English printing and English books – introduction

England was different. Printing came here late, via Cologne and Bruges, and was slow to take root. By the time Caxton published his first book at Westminster, printers were already active in some 70 towns and cities in mainland Europe. By 1500 there were still only five printers in England, all in London and all of them foreigners. Paper and type were still being imported because there was no adequate local source. And the books Caxton printed were different too. Not classical texts or Bibles and other heavyweight Latin tomes aimed at clerics and scholars – those were already obtainable as imports – but readable English-language works suited to the taste of the wealthy and aristocratic.

Caxton had no immediate English successors. When in 1484 an Act was brought in to debar 'aliens' from carrying on trades in England, there was specific exemption for 'prynters'. With little or no local competition, there was scope for enterprising foreign printers to set up shop in England and a number did so. The exemption continued until 1525 by which time there were more than thirty printers in  London, two-thirds of them foreigners. After that only naturalized aliens were allowed to print, on equal terms with locals. Another Act soon followed, prohibiting the buying or selling in England of books printed or bound abroad. Any boost this gave to the English printing trade was soon negated by the rise of censorship as the Government waged war on any printed matter deemed to be heretical, seditious, or otherwise 'naughty'. By 1538, under Henry VIII, printing of any book in the English language was only permitted with a licence from 'his Grace's Privy Council'.

Regulation of the printing trade devolved increasingly onto the Stationers' Company, one of London's Trade Guilds, incorporated by Queen Mary in 1557. The Company controlled who was allowed to print, had powers to root out and punish infringers, put limits on how many copies of a book could be produced, and by limiting apprenticeships put a ceiling on the number of active printers in London – there were virtually none elsewhere in the country. The 100 or so men of the Stationers' Company effectively controlled all printing and bookselling in England.

Generations would pass before this stranglehold was fully relaxed, and the modern concept of copyright given legal force. In the meantime the lack of foreign competition meant that the quality of English printing fell behind that of other countries. But it is not the quality of printing that matters most in the leaves that follow here, or even the names of the printers, apart from Caxton and his immediate successors. Instead it is what these leaves reveal about the types of books English publishers wanted to publish and English readers to read, and how the written English language itself has changed. Some of the best known books are represented: The Ship of Fooles, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, Gerard's Herbal, the first folio edition of Shakespeare, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Gibbon's Decline and Fall, The Book of Common Prayer and of course The Bible in its many different English-language versions.  

These are the books that people kept, loved and pored over until they fell to pieces, books of which even a single leaf is something worth having. From more recently published books the only individual leaves to be found are a few choice specimens, mainly hand-printed from Private Presses. Of the leaves on this website 21 are incunabula, dating from before 1501, 25 from the 16th century, but only six each from the 17th and 18th century and just one, by William Morris, from the 19th. All but the last were printed on wooden presses that differed little from those of Gutenberg and Caxton. Only Morris had an iron press.