Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: woodcuts

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).

Recycled woodcuts, part 2

A while ago I posted about a woodcut of a nonconformist preacher, which was reused for five different pamphlets in 1641. There I wondered whether the recycling of the woodcut could be explained by two printers, Bernard Alsop and Thomas Fawcett, trying to recoup the investment they had put into commissioning the woodcut.

There are many examples of woodcuts being recycled in this way during the 1640s and 1650s. Here for example is the frontispiece to The Wrens nest defil’d (London, 1640):

Here is a slightly different version from Articles ministred by His Majesties Commissioners (London, 1641):

This is a good example of a woodcut which was designed to be used more than once. The speech bubbles could be filled with type and modified to suit the content of each pamphlet for which the woodcut was used. In the first version, the ecclesiastical figure on the left is Bishop Wren. In the second, the figure up the ladder is John Gwin, vicar of Cople in Bedford. The bird-like noise he is making, punning on his name, is an extension of the many bird-related jokes against Wren and Finch that appear in print in the early 1640s.

Here is one of Alsop and Fawcett’s woodcuts, from A new play called Canterburie his change of diot (London, November 1641):

Shortly after being used in this way the woodcut also appeared, despite bearing little resemblance to the pamphlet’s subject matter, in A Prophecy concerning the earle of Essex (London, December 1641):

It then appeared again in The Welsh-mans propositions to the Arch-Bishop of Yorke (London, 3 August 1646):

Again it had very little to do with the pamphlet’s contents. Recycling in this way perhaps suggest that illustrations helped to sell pamphlets. In a saturated marketplace, they may have helped to catch the customer’s eye while hanging up in the book stall, and would have stood out compared to titles with densely packed text on their front page.

What is interesting about this woodcut is that it remained unused, so far as we can tell, for five years before being dug out and put to use again. It suggests that printers were happy to store woodcuts for long periods of time, in case they could be used again. Five years was by no means the shortest time a woodcut stayed on a shelf before being taken down and covered with ink once more. Below is a woodcut from the title page of A Nest of serpents discovered (London, September 1641):

Nine years later the same woodcut, slightly modified, appeared on the front of The ranters religion (London, 11 December 1650). Adamites had become Ranters:

But this was not the only time this image was reused. It also appeared on the front of A sermon preached the last fast day in Leaden-Hall Street (London, 4 March 1643):

And it appeared as well on the front of Love one another (London, 25 December 1642):

The continuity between imagined sectarian others, over nearly a decade, is not the only interesting thing about this woodcut. Another intriguing aspect is the fact that, at first sight, it does not seem to have stayed with the same printer. On the second page of A Nest of serpents is a woodcut initial of the letter T.  A similar T also appears in A sermon preached. A very similar T appears in The apprentices warning-piece (London, October 1641), whose title page declared it to be printed and sold by Henry Walker:

Meanwhile The ranters religion had a different letter T. This is the same woodcut initial used in A discovery of the notorious proceedings of William Laud (London, 15 October 1641) – also printed and sold by Henry Walker.

A Nest of serpents could, possibly, be a Walker product. The subject matter is not really something one would associate with him, but he was running an illicit press during the second half of 1641 so could have printed it for someone else purely to make money. However, A sermon preached seems unlikely given that its author was Walker’s enemy John Taylor. And The ranters religion is almost certainly not his. By 1650 Walker had made the shift into newsbook writing and was involved with editing various titles, principally Severall Proceedings.

So what is going on here? I can think of two possibilities. One is that Walker sold his stock, and by 1650 bits of his equipment were being used elsewhere. But I think it’s more likely that Walker didn’t properly “own” a press in 1641 at all, and was borrowing or buying use of one but claiming on his frontispieces that it was his.

Instead, I suspect the woodcuts all belonged to Bernard Alsop. The ranters religion was the first of many anti-Ranter pamphlets that appeared over a short period in 1650 and 1651. Alsop was responsible for many of them, which followed a similar pattern of an eight-page quarto illustrated on the front with a vivid woodcut. Here for example is the woodcut from Alsop’s The routing of the ranters (London, 19 November 1650):

Here is his woodcut from The Ranters Ranting (London, 2 December 1650). This was subsequently cut into four pieces and used to illustrate the pages of Strange Newes from Newgate (London, 21 January 1651):

Here is his The arraignment and tryall with a declaration of the Ranters (London, 17 December 1650), incidentally reusing an eight-year old woodcut from Three speeches, being such speeches as the like were never spoken in the city (London, 9 October 1642):

Given this flurry of similar anti-Ranter publications, it seems plausible that The ranters religion, with its recycled woodcut of Adamites, was also an Alsop production. As you can see, Alsop had a track record not just in making creative re-use of woodcuts, but in storing them up “just in case”. In 1641 he was, together with his partner Thomas Fawcett, one of the printers Henry Walker made extensive use of. I have traced 24 pamphlets that were definitely or probably written by Walker during 1641.By matching printers’ ornaments and type with title pages that do record names of printers, and with House of Lords archives on the prosecution of various authors and printers during 1641, I have worked out that Alsop and Fawcett were involved with at least seven of them. Walker himself claimed on title pages to have printed five more. If these were actually Alsop and Fawcett productions as well, passed off for whatever reason by Walker as his own, then it gives us an interesting insight into how Walker may have been publishing pamphlets during the early 1640s.

There are also examples of printers apparently sharing woodcuts. Here is the title woodcut from The ranters declaration (London, 17 December 1650):

This was printed by “J. C.”, probably Jane Coe. She had taken over her husband Andrew’s business after his death in 1644.

The same block gets reused six months later in The Declaration  of John Robins (London, 2 June 1651):

And yet this was printed by Robert Wood rather than Jane Coe. It then turns up with a third printer, George Horton in The Quakers dream: or the Devil’s pilgrimage in England (London, 1655):

Horton is one of the printers involved in another circulating woodcut that originated with Coe. In 1646 Coe printed A Declaration of a strange and Wonderfull Monster: Born in Kirkham Parish in Lancashire (London, 1646), with a rather wonderful woodcut:

This then turns up six years later in 1652, retooled as an anti-Ranter woodcut in George Horton’s The ranters monster (London, 30 March 1652). As you can see the quality of the block has deteriorated somewhat in the interim:

The circulation of woodcuts in this way hints at a complicated set of relationships between printers in this period. They were commercial rivals, yet they also operated within a very small world and must surely have known one another. Maybe wood blocks were lent as a favour; maybe they were rented out for a fee; maybe they were sold.

Recycled woodcuts

A recent post at Mistris Parliament, with its woodcut of the leatherseller Praisegod Barebone preaching from a tub, reminded me about the provenance of that particular image. Below is the woodcut of Barebone, which is taken from the frontispiece of John Taylor’s New Preachers, New (London, 19 December 1641). The poor quality of the paper has meant text from the other side of the page has bled through:

But this woodcut actually appeared on the front of at least four pamphlets. The first appearance was in June 1641 on the front cover of another of John Taylor’s works, A Swarme of Sectaries (London, June 1641). It seems to have been designed specifically to match the content, which was a description of London’s various “mechanic preachers” – in other words, Independent preachers without a benefice.

The sign to the right shows that the preaching is taking place in the Nag’s Head in Coleman Street, supposedly a notorious gathering place for independent congregations. “Sam How” is Samuel Howe, a cobbler who had actually been dead for almost a year by the summer of 1641, but whose notoriety was clearly still news-worthy.

The woodcut was then reused in October on the front of The sermon and prophecie of Mr. James Hunt (London, 9 October 1641). This time the sign was cropped, and the top of the block was chiselled away to allow type to spell out the name of yet another preacher, a farmer from Kent:

The woodcut then made a third appearance in December on the back page of John Taylor’s Lucifers Lacky (London, 4 December 1641), almost as an afterthought. By this point, the quality of the woodblock was getting significantly worse. Nor was the illustration as well matched to the pamphlet’s content.

After being used for New Preachers, New on 19 December, it then appeared a fifth time on the front of A tale in a tub, or, A tub lecture as it was delivered by Mi-Heele Mendsoale (London, 21 December 1641), a mock sermon also by John Taylor:

We know very little about who made woodcuts like these, or exactly how they fitted into the communication circuit in which cheap pamphlets existed. Were woodcut makers independent craftsmen who offered their services to printers? Or were they based in print houses directly? Was it even a specialised trade, or was it carried out as part of a wider range of woodworking or printing skills? How many people were involved in cutting woodcuts? Who chose and designed the illustration – the author, the printer, or the bookseller? So little evidence about the skill survives for the seventeenth century that it is hard to tell.

However, there are things that can be deduced about the trade from woodcuts like the one above. The first half of the seventeenth century appears to have seen an increasing use of illustrations for cheap print, increasingly matched to the content. From the mid-1610s, pamphlets about murder, natural disasters and other strange news often had one-off illustrations cut to match. This implies that readers were starting to demand illustrations: pamphlets with woodcuts may have sold better, or been hung up outside the shop to tempt in passing trade. It also implies that authors, printers and booksellers could afford to commission new woodcuts for one-off works. The biggest cost of any book was normally the paper it was printed on, so compared to that the cost of a woodcut for a short quarto pamphlet with a print-run of perhaps 200-1,000 copies must have been outweighed by the benefits.

So why does this woodcut crop up so many times in 1641? Well, partly because anti-separatist literature sold well. But why not commission new woodcuts for each pamphlet? A clue might lie in the authors, printers and booksellers of all four pamphlets:

  • New Preachers, New. Written by John Taylor, for an anonymous bookseller and printer.
  • Swarme of Sectaries. Written by John Taylor, again for an anonymous bookseller and printer. However the imprint declares it was “printed luckily, and may be read unhappily, betwixt hawke and buzzard”. This is very similar to the fictitious imprint of The Downefall of Temporizing Poets (London, 1641), which declared that it was “printed merrily, and may be read unhappily, betwixt hawke and buzzard”.
  • The sermon and prophecie of Mr. James Hunt. Purports to be by Hunt, but is probably a satire – perhaps even by Taylor, who had something of a specialisation in anti-separatist works. Printed for the bookseller Thomas Bates, a shady operator specialising in cheap and often scandalous pamphlets. He was based at the Old Bailey outside the City limits, and was often in trouble with Parliament for seditious printing.
  • A tale in a tub. Written by John Taylor. Printed, according to the imprint, “in the yeare when Brownist did domineare”. What is interesting about this use of the woodcut is that it was not the first edition of the pamphlet. The first version was printed in 1641, without any illustration. This suggests it was a good seller that was repackaged along with the woodcut to drum up additional sales.
  • Lucifers lacky. Written by John Taylor, printed for John Greensmith. Like Bates, in 1641 he got into trouble with the Commons for printing scandalous pamphlets.

Both Bates and Greensmith often sold pamphlets printed by Bernard Alsop and Thomas Fawcett, two printers who also operated on the fringes of the law. They too were hauled before Parliament on a number of occasions in 1641 for illicit printing. Works with their imprint are distinguished by their worn type and hasty typesetting. A detailed analysis of the ornaments and typefaces, comparing them to works known to be printed by Alsop and Fawcett, might reveal more about whether these five works were printed by them. For example, Lucifers Lacky uses an ornament identical to that used in a work called The Vertue of Sack, printed by Alsop:

If they were printed by Alsop and Fawcett, it may indicate that they were trading in tough circumstances. Despite the explosion of print in 1641, operating in illegal or semi-legal ways may have meant more financial risks. Short 8-page quarto pamphlets could be printed relatively quickly to make a quick sale. If they didn’t sell, the losses were relatively minimal. So the recycling of woodcuts may indicate that Alsop and Fawcett were trying to preserve their bottom line: either by speeding up the process of printing (saving the time that would have been spent commissioning special illustrations), or minimising the cost of production by reusing a woodblock hanging round the print house. Or perhaps it indicates that books needed in 1641 needed illustrations to stand out from the huge numbers of competitors: perhaps any old woodcut would do, so long as it caught the eye.

If they are by different printers, it has a rather different impliation. It would mean that printers were sharing woodblocks, which would point to a degree of cooperation amidst financial competition. And equally if John Taylor wrote all five, it is possible perhaps that it was he who commissioned the woodblock, and requested that his booksellers use it for particular pamphlets. But I have a suspicion the answer may well lie with Alsop and Fawcett.

The 1683-4 frost fair

I was supposed to be searching for early modern satirical prints on the British Museum “flat art” database, but looking at the freezing Cornish landscape outside my window I got distracted and ended up searching for winter scenes. I found some wonderful images of the frost fair that took place from December 1683 to February 1684 when the Thames froze solid near London Bridge.

For more on images of the fair see Joseph Monteyne, The Printed Image in Early Modern London (Ashgate, 2007).


Wonders on the Deep; Or, The most Exact Description of the Frozen River of Thames (1683-4), AN288334001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.


God’s Works is the Worlds Wonder (1684), AN250639001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.


Great Britains Wonder: or, Londons Admiration (1684), AN501914001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.


An Exact and Lively Mapp or Representation of Booths and all the varieties of showes and humours upon the Ice on the River of Thames by London … Anno Dm. MDCLXXXIII (1684), AN163816001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Cheap print

cheap-print.jpgI’ve been posting far less than I would like recently, due to being completely overwhelmed at work at the moment. If I never have to write another strategy, delivery plan or risk register for the rest of my life, it will be too soon… But I am scraping together the time to fit in MA work and one of the books I’ve most enjoyed in the last week or two has been Tessa Watt’s Cheap Print and Popular Piety.

I am ashamed to say that I never read this as an undergraduate, despite spending an entire term doing early modern social history. But I’ve enjoyed catching up. I particularly liked the way in which she reconstructed the networks of middle-men and middle-women involved in the ballad, broadside and woodcut trade. I was also very taken with how she mapped networks of London publishers through connections of marriage, apprenticeship and business partnership. You can see the resultant map here.

My paper for the end of this term’s work will be trying to reconstruct a seventeenth-century pamphlet battle, and Watt has given me plenty of ideas of how to look at the printers and publishers involved. I will try to post more about my research as it progresses.

Anyway a short post for now, normal service and posting frequency will hopefully be resumed at the end of this week!