Lectures/Literary history/History of printing

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This lecture is intended to serve as an introduction to both history and the evolution of the book as it influences English literature.

History of printing[edit]

Manuscripts required a scribe to copy what he saw. The scribe would read the work, know the work in copying, but would sometimes introduce either errors or purposeful "corrections" to a text, along with commentary. Each copy was unique to the scribe and contained part of the scribe within the copy.

Xylography/Woodcut printing is sometimes seen the first type of true "printing". A woodcut was limited to only a few thousand copies before it would wear out far too much to be useful. They were mostly used in printing religious images. However, it is unsure if there was an actual relationship between Woodcuts and Printing, and it is possible that the woodblock books that were printed in this way could have been a response to printed books. Printing relied on copperplates that were engraved with an image that could hold ink and be used to transfer onto a medium.

The first printed works were actually playing cards. Printing words was based on the creation of small blocks that would be placed into a form, coated with ink, and pressed onto a medium in order to produce words. Each letter and sign was created out of a mold and made into uniform sizes. The creation of printed books is attributed to Johannes Gensflesich (Gutenberg). He originally created a press but had to borrow money in order to create his books (the one he was working on was a 42 line Bible), which he printed in the 1450s. The money was borrowed from Johann Fust, and when Gutenberg did not pay money that was owed to him, Fust took the press. Fust used the press in order to create cheaper books and start an industry.

Printing was first used in a way similar to manuscripts. They were designed in the same way, and many tried to mimic the actual manuscripts that they were copying. This was based more on demand by the reading public and took a long time to create. As the reading public expanded, the demand for cheaper publications increased and many of the manuscript features were dropped.

William Caxton was the first to bring printing into England during the 1480s. He lived in Cologne and was a merchant who became close to the Burgundy nobility. It was in Cologne that he learned how to be a printer, and later moved to England to start a business in Westminster. His style relied on woodcuts for illustrations, three punctuations marks (comma, semicolon, and a period), and early works had un-evened lines, but this changed by adding small spaces between letters (called "setting rule"). He did not use pagination or titles as others used them.

He spent a lot of his time editing and printed works like Morte D'Arthur and Canterbury Tales. He believed in printing books in English and this philosophy was upheld by Wynken de Worde who took over the business after Caxton’s death. Between them, they published nearly 1,000 titles.

There were other printers in England, most coming from Europe, and London’s first printer was John Lettou. Lettou was made the Printer to the King in 1508 until 1529. Many others came and started to follow the model set down by Caxton. The first presses in America were started in the 17th century and were based around printing almanacs, calendars, and news related materials.

Books that became popular to print were education works, encyclopedias, classics, religious texts, fiction, history books, and poetry collections. Printing allowed for advancements in science and music by allowing for standardization between images and texts. However, the advancement of scientific texts lead to various controversies, as science became political.

Not all texts were truly standardized, and works like Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) contain various spellings and other clear differences. There were over 600 different typefaces, pagination problems, and many other uniformity problems.

Reading changed after printing. Previously, reading was a skill used by noblemen and the clergy. However, reading became used by the masses, and the printed works relied on bare letters in order to produce cheaper books, which removed some of the effects that result from reading a book with commentary and illustrations. However, reading was also criticized by some groups for health problems (eye strain, head aches, etc), and sight became a popular focus after printed books became popular.

Effects of printing on language[edit]

Printing allows for: the preservation of texts without copying problems resulting from multiple scribes; standardization of texts and allows multiple people to study and comment on the same work using the same language; cheaper books and a larger reading base that is not exclusive to theological or political circles; and new genres to become popular and widespread. Printing slowed the development of language syntax in writing and separated writing from verbal language even further. Books also introduced title pages, pagination, and indexing to allow for easier access to information. However, books also dropped marginalia and scribal commentaries that were common to manuscripts, which may have diminished the linguistic relationship of a book and its reader.

England, unlike most of Europe, kept up with vernacular writing and did not indulge in Latin texts as completely. Caxton decided to uphold the tradition and 80% of his books were in English or English translations of other works. He decided to set rules for language which emphasized uniform spelling and punctuation. He also decided to use one variation of English, that of the London area. Worde followed his philosophy.

"Caxton was very conscious of his service to a unified English language. He reinforced his argument by the charming anecdote of the Kentish woman off North Foreland whom a London merchant asked for some 'eggys'. 'And the good wife answered that she coude speke no freshe.' It was only when another man asked for 'eyren' (cp. German 'Eier') that she 'sayd she vnderstod hym wel'."(Steinberg p. 58)

In 1645, Henry VIII demanded a uniform Primer that would have the authority of the King and would set standard rules for reading and writing. This was part of a greater nationalistic movement that helped preserve English as a language. In other countries, the printing press had a similar effect. The survival of Welsh as a language is attributed to the amount of works that were printed in Welsh. Also, in countries like Germany and Italy, various dialects were dominated by one specific written language (in Germany, the written language was a fusion of high, low, and central German known as “Lutheran German”, in Italy, Roman, Lombard, and the rest were dominated by the Tuscan written language).

Although language was becoming uniform, and scientists and the rest could rely on the texts, there was one major problem: piracy. Piracy helped popularize works, but was also without proper attributions, lacked authority, and had many errors. Many works were pirated, including Luther’s translation of the Bible, and around 90% of books were pirated. They were checked far less often. Title pages and printers marks were established to combat against them.

Printing, religion and politics[edit]

The first full English translation of the Bible, the Wyclif Bible, was created in the 1380s. No one printed the Bible because of a 1408 rule by the Anglican Church that no one should translate Scripture without the authority of the Church. A 1414 law stated that anyone caught with an English translation would be put to death and have their property taken from them. Portions of the Bible were printed in English after the 1530s and it seems that the restrictions around an English translation were falling apart.

Miles Coverdale completed the first English Bible to be printed, in 1535, while he was in Europe. Thomas Cromwell worked with the King of England to receive approval for the Coverdale Bible. It was printed under a pseudonym (Thomas Matthew) and known as the Matthew Bible. They used political connections to try and force Churches and Monasteries to buy the work. However, the work came under some attack for various commentaries and annotations in the book, and the Great Bible (finished 1539) was commissioned to replace it. This Bible was printed in France, but French authorities viewed the work as heretical and tried to confiscate the printed sheets. French printers were imported into England to complete the work. Later editions were known as the Cranmer’s Bible after a preface that was added by Archbishop Cranmer.

After Cromwell fell out of favor and was executed in 1530, the English Bible was placed in jeopardy. In 1543, a law was passed by Parliament that forbid reading the Bible in private, but it only lasted a few years. In the late 16th century, the Geneva Bible (1560) was introduced into England and its importation was not stopped. In 1575, the Geneva version was published in London, and in 1568, the Bishops’ Bible was created to read in Churches. The two Bibles found their own separate niches (homes and churches).Finally, the Authorized Version was created in 1611 and became the dominant Bible.

Secular politics and printing[edit]

When the printers relied on vernacular languages, they encouraged the spread of nationalistic sentiment. From 1484-1534, there were no restrictions on book selling in England except for certain religious works. However, the availability of texts caused many problems that were countered with censorship and licensing. During the Reformation, many libraries were burned or their works sold off when governments decided to take over previously religious institutions. Their libraries were later restocked with printed works.

Also, the government and printers relied on licensing laws in order to monopolize their works or a genre of works. In 1637, it was declared that all books were to be licensed, but the English Civil War was filled with constant pamphlet battles that were printed by unlicensed operators. They served as political propaganda and emphasized the power of the printed work.


  • Clair, Colin. A History of Printing and Britain. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
  • Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Dahl, Svend. Dahl’s History of the Book. Ed. Bill Katz. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1995.
  • Gilmon, Jean-Francois (Editor). The Reformation and the Book. Trans. Karin Maag. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998.
  • Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Kilgour, Frederick G. The Evolution of the Book. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Martin, Henri-Jean. The History and Power of Writing. Trans. Lydia G. Cochrane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
  • Oswald, John Clyde. A History of Printing. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1928.
  • Steinberg, S. H. Five Hundred Years of Printing. New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 1996.