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William Caxton and Early Printing in England


Lotte Hellinga


London: British Library Publishing, 2010

212 pages. 30 (Hardback). ISBN: 9780712350884


Reviewed by Meraud Ferguson Hand

Independent Scholar


It would be hard to imagine a better guide to the early years of English printing than Lotte Hellinga.  Formerly Deputy Keeper of Printed Books at the British Library, she has published widely on the early history of printing, including Caxton; she was also co-editor of Volume 3 (1400-1557) of The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain (1999) and the compiler of the Catalogue of Books Printed in the XVth Century Now in the British Library (2007), and has also published on printing in the Low Countries during the same period. The present book might be considered to be, in part, a substantial reworking and revision of material found in her 1982 book Caxton in Focus: The Beginning of Printing in England, also published by the British Library. However, it is much more than this, being broader in scope and placing less explicit emphasis upon previous Caxton historiography. Drawing on a lifetime of research, and intended both for the 'general reader' and as 'a new offering to those already familiar with the subject' [ix], it presents a beautifully and intelligently illustrated introduction to the period, the people, the presses and the books.

As one might expect, the book's main focal point is Caxton himself, with nine of the eighteen main chapters concentrating on his output and career. The rest of the book, however, turns its attention elsewhere: there are very good chapters on printing before Caxton, on the first printers in Oxford, in London (as opposed to Caxton's Westminster) and in St. Albans, and on such key figures as Richard Pynson and Wynkyn de Worde; also on the evolution and impact of devotional printing in English during the period, and a concluding chapter on 'contemporaries outside the mainstream', which weaves together a number of brief sketches of various other pertinent people and presses for whom only very scanty evidence survives.

The book is strong on the European and cultural context, both of Caxton's first forays into print and of the growing trade in the ensuing decades. It provides the history of a milieu as much as of an industry, but  Hellinga's approach is always grounded in the pragmatic concerns of both literary and material producers of the texts. She has a feel for the life of the trade, for its uncertainties, high hopes, and pragmatic realities; but this is no 'dumbed-down', romanticised narrative, and Hellinga's imagined 'general reader' is clearly no slouch. In her Introduction Hellinga modestly admits the difficulties encountered in moving from scholarly discourse to a style more appropriate to a general readership; but in fact her style has a composure, a warmth, and an enviable clarity which makes the book a pleasure to read.

Asking 'Who were these people who brought printing to England? What creative impulses drove them to choose this complicated and often financially risky process?' [5], Hellinga rewards the reader with an introduction not just to the history of early English printing but to its historiography as well, and to the processes bibliographical and historiographical which led to the growth and evolution of an accepted historical narrative. Hellinga's discussion of de Worde's edition of the Book of Hawking, for instance, is a short but very useful insight into the process of translating from the manuscript to the print medium. She explores the processes by which the established printing houses produced new ones set up by former apprentices and journeymen, as well as the often opaque relationship between the evolving roles of printer and publisher.

The history of printing is of course in part the history of a technology a classic case-study across many disciplines from literary studies through bibliography to economic history. While Hellinga's aim is to address the story of the people and the products of the presses, rather than, directly, the technology itself to any great extent, she nevertheless demonstrates sensitivity to the technological aspects of the evolution of the book during that time. In the jargon of the history of technology, although Hellinga never uses such terms and one suspects she would dislike their inelegance, her approach accepts the effects of path-dependence, positive feedback and lock-in as fundamentally important factors in the development of printing in England: the narrative emphasis is on the individual choices made by particular people under particular circumstances, and the tendency for the  repercussions of these choices to be played out over long periods of time.

There are 116 illustrations (59 of them in colour), accompanied by informative explanatory captions. The inclusion of so much colour makes a valuable point in itself: Hellinga notes that 'database compilation and imaging technology have made [early English printed] books more accessible than they have ever been' [5], and given the current dominance of EEBO in many students' early experience of such books, the colour illustrations included here represent something of an antidote to the black-and-white of the familiar microfilm images: a salutary reminder to the novice that print was not always an exercise in monochrome. Often, however, it was precisely that; and the illustrations which pair near-contemporary manuscript and print versions clearly demonstrate this very visual change.

Hellinga's book is not a textbook, and requires the old-fashioned skill of reading a certain amount of text in sequence. However, the book's scale is well-judged for an introductory text, each chapter being relatively short, and of broadly similar length. The slightly unusual page layout, with very wide inner margins, sets off the captions to the illustrations rather well, and increases the book's overall impression of clarity, as well as providing ample note-taking space for the more diligent reader. The book is, after all, a starting-point, a set of directions from which to proceed in order to discover more.

The main chapters are followed by well-thought-out end matter: a succinct but useful bibliography of 'Further Reading' organised by subject, a list of the book's many illustrations, and an Index divided helpfully into a 'General' section and a section of 'Authors and Texts' which is subdivided again by genre. Printers and publishers are grouped usefully together under a single general index heading. Not a flashy book, then, but a beautifully presented and valuable one which will be enjoyed by the bibliophile general reader as well as being useful to students of the period.




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