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Peter W. M. Blayney: The Stationers' Company and the Printers of London, 1501-1557.


The Stationers' Company and the Printers of London, 1501-1557. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 1,300 pp.

"Monumental": the word that springs most immediately to the tips of a reviewer's fingers upon contemplating the 1,300 pages of Peter Blayney's The Stationers' Company and the Printers of London, 1501-1557. It is certainly an impressively heavy piece of scholarship; the reviewer and the reviews editor had quite a time working out how to get it from Britain to Canada (or, for that matter, across the room). But the word "monumental" is perhaps the wrong one. A monumental structure has a metonymic relationship to its object: a monument is something grand that commemorates something even grander. This is not quite what Blayney offers here. As he explains in his preface, his intention on starting the project was corrective rather than comprehensive. Finding that Cyprian Blagden's The Stationers' Company: A History, 1403-1959 "dismisses nearly two centuries (1357-1553) in just over twelve pages (21-33) in which there is scarcely a paragraph free of factual errors, unfounded assumptions, or both" (xxi), he set out to provide scholars of the early-modern book trade with a better history by rereading and reinterpreting every early source he could find. No other scholar could have done this with Blayney's meticulous care or formidable expertise. If the attention to detail and correction of "unfounded assumptions" comes at the expense of grand narratives, which it sometimes does, this seems a small price to pay for work of reference that will serve so many so well.

Blayney's study is, in short, an extraordinary feat of scholarship. He successfully marshals "virtually every mention of any printer, Stationer, or other person active in the book trade" (xix) whom he has found for the period 1501 to 1557 and builds a host of compelling new arguments about the history of that trade. The first chapter will be particularly edifying for members of the Early Book Society, whose interests lie at the intersection of manuscript and print cultures. In this chapter, he gives the first authoritative account of the rise of the occupation of "stationer" in medieval England, the founding of the Stationers' Company in 1403, and the impact of the advent of printing on the established book trade. It may seem strange that this story needs to be told, but it does. Blayney publishes critical, missing facts--about the moment when and the reasons why Richard Pynson and Wynkyn de Worde joined the Stationers' Company, for example.

He also corrects some major misapprehensions. William Caxton was a mercer, as many who study him are quick to note. But as a member of that liveried and distinguished guild, he had nothing to fear from the stationers, as some have claimed he did in order to account for his decision to set up shop in Westminster, outside the walls of the City of London. To take another example, scholarship on an 1484 act of Parliament that exempted bookmen from new trade regulation is the source of a "widespread fantasy that the proviso resembled a general Bill of Rights, emancipating alien book merchants" (44). Blayney shows that in fact the proviso protected them from new rules but left them subject to every other ordinary regulation and tax.

There are riches in subsequent chapters for the student of sixteenth-century English printing. Each of these chapters covers somewhere between a half and a whole decade. Each follows the same structure: a discussion of printers who began work in the greater London area in that period, an account of provincial printing at the same moment, developments in the trade at large and in the careers of major players, additional archival discoveries, and analysis of the import trade. Taken together, the chapters provide new biographies of every known printer and/or Stationer and many who were entirely unknown until Blayney turned up a document describing them. In some cases, a previously minor figure is shown to have had a major role in the history of the English book trade. For example, Elizabeth Pickering, the widow of Robert Redman and printer in her own right (and under her maiden name), emerges as a force behind the Stationers' Marian Charter, in the quest for which two of her husbands after Redman--William and Ranulph Cholmeley--acted as principals.

There will be readers who find Blayney's take-no-prisoners style dispiriting as he dismantles whatever he finds slipshod, speculative, or plain wrong in others' scholarship. But anyone with an interest in early Tudor history--bookish, literary, economic, or social--owes him an incalculable debt for the thousands of hours he has labored to set the record straight and recover what had been lost. It may seem that Blayney never met an argument he liked as much as he liked correcting it. But the next time any of us makes an argument about early English printing, we will be much better for his extraordinary generosity and his example.

Alexandra Gillespie, University of Toronto
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Author:Gillespie, Alexandra
Publication:The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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