Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: bookseller

Recycled woodcuts, part 3

I have blogged in a couple of previous posts (1, 2) about the reuse of woodcuts by mid-seventeenth century printers and booksellers. Various names appear in both posts: printers like Jane Coe, Bernard Alsop and Thomas Harper, and booksellers like John Greensmith and  Thomas Bates. Inspired by Gavin Robinson’s recent post reconstructing the life and allegiance of a London merchant of the same period, I thought it might be interesting to post about the lives of a couple of these figures in more detail. Doing so can tell us a surprising amount about why woodcuts were being recycled at this time.

Thomas Bates was a bookseller based in Bishop’s Court in the Old Bailey. A number of the pamphlets he sold reused woodcuts. His date of birth is unclear, but he was made free from his apprenticeship in 1619, which if he served the typical length of time would put his birth date around 1595. He was apprenticed to Michael Sparke, who would later go on to publish the books of the religious radical and martyr William Prynne. Before doing so, however, he seems to have spent some time in the 1610s as a journeyman, travelling the country selling his wares. Through this he was intimately linked to wider networks of chapmen and pedlars.

Sparke’s early career, and his later willingness to publish books no other bookseller would take on, may be significant to the choices that Bates made in his own career. By the 1640s, Bates was the member of a partnership of three booksellers: the other two members were Thomas Banks and Francis Coules, also based in the Old Bailey. Their typical product was the short, eight-page quarto pamphlet, often satirical or scandalous, and illustrated with a woodcut on the frontispiece. This kind of pamphlet was quick and cheap to print, and was clearly a popular product. As church and Parliamentary censorship waned during the 1630s then broke down in 1641, hundreds of pamphlets in this genre were produced.

The products the three partners sold may owe something to their links to the ballad trade. Ballads are exactly the kind of books that are likely to have been a staple of Michael Sparke’s sales as he travelled round the country. Bates’s links to his partners may well have come from the networks and knowledge that his master built up during this period. A more definite link can be determined with Francis Coules. He was the oldest of the three and, earlier in his career, he had along with Henry Gosson and Edward Wright been the junior member of a partnership of booksellers who had gradually bought up the copyright to popular broadside ballads. As the partners built up their stock of ballads, they also seem to have developed new methods of marketing them. During the sixteenth century, woodcut illustration was unusual: only one fifth of surviving ballads were illustrated. Slowly, the ballad partners began to change this. By 1640, five out of six surviving ballads were illustrated.

It seems likely that some link can be traced between the woodcuts used to illustrate such ballads and the pamphlets that Bates, Coules and Banks were selling. Selling satirical pamphlets in the early 1640s was not without its risks. All three were summoned to appear before Parliament at various points and Bates seems, according to various sources, to have served some time in prison on at least two occasions. However, Bates’s stock seems to have spanned a reasonably wide range of religious and political positions. Profit, not politics, was probably his primary motivation: and it is here that using illustrated title pages makes sense. In an increasingly saturated market, illustrated frontispieces stood out, and probably sold well. Indeed the amount of pamphlets with illustrations entirely unconnected to their content suggest that any illustration enhanced the selling-power of books. In that sense, the pamphlets on sale in Bates’s shop are the legacy of a trend that began with ballads.

But Bates and his partners were faced with a tension to resolve. They needed their books to stand out, and for that they needed illustrations: the fresher and more eye-catching, the better. But they also needed to preserve their bottom line. It is very difficult to reconstruct costs and profits for printers and booksellers without any sources, but here is a very rough and indicative attempt to do so, which at least may give an idea of the sort of margins Bates would have been working under. Booksellers in this period were typically the “undertaker” for pamphlets: which is to say they put up the capital, paid the printer, and took the risk if books didn’t sell.

  • The cheapest paper – ‘pot paper’ – sold in the 1620s for between 3s. 4d. and 4s.6d. a ream. A ream contained 500 sheets, and an eight-page quarto pamphlet was made from one sheet. Thus one ream would have supplied 500 copies of the books Bates was typically selling.
  • Print runs at this time are also hard to estimate, but the limitations of presses and working practices at this time suggest runs somewhere between 250 – 1,500 copies for a short quarto book. If we assume a very high print run of 1,000 copies, two reams would be needed to provide the paper. That suggests a cost of about 10s.
  • Paper was between half and three quarters of the cost of a book, so the cost to Bates’s printers for an unillustrated book might have been about 20s.
  • The printer would then have sold his work to Bates. In 1655, John Sturgeon paid the radical printer Richard Moone 40s. for 1,000 copies of A Short Discovery of his Highness the Lord Protector’s Intentions. Whether this is a good comparison is hard to say. In both cases the printer would have been producing works that put him at some risk, but the risks during the Protectorate were probably rather higher. If we assume a lower price of, say, 30s., that still allows for some profit to the printer.
  • Bates also needed to make a profit. Again, estimating book prices accurately at this period is very hard, but assuming his eight-page quartos sold for 1d., that would mean potential revenue of £4, and a potential gross profit of £2 10s. This is of course a best-case scenario, assuming that every copy of a relatively high print-run sold.
  • Net profit, after deducting operational costs of running a bookshop, is even harder to estimate so I won’t attempt it here.

Adding a freshly-cut woodcut to this process would inevitably have eaten into the margins of printers and booksellers. Assuming the printer absorbed the cost, he would have passed it on to the bookseller. So you can imagine discussions between the bookseller (who would generally have owned the copyright), the printer and the author about whether to use a woodcut, and if so whether to reuse an old one. If Bates had money to spare, he might have decided to get the printer to commission a bespoke woodcut. If cash was tight, he might have asked for an old to be reused. It’s possible that some woodcuts, like those with “speech bubbles” left blank, were designed to fulfil both purposes.

Amongst the printers that Bates used was Bernard Alsop. He had been apprenticed to Humphrey Lympenny in 1601, then transferred in 1603 to the mastership of William White. By 1616 he had gone into partnership with Thomas Creed, who seems to have either retired or died the next year. Alsop inherited his press, type and ornaments, and was still using them in the 1640s: Creed had already got good use out of them, so by the outbreak of the civil wars they were getting pretty tired. Indeed Alsop’s work is often identifiable by reuse of a small number of ornaments (perhaps the only ones still in good condition), or by particularly worn type.

In 1626 Alsop went into partnership with Thomas Fawcett, and together they published a number of literary works by the playwrights Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, the poet and playwright Thomas Dekker, and the writer Robert Greene; as well as numerous religious books. In 1641, though, their surviving output starts to change. They still published big, literary works by authors such as Ben Jonson. But they also started picking up a number of short satirical quarto pamphlets of exactly the kind sold by Thomas Bates. Like Bates, they also started to get into trouble with the authorities and were hauled before Parliament a number of time for printing scandalous texts. Their poor quality type and sloppy workmanship may have made it somewhat easier for the authorities to identify their works. They also moved into publishing newsbooks – typically one or two sheet quartos – as they were invented in 1641 and then became popular in the subsequent years.

What prompted this switch in their output is not clear. Perhaps it is symptomatic of wider changes in the tastes of the reading public, perhaps it was where the money was. But you can easily imagine Alsop being concerned to protect his profits, and fighting his own corner with booksellers: trying to recycle a woodcut commissioned by one bookseller for the book of another, while still charging as much as he could get away with. Equally, booksellers may have demanded that he use specific woodcuts. The famous picture of a preacher in a tub that inspired this series of posts may have generated good sales, and prompted rival booksellers to request it for their pamphlets as well.

So little trace of this kind of commercial back-and-forth survives that we can only guess at what negotations took place between printers like Alsop and booksellers like Bates. What does seem clear, though, is that a complicated set of personal, commercial, political, or religious transactions lay behind the use of every woodcut. Looking at the lives of Alsop and Bates gives at least a sliver of insight into what those transactions may have been.

The illustrations to this post are woodcuts by the Swiss artist Jost Amman, depicting a woodcut artist, a printer and a bookbinder respectively, and taken from his Das Ständebuch (1568).

Richard Badger

I’ve finally got round to catching up with the June edition of the Historical Journal and I’ve been particularly intrigued by an article by Peter McCullough on the printer Richard Badger [link to article – subscription or Athens access required].

Badger (1585-1641) was a printer who was entrusted with publishing an edition of Lancelot Andrewes’s XCVI sermons (1629) whilst still a journeyman. In the 1630s he was made a master printer and went on to produce a wide range of Laudian publications.

McCullough uses a close study of Badger’s professional and kinship connections with Laud and his supporters to study the extent to which his political and religious ideologies were consistent or sincere. He makes a crucial distinction between books published by printers – in other words, where the capital was put up but the printing often passed on to others, where the publisher’s name would generally be given on the imprint – and those merely printed by them – where they were doing work for other stationers.

This sensitivity to form yields a fascinating analysis of Badger’s career. McCullough argues that to use printed output as an index of religious allegiance is not on its own sufficient – this distinction between published and printed works needs to be borne in mind. An analysis of published works shows that Badger showed remarkable consistency in his Laudianism.

McCullough complements this analysis by looking at an untapped source for stationers’ allegiances – the exchequer’s composition books from the Office of First Fruits and Tenths, which show stationers standing surety for over 300 clerical appointments. He weaves this together with bibliographical analysis, looking at the printer’s imprint Badger adopted, shown above – with its grandeur and heraldic crests – to demonsrate the positive impact Badger’s association with Laud had on his business.

McCullough concludes that these sources can be used to confirm recent trends in the historigraphy of printing that have moved away from seeing printers as motivated solely by commercial interests.

As a work of historical analysis this is properly post-revisionist, crossing a number of academic disciplines and using a wide range of sources. I found it a really stimulating read and would recommend checking it out.

1. Peter McCullough, ‘Print, publication and religious politics in Caroline England’, Historical Journal (2008).

2. Lancelot Andrews, XCVI Sermons, printed by Richard Badger (London, 1641).

Reading pamphlets

I’ve spent the past few weeks immersed in seventeenth-century pamphlets and as a result, have been reading a lot of background literature on printing, print culture, bibliography and the history of the book. Below are some scattered thoughts, based on what I’ve read, about different ways of approaching an early modern pamphlet. They will probably be old hat to most of you, but some of them have been new discoveries to me and hopefully some visitors to this blog might also find them useful.

I’ve based this post around a borrowed version of the diagram of the “communications circuit” of the book in Robert Darnton’s classic article, What is the History of Books? – but adding in the crucial extra of the physical book itself. (You might need to click on the image to actually read the text!)


  • The author. This is the most obvious starting point. Who wrote your pamphlet? What else did they write? What can you construct of their life – were they a professional writer, did they write under someone else’s patronage, what political and economic connections did they have? Don’t be scared of anonymity, either. Even if their names aren’t on the front page, authors often leave clues in the text to alert you to their identity. Do the vocabulary or concepts used in the pamphlet match those used in other pamphlets? Has the author used an anagram of their name, or initials? With a bit of work it’s often not too difficult to figure out the author – a (very humble) example from my own reading is linking a pamphlet by “I.S.” to the soldier John Streater.
  • The “middle-men”: printers, publishers, shippers and booksellers. These could be one and the same, but not always. But the point remains that books aren’t just created by authors. Publisher, printers, booksellers and often shippers all have to do their job in order to get a pamphlet to the reading public. Who printed your pamphlet? What else and who else did they publish? Where was it sold? Was it imported from elsewhere? Finding out can tell you a lot about the economic, social and intellectual conditions in which a work was published. And not finding out can also be illuminating – was the pamphlet issued without a licence or printed elsewhere then smuggled in to its eventual destination? The non-textual elements of a pamphlet can be helpful in tracking down anonymous printers. Look at the colophon, any woodcut initials, and any decorative woodcuts. Are they the same as those used by pamphlets for which you know the identity of the printer? Think about the font, too – are any of the letters cracked or otherwise distinctive, and if so can you match them to another pamphlet? Consider any illustrations, too. Is the woodcut brand new, or has it been recycled or pirated from previous works? For a great example, see this post from Blogging the Renaissance.
  • Readers. Sometimes – if rarely – this will be obvious. Perhaps it’s a popular work that attracted lots of comment from other writers, or was mentioned in contemporary diaries: from this you can reconstruct at least some of the book’s intended reading public. Or perhaps it was a limited edition that was intended for a named audience. Sometimes, you are able to get a detailed insight into an individual reader. One of the most famous examples is Carlo Ginzburg’s microhistory of the miller Menocchio in The Cheese and the Worms. But mostly, it is more difficult to track down your pamphlet’s readers – some may not have been able to read at all, but still may have accessed the book. For example, they might have had it read to them; if it’s a ballad or uses verse, they might have heard it sung; or if it was pasted up on a wall, they might have looked at the pictures. So form can be one way in to establishing who the readers were. Also consider the size of the pamphlet. Was it published in a small and hence cheap size, like octavo? Or was it a bulky and expensive folio? Analysing a pamphlet’s size can tell you a lot about its intended audience. This is where looking at pamphlets via the web is not always helpful, despite its convenience – you do not always get a sense of the physical dimensions of a tract. And consider other ways in which a book was consumed – what were surviving copies bound with, and where were they kept?
  • Intellectual influences and publicity. To borrow Joad Raymond’s phrase, “pamphlets multiplied”, feeding each other and sparking new publications. Does the title indicate that it’s an animadversion against another pamphlet? Are there references in the text to other authors or works? Many pamphlets cannot begin to be understood without this contextualisation. For an example, see Christian Jouhaud’s article on lampoons in seventeenth-century France.
  • Political and legal sanctions. What censorship regime was in place when the book was published? Was the book licensed, or pirated, or smuggled to its eventual destination? And does this tell us anything about how the content might have been put together? For some contemporary views on censorship, Milton’s Areopagitica is a traditional starting point – and there is an excellent online exhibition to celebrate his quartercentenary at the Bodleian.
    • The book itself. I’ve already touched on points like size, or illustrations, or cracked type, above, but there are other aspects of books themselves that can be illuminating. Look carefully at the typeface in which the text is laid out. Are certain words capitalised, or italicised, and if so does this mean you have to read something else into them? An excellent example is Don McKenzie’s close reading of the prologue to Congreve’s The War of the World, in which he shows that modern printed editions have inadvertently mis-quoted Congreve by changing his punctation and use of capital letters, thus completely altering the intended meaning. Or find out whether there were different versions of the pamphlet. Were there later editions, and do they differ from the original? Sometimes, different versions could even be issued within the same print run. For a brilliant example, see Jason Peacey’s analysis of Henry Parker’s The Generall Junto.