Paradigm No. 7, December, 1991

Textbook printing at Cambridge


David McKitterick
The Library,
Trinity College,


Like most publishers with an educational list, the modern Cambridge University Press relies for many of its activities on the success of its textbooks. Without them, the list of new books each season would almost certainly look a good deal less varied, and scholarly publication would suffer. In modern times, the foundations of this principle were laid in the 1870s, with the beginning of the Pitt Press series, the University Press’s response to competition from other publishers such as Oxford University Press, Macmillan, Deighton Bell and Rivington who were meeting a rapidly growing demand for school texts. At Cambridge among the first to appear under this head were Skeat’s edition of The two noble kinsmen and a highly successful edition of Book II of the Aeneid. In the following year, the Press launched into modern, languages, with Wagner’s German ballads and Voltaire’s Le Siécle de Louis XIV.

But the principle had been there from the first. In 1583 Thomas Thomas, a former Fellow of King’s College, recently married to the widow of the most successful of the local book binders, prepared to establish a new printing house at Cambridge, in the face of bitter opposition from the London stationers. Though much of the argument about his right to print (a right granted to the University by Henry VIII in 1534) centred on the work of the Regius Professor of Divinity, Thomas’s prime motive seems to have been an educational one in a more restricted sense. In 1584 he issued his own edition of Ovid suitable for student use, and in 1587 he printed the first edition of his own Latin dictionary, the book by which he is best remembered and that held its own until well into the seventeenth century, The first complete books known from his press date from 158XXXXXXX

But a fragment survives of another, earlier, textbook that may have been no more than an experiment, of part of Pliny’s Natural history. In the preface to this, he made it plain that he intended it as an aid to lectures. So, from the beginning, the University Printers have been committed to the printing of textbooks.

Their interest in them has varied, however. By the end of the seventeenth century so much attention was being given to this kind of work that little was being given to any other. Major reforms followed, involving the virtual re-establishment of the University Press in its modern form, governed by Syndics responsible to the University as a whole.

For a more balanced picture we can look to the 1630s, the period when the University Printers were Thomas and John Buck, and Roger Daniel. These men, principally Thomas Buck and Roger Daniel, are now chiefly known for such books as the first edition of George Herbert’s The Temple (1633), the works of Thomas Fuller, the first appearance of Lycidas (1638), and the first major edition of Bede (1643). In fact much of their energy, and much of their income, centred for a few critical years on the production of textbooks for the English Stock of the Stationers’ Company, the University Printers acting simply as printers to this, the first major publishing conglomerate in England.

Though the small proportion of ordinary grammar school books that have survived makes much detailed discussion impossible, it is clear that, with the expansion of education in the early seventeenth century, the book trade was called on for ever more copies, and that the monopolies in these, established at the end of the sixteenth century, became commensurately more valued. Thomas Thomas had launched his career partly through his edition of Ovid, one of the staples of classical secondary education; but he made no attempt to challenge the much more valuable properties in the most popular or elementary texts. Between Thomas’s death in 1588 and the early 1630s, the University Printers at Cambridge made intermittent attempts at the entrenched positions of the London printers and stationers in this respect, without success. It was left to Buck and Daniel to achieve, albeit only for a few years, what their predecessors had striven for, and to do so not by antagonism (since in a schoolbook context those who already control the market will always be in a commanding position), but by negotiation and, eventually, licence. In 1624, the Stationers’ Company had complained of infringement of their patent for the ABC. In 1629, the Privy Council specified that the University Printers might print three thousand copies of Lily’s grammar each year &emdash; a considerable reduction in practice if Bucks declared stock figures of seven thousand unfinished grammars, eleven thousand unfinished primers, 304 completed grammars and nine hundred Accidences are to be believed: it is of course possible that he exaggerated the ‘unfinished’ figures so as to benefit more than was intended.

But Buck was to proceed further. In 1631, in secret and unknown to the University or to the local book trade (who usually expected to benefit by lower prices from the Cambridge printers), he reached a secret agreement on the printing of textbooks. In future, rather than compete with the Stationers’ Company and the English Stock, he was to concentrate, by agreement, on those deemed to be most useful to the University. Of one of the most lucrative of all, Lily’s grammar, no Cambridge edition survives between 1630 and 1634, when Buck’s agreement expired. But with the blessing, or at least licence, of the Stationers’ Company, the Cambridge press embarked on an ambitious programme for the publication of Latin grammars and texts. Ovid, Cicero, Virgil and Aesop (in Latin) were supported by the manuals or exercises of Vives, Ravisius Textor, Corderius, Mantuanus, Castalio, Aphthonius, Erasmus and Aldus Manutius. Most, though not all, were the subject of agreement between Cambridge and London, an agreement which restricted Buck’s edition sizes but also ensured sale without the risks of competition. For three years running, the Cambridge press printed an octavo Aesop, in editions of four thousand copies, and editions of the other texts were customarily of three thousand. All were, however, dwarfed by the Sententiae pueriles, the most basic of all textbooks in the subject. Fewer than three copies survive of all the editions published, either in London or elsewhere in England, between the time that the Stationers’ Company acquired the copyright from the estate of the stationer Henry Bynneman in 1584, and 1640; and only one survives of any Cambridge edition. Yet in 1631-4, Buck and Daniel alone printed three editions, a total of eighteen thousand copies. Only one other book was printed in a comparable edition size, and that was for a similar market; but no copy survives at all of the version of Evaldus Gallus Pueriles confabulatiunculae of which six thousand copies were printed at Cambridge in 1632-3. Because these books were printed under licence from the Stationers’ Company, and given that so few copies of any edition, whether from London or Cambridge, have survived, and many editions have vanished completely, it is not easy to tell whether the Cambridge output was sufficient for national needs in these years. Such is, however, at least possible. Buck’s, and through him Daniel’s, purpose was not in doubt. It was to share in a profitable trade by printing the most established texts. Though on the one hand they printed no edition of Lily, the most established of all &emdash; if already widely thought to be obsolete &emdash; on the other they did not challenge newcomers such as John Brinsley, whose explanation of Lily’s grammar remained the preserve of individual London stationers, not of a cartel within the Stationers’ Company. Like the English Stock itself, most of Buck and Daniel’s school-book publishing was characterized by the innate conservatism of the market.

Where did these books go? The Cambridge printers were usually in competition with London, and the consequent price wars were conducted with a good deal of vituperation on both sides. As, in the wake of the revised Short-title catalogue, the focus of bibliographical attention turns frorn enumeration of copies to the study of reading (a course that, for historians at least, has begun to be mapped out by Robert Darnton and Roger Chartier, but one that is in fact, implicit in much bibliographical work for the last century), so we need to address ourselves to the circulation and reception of books, and the particularities of surviving copies: their whereabouts now, their past owners, whether private or institutional, the materials and manner in which they are bound, the use to which they have been subjected, whether children or students, schoolmasters or undergraduates. School libraries, and the records of gifts and endowments, offer one obvious course. At Lady Hawkins’ school at Kington, Herefordshire, a school founded in 1632 and thus exactly at the time Buck and Daniel were at work in the manner described, the earliest purchases of books were, not surprisingly, standard works of a fairly heavy nature. But then came a run of textbooks: Virgil, Cicero, John Clarke’s grammar books, Farnaby’s Index rhetoricus and Phrases, Bond’s edition of Horace, Textor, and Ovid’s Epistolae. A little later came Aesop, more of Textor, and more of Ovid. The residue of the school’s library, some 249 volumes, is now deposited at Hereford Cathedral, and would repay further study.

More generally, what of Cambridge textbooks elsewhere, either extant, or noted in accounts or benefactors’ books? If we look at another kind of information, from another corner of the country, it seems that just as for the printers, able to support their work by the assured business of textbook printing, so also for the retail trade: the multiple copies of these books that made up their stock offered similar assured sales. In Penrith, in 1701, the stock of a grocer who dealt also in books (a by no means unusual figure) included fifteen copies of Lily’s rules, seventeen Sententiae, sixteen Accidences and twenty-two copies of Ovid’s Epistles. Over forty per cent of his stock was educational at what we would now term primary or secondary level. In Kington we know a little; but in Penrith we know (so far as I am aware) nothing of which editions were being used, whether those from London, Oxford or Cambridge. We may know a great deal about how these books were printed. We can analyse their prices, their typography, and (sometimes) their edition sizes. All these are critical to the history of the book, in establishing an environment of production wherein each individual volume, pamphlet or sheet can be placed; and placed, so evaluated. But until the finished volume reaches the hands of a reader, with all the particularities as to circumstance, time and place that the act of reading implies, it is very difficult to establish the history of the book as a social phenomenon.



The above is based on a paper given at the Textbook Colloquium at Newnham College, Cambridge on 13 April 1991. Details of the school at Kington are drawn from Penelope E. Morgan ‘The library of Lady Hawkins’ school, Kington, Herefordshire’, National Library of Wales Journal, 24 (1985) pp. 46-62, and of the 1701 stock in Penrith from Peter Isaac, ‘An inventory of books sold by a seventeenth century Penrith grocer’, History of the Book Trade in the North PH 53 (1959). My history of printing in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Cambridge will be published by Cambridge University Press in Autumn 1992.


Paradigm Catalogue Textbook Colloquium