Cosmopolitanism and Foreign Books in Early Modern England

By Farmer, Alan B. | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview
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Cosmopolitanism and Foreign Books in Early Modern England


Farmer, Alan B., Shakespeare Studies


WHEN DISCUSSING COSMOPOLITANISM in early modern England, scholars have tended to stress its development within royal court culture and the trade in luxury goods. R. Malcolm Smuts, for example, has noted the "fascination for European culture" in the court of Charles I, while Linda Levy Peck has examined how "the well-off increasingly identified themselves as cosmopolitan through the appropriation of continental luxuries." (1) In her study of the effects of this fascination with Continental culture, Anna Bryson has shrewdly analyzed how the manners and social behavior of English men and women were influenced by courtesy literature and translations of foreign conduct books. (2) In this essay, I want to look at English cosmopolitanism in connection with a more diffuse, less courtly, and less luxurious set of commodities: books in Latin of Christian and humanist scholarship, and books in English of Puritan and Catholic polemic, both of which were printed abroad and imported into England. These two types of foreign books helped foster intellectual exchange but also stimulated religious discord, contradictory effects, I argue, that contributed to an emerging split in the meaning and politics of early modern cosmopolitanism.

As the English book trade grew in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, its printers and booksellers maintained close ties to Continental authors, papermakers, printers, booksellers, and merchants. English stationers relied in particular on their Continental counterparts to supply them with one specific type of book, Latin texts of Christian and humanist scholarship. These books were part of what was known as the Latin trade, and they were books that English stationers tended to avoid publishing themselves. Printers on the Continent were able to produce them more cheaply and more accurately than English printers could, and after the books were printed the Continent had a larger potential readership for them than England did. (3) This does not mean, however, that these publications were unprofitable for English booksellers; in 1616, members of the Stationers' Company established the Latin Stock in an attempt to monopolize the market for these books. Though the stock company lasted little more than a decade and was largely unsuccessful, its very existence testifies to the financial gains that could be realized from importing Latin books from abroad and selling them in English bookshops. (4)

The prevalence of books in the Latin trade can be difficult to determine since most of its titles are not included in Pollard and Redgrave's Short-Title Catalogue (STC). (5) But various lists of the holdings of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century libraries, especially those of early modern intellectuals, academics, and university students, suggest how plentiful these books could be. Over 90 percent of the 194 printed books listed in the library of Bishop Richard Cox following his death in 1581 were Continental publications, almost all in Latin. (6) Books that survive from the libraries of John Donne and Ben Jonson show a similar tilt toward Continental publications (80 percent). (7) Of course, not all readers shared this taste for Continental or Latin publications; in 1625, only about 40 to 50 percent of the books in Roger Townshend's library were Continental publications, while of the 241 books in the wide-ranging library of Frances Egerton, the Countess of Bridgewater, none was in Latin or Greek, though eighteen were in French. (8)

The division in the English book trade between foreign and domestic books was often blamed on English printers, whom authors lambasted for "carelessness," "lack of skill," and being "absolutely ignorant of the liberal arts." Edward Grant, for example, asked in exasperation, "Where amongst us is that noble printer, Robert Estienne?" not to mention his sons Henri and Charles Estienne and other learned Continental printers like Aldus Manutius, Sebastian Gryphius, Jean Crespin, Christopher Plantin, and Johann Heruagius.

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