John Barnard, D. F. McKenzie, eds., with Maureen Bell. The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, vol. 4, 1557-1695. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 920 pp. $140.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-66182-9.
Reviewed by Mark Knights (School of History, University of East Anglia)
Published on H-Albion (May, 2004)
The history of the book is undergoing a renaissance, as more and more branches of scholarship explore its potential. The subject embraces literature, history, art, economics, society, and culture, and there are now several university "centers" devoted to exploring these interconnections. There can be few working on the early modern period who will not have handled and quoted from a printed primary source and wanted to know more about the basic building blocks of some of their research. Volume 4 of the Cambridge History of the Book in Britain (the second of seven volumes to be published in the series) should thus find a broad welcome. But, given this wide and diverse intended audience, the task undertaken is a formidable one and the work will necessarily appeal to different readers in different ways. This review is written by a historian looking at the volume to explain connections between book production and design as well as their political, religious, social, and cultural context.
In its eight hundred pages of text, there are certainly many different dimensions, or the volume contains a wide range of essays. With thirty-eight chapters written by forty-five contributors, and three appendices offering statistics and data about the book trade, there is certainly much to choose from. The volume covers the period between the incorporation of the Stationers' Company in 1557 and the permanent lapse of the licensing act in 1695. The contributions, by both established and younger scholars, are not just limited to the development of the book trade, but seek to explore the content as well as the design of books. Nevertheless, there are clear focal points. There are, for example, ten essays on the "literature of the learned"; the interplay between print and other forms of communication recurs throughout; and the volume is strong on the book's role in the formation of literary canons and on the business and appearance of print. There is also a useful section on the book outside London. Overall the volume is a helpful and informative companion to Early English Books Online and the archives of the Stationers' Company, both of which are now reasonably available as primary sources.
Since there is insufficient space to consider all the contributions, I shall indulge in some cherry-picking. One theme that is well treated is the interaction between print and other forms of communication. Harold Love repeats his warning about the dominance of print over oral, aural, and scribal transmission of knowledge. This is an important perspective in a volume devoted to the book, although his claim that print enforced "the mask of politeness and decorum" (p. 118) is undercut by the previous chapter's discussion of the uncivil Martin Marprelate controversy of the 1580s. Love's repetition of H. R. Woudhuysen's call for an STC of scribal publications is a timely call for further research. Moreover, his argument about the importance of scribal publication is driven home in other pieces. John Pitcher's wonderfully engaging and thought-provoking essay on the hybrid nature of plays and the playhouse, Mark Greengrass's piece on Hartlib, who moved effortlessly between different means of communication, and the chapters in the book on the provinces and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland also stress the persistence of oral, and different language, cultures.
Another collection of essays shows the importance of print in the construction of communities and identities. The first chapter, a model joint production by Patrick Collinson, Arnold Hunt, and Alexandra Walsham, offers an excellent account of Catholic print as part of a Counter-Reformation process and also engages directly, as other contributions do only obliquely, with the issue of readers. The chapter is lively, beautifully illustrated, and ambitious in its exploration of the textual communities of Protestants and Catholics. Kate Parker and Nigel Smith's contributions both sketch the use made by Protestant sects of the press to disseminate their beliefs and even to create their audience. Maureen Bell also explores some of the ways in which the book "was instrumental in the construction of gender identities" (p. 451).
Adrian Johns's essay on science and the book offers an intriguing survey of his field, but also shows why natural philosophers and mathematicians, up against piracy of their work or inaccurate printing, felt the need to "play the stationer" (p. 291). Practitioners not only used print, they sought to affect its nature, and in so doing innovated the first periodical devoted to natural knowledge, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.
Don McKenzie's own essay, on constraints on the book trade, is based on a paper given in 1999, and develops his earlier work on the output of the press in 1668; but he raises important questions about the extent to which historians rely on statistics of press output. He urges "caution in drawing inferences about total demand from the number of known editions" (p. 556); about the survival rate of copies (low for the sixteenth century and patchy for later); about the proportion of short topical titles as a proportion of the whole; about anonymity as the result of censorship (rather, he suggests, it was simply "a long-established convention"); and fear of the courts as a factor on the economy of the book trade. All this needs to be borne in mind when using the statistical data at the end of the volume (which may in any case be superseded by the ESTC dataset, available online). Chapters about paper, metal letters, and bookbinding are illuminating with regards to other types of constraint on the production of print. And there are some intriguing, but very short, case-studies revealing how the appearance of text, or the apparatus surrounding the text itself, could shape and emphasize meaning.
For all its scholarship, and the valiant efforts of John Barnard and Maureen Bell to edit it, the volume nevertheless lacks the guiding hand of its original deviser, Don McKenzie. Given his death in March 1999, which has deprived us of a generous and inspiring scholar, the appearance of the volume at all is commendable and should blunt any criticism. Nonetheless, although the scale of the enterprise inevitably makes it difficult, the collection does sometimes need to be pulled together more tightly. The "book" is never defined, with the result that it is often the "press" or "print" that is being discussed. This is fine; but because it is never clear about its remit, the volume can seem something of a hybrid, attempting a history of print and its content without fully mapping the contours of either. This leads to some odd omissions. There is no chapter, for example, on the history of reading or the reception of books (though some of this is embedded in individual chapters), and very little on certain genres (such as pamphlets and political polemics, which were surely as much "books" as periodicals, which do have their own chapter). There is nothing explaining the different approaches (historiographical, bibliographical, and literary) that have been taken to the history of the book in the period. Most curiously (and despite the chosen chronology of 1557-1695, which only makes sense in regulatory terms), there is no chapter synthesizing research about the Stationers' Company or censorship/regulation. It is true that the introduction by John Barnard sketches some of the story and some chapters consider the issue piecemeal. A chapter by Julian Roberts, for example, explores the regulation of books from overseas and there is a chapter on the late-seventeenth century by Michael Treadwell that fills in some of the later history. To be sure, discussions of the company, readers, methodology, the political press, and censorship/regulation are available elsewhere. But inclusion of essays on these themes would have made the volume a more essential reference work and widened the appeal to a student audience, as too might more editorial framework. There is a useful introduction to one group of case studies, which underlines how one at the start of each of the sections would have been very helpful to introduce the theme and draw threads together. There are bibliographical notes to some essays but not to others, with the result that some essays fail to point readers in the direction of quite voluminous literatures on their subject. And although it is Treadwell's argument that the final lapse of the 1662 Printing Act in 1695 changed little, stepping outside the conventional terminus for discussion might also have been illuminating, even if that involved trespassing slightly on the remit of the next volume. Very seldom are the impacts of 1641 and 1695 compared.
I do not, however, wish to end on a negative note for, as I have indicated, there is plenty here to savor and whet the appetite for further research. And it is perhaps a healthy sign of a rapidly evolving field that even eight hundred pages offer only a taste of its full scope.
[1.] English Short Title Catalogue is available by subscription from RLG, http://www.rlg.org/. For a list of libraries holding Stationers' records, see http://www.stationers.org/lib_world.asp. [Editor's note.]
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Mark Knights. Review of Barnard, John; McKenzie, D. F., eds.; Bell, with Maureen, The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, vol. 4, 1557-1695.
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