Medieval London

Book

Chronicle of England.png

The printed book was an important and valuable item in late medieval London. This copy of The Chronicles of England, a widely successful history of the kings of England printed in English by the publisher Wynkyn de Worde in 1496, is an example of the successful print business in London. Books that chronicled the history of England, especially those that stressed the chivalrous and mythical aspects of each tale, were hugely successful and circulated throughout the city. This book covered the founding of Great Britain up until the 15th century, and recorded the reigns of around 100 kings in chronological order. Over 240 manuscript copies were produced, and 13 editions were printed before 1528. This edition is printed on paper, is illustrated, and measures 250 mm high, 190 mm wide and 30 mm deep. When opened it is 405 mm wide. 

After the invention of the printing press in 1436, the demand for cheaper, accessible books grew among London’s literate middle-class. Nobility did not always approve of how the new print industry allowed lower classes easier access to reading, but the printing market grew rapidly throughout Europe and in  England. In 1476, Edward IV permitted the printer William Caxton to open the first printing press in England at the Sign of the Red Pale in Westminster. The first book he printed and distributed, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, became extremely popular with the city’s readers. Caxton printed a variety of books, including religious texts, romances, poetry, and inexpensive books that could be used for educational purposes. He also printed small pamphlets that contained separate different sections from the book, meant for literate residents who could not afford to buy a complete book. 

Books were printed by applying the pressure of fine, woodcut letters to paper, creating elaborate fonts and images in a faster and more effective manner than hand production. They were made using a printing press, one with movable, or reusable, letters. These early books could be illuminated, engraved, and colored by hand, were sometimes bound before they were ready to be sold. Books were also often sold in loose sheets and only covered in leather binding by the owner after purchase. 

Stationers, or those involved in the process of printing books, worked at vending stalls at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Wynkyn de Worde, a German immigrant who worked for Caxton, took over Caxton's business after Caxton’s death in 1492 and by 1500 moved the production process to Fleet Street, which became the hub of London's printing industry, and was near to St Paul's churchyard. After the publication of books like The Chronicles of England, de Worde went on to take advantage of the growing markets and eager consumer base for printed books, developing a reputation as England’s first typographer based on his habit of recasting typefaces and buying new fonts from other cities in order to provide different types of original editions of books. 

By the late fourteenth and fifteenth century, many men and women of the merchant class of London could read and write, sometimes in more than one language. King and noblemen were beginning to collect books and store them in personal libraries. The prices for manuscript books were still relatively expensive, but printing made prices lower and books more accessible to many London citizens. However, even printed books were costly (particularly if illustrated or bound), so they were more accessible to wealthy merchants, the clergy, gentry, nobility, and royalty. Printed books were non-essential items to everyday citizens, who continued the ancient tradition of oral storytelling. Even among those who did have access to books, reading was often seen as a social experience. Public recitations of written stories were common events among upper-class elites throughout the Middle Ages, and many early texts are direct transcriptions of songs and hymns. 

Manuscript books were usually written on parchment, made from animal skins that had been soaked in lime to loosen and remove the fur. The skin would be scraped, hung, and dried, then applied with chalk to whiten the parchment and remove oils or fats hidden beneath the skin. Printed books were more often made from paper, which had to be imported from the continent in this period.

-Katherine Smith

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