23153.8; 19897.7; 15635

Adam Smyth

  • The Stationers’ Company and The Printers of London: 1501-57 by Peter Blayney
    Cambridge, 2 vols, 1238 pp, £150.00, November 2013, ISBN 978 1 107 03501 0

Numbers 130 and 131 Fleet Street are today occupied by a branch of the sushi chain Itsu and one of Jeeves (‘London’s Finest Dry Cleaners’), but in 1501 this was Wynkyn de Worde’s home and printing house: he rented a former inn for £3 6s 8d a year from a priory in Buckinghamshire. De Worde would have looked out at the cistern house of the Fleet River; on a weekday morning now, the glass and chrome of Shoe Lane is full of suited twentysomethings. A few minutes’ walk up Fleet Street brings you to Number 188, to the west of St Dunstan’s Church, opposite Ye Olde Cock Tavern, and in an echo of Peter Blayney’s central themes (the business of books, and the Reformation), close to the publishers D.C. Thomson (the Beano, the Dandy, Scotland’s Sunday Post) and the Protestant Truth Society. The printer Richard Pynson worked from here; the black-letter colophon to his A ful deuout and gostely treatyse of the imytacion and folowynge the blessed lyfe of oure moste mercyfull sauyoure cryste (1517) declares: ‘This boke Inprinted at London in Fletestrete at the signe of the George by Richard Pynson Prynter unto the Kynges noble grace,’ so the building was probably hung with the sign of George and the Dragon. As I enter the lobby of the current occupiers, Legalease, the security guard says: ‘You’ve been wandering up and down for about ten minutes. I’ve been watching you.’

The frontispiece to Joseph Ames’s ‘Typographical Antiquities’, London 1749.
The frontispiece to Joseph Ames’s ‘Typographical Antiquities’, London 1749.

In 1501 the Stationers’ Company was a trade organisation without a royal charter, serving some, but not all, of the printers, publishers, distributors and booksellers involved in the London book trade and ‘thoroughly undistinguished’, in Blayney’s words, particularly by comparison with prestigious incorporated companies such as the Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers and Goldsmiths. Many of the most active printers in the early 16th century – including the boom years of the Edwardian Reformation – were not among its members. Thus, as Blayney shows, the Stationers’ involvement with civic ceremony, expressive of a kind of cultural status, was for a long time pretty feeble: in 1509 they were conspicuous for not being among the 48 companies which took part in Henry VII’s funeral procession. By the 1530s, though, things were perking up, at least if we take the seating plan for a lord mayor’s feast as a marker of prominence in the City: four stationers shared a table with a mix of innholders, founders, poulterers, scriveners, broderers and upholders – and we can imagine them holding their conversational own, over the capons and teal.

What changed on 4 May 1557 was incorporation: a charter endorsed by Philip and Mary granted the Stationers a nationwide monopoly on printing, and the right to seize, burn or amend illegal books; to buy and sell property; to bring lawsuits in court; to gather whenever they wished; and to elect a master and two wardens every year. For the Stationers, Blayney writes, the charter was a means ‘to enforce their new commercial monopoly’. For the Crown, it was part of a broader attempt to regulate the printing industry, and accompanied a Marian purge of a book trade previously dominated by printers ‘who owed their commercial success to the Edwardian Reformation’. Less than three weeks after Mary arrived in London, she issued a proclamation condemning the ‘pryntynge of false fonde books, ballettes, rymes, and other lewde treatises in the englyshe tonge … touchynge the hyghe poyntes and misteries of christen religion … for lucre and couetous of vyle gayne’.

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