Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Selling Forbidden Books: Profit and Ideology in Thomas Godfray S Printing

Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Selling Forbidden Books: Profit and Ideology in Thomas Godfray S Printing

Article excerpt

There is a long-standing narrative about the earliest English printers of the Reformation that tells us they were as happy to print evangelical as conservative material, providing their risk (legal and financial) was minimized and a good return likely. As Charles Butterworth argued in 1947, "as soon as one such [controversial] volume had been issued with impunity, the other ... printers stood ready to join in this most welcome and profitable market, offering such material as they had at " (1) Or as David Loades put it a few decades later, "the appetite of Londoners for controversial ephemera was enormous, and... most printers were men of trade first, and proselytisers second (if at all). ("2) A variation on this narrative attributed the earliest English evangelical printing to the combined effect of printers' mercantile interests and either humanists or the influence of Cromwell. In the words of James McConica, "the years immediately after Wolsey's fall from office witnessed a remarkable publication enterprise which truly deserves the name 'Erasmian.' It is sponsored by humanists committed to reform in Church and State.sup. ("3) Although this introduced an ideological motive for publication, McConica attributed it to sponsors "committed to reform" and made printers the means by which these reformers achieved their ends.

Indeed, in Andrew Pettegree's version of this tale, printers are erased entirely, becoming simply the purveyors of a medium of production, "one means by which the core messages of the reformers were brought to the reading public," and not even doing as much as that in England until the mid-1530s for fear of jeopardizing their own prosperity. (4) Conversely, when scholars do argue that "the printers who issued [controversial material] may have been motivated by a reforming religious agenda," they give little attention to how these printers went about pursuing this agenda in a commercially viable manner, from finding texts to negotiating censorship to enticing readers. (5)

What all these narratives have in common is that they take for granted the hunger of the laity for evangelical material, which writers such as William Tyndale repeatedly emphasized in their prefaces and envoys. As William Roy put it, "lett the vngodly roare and barcke never so lowde...the fyre which Christ cam to kyndle on erth / can nott butt burne." (6) Such claims of burning demand seem truthful to the modern reader because we know that over a single decade Tyndale's New Testament alone went through fifteen editions, and increasing numbers of evangelical texts were printed in English, first abroad and then within England itself. But in taking these rhetorical claims at face value, there is a tendency to see this growth in printing and reading as merely reflective of a preexistent market just waiting to be exploited and to make the printers into curiously naive figures, functioning either as mere market agents responding mechanically to demand or as mouthpieces of God with no care for their bottom line. This is the trap that Michael Saenger suggests modern critics fall into too easily: "because paratexts are (often implicitly) read in non-literary terms," their assertions "are often read as transparent reflections of... truth," but "marketability not honesty, is the constant" in front matter. (7) Statements like Roys expressed hope and belief in the laity's desire for reformation, but they were also meant to encourage new readers by presenting the tracts as desirable.

An approach that sees printers of evangelical material in English as merely responding to burning demand gives too much sway to Thomas Mores claim that evangelical books were "for no lucre, caste...abrode by nyght" in order to spread the word. (8) Some texts were certainly given away, such as Simon Fish's pamphlet Supplication of Beggars, which Fox claimed was "throwen and scattered at the procession in Westminster vpon Candelmas day" in February 1529. …

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