses with which the University promptly mourned the passing of each monarch – and as promptly rejoiced at the coronation of each successor.

Two major differences emerge. First, Cambridge printers, like their colleagues elsewhere, corrected errors as soon as they detected them, even if they had already printed half or more of an edition. Accordingly, their products were far less uniform than those of the modern publisher: this point is often missed, as McKitterick shows, by 20th-century scholars, who misrepresent early printed books as uniform products of mechanical reproduction. Single copies of the same edition can vary quite radically – a fact which illuminates the nature of work rhythms in the printing-house as well as that of final products. Secondly, Cambridge authors, like their contemporaries, had a final chance to reflect on what they had achieved, and what their collaborators had done for them, in the often eloquent apologies and errata lists that they added after their texts were already complete. Many modern authors would gain relief, at least, if allowed to disarm reviewers by writing, as Robert Hill of St John’s did in 1601: ‘The fairest fruit will haue a worme, the finest cambricke may haue a fret, the best cloath is not without a knot, and beautiful Venus hath her mole. In a word, the best booke that is printed ... hath his typographicall both frets and knots, and moles in the face.’

McKitterick’s book, too, has frets and knots. Some are typographical: when a Cambridge University Press book refers to a Thesaurus biblicum and to libri veteri, we must conclude that the correctors have again become Bellerophons, unable to read the signs they convey to the public. McKitterick’s exposition suffers from diffuseness and his prose from frequent repetition of facts and arguments; evidently the CUP of today, like its 17th-century forerunner, has no Dr Fell. Other defects are substantive. McKitterick does not seem to have as solid a grasp of the contents of the books he describes of their physical forms and production histories: his comments on Ramism, the new science, even on the history of Classical scholarship lack depth.

Above all, McKitterick fails to provide one element vital to assessing the success of the Cambridge Press: systematic comparison with the programme and products of learned publishers elsewhere. The scholarly presses of Renaissance and Baroque Europe varied radically in scale and ambition. Some were the equivalent of Kinko’s, the xerox shop that supplies American university students with pirated copies of their assigned course reading. Some, like modern university presses, looked for and distributed great, expensive works of interest only to a specialised public, and chose to devote themselves either to traditional or innovative styles of learning. Some played both roles at once. Systematic comparison with its European forerunners and rivals would have enabled McKitterick to fix the intellectual history of the Cambridge Press in its true perspective and proportions – to give a real sense, for example, of the extent to which Thomas Thomas deserved to be compared, as John Legate compared him, to the great Estienne of Paris and Geneva. Despite occasional and telling glances at the outside world, McKitterick’s book remains resolutely local and somewhat unfocused. The central figure of Bentley will inevitably give the next volume a sharper story line. But one must also hope that McKitterick will devote as much attention to the intellectual side and larger cultural context of Cambridge publishing in that volume as he does here to its economic and technical history.