A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
31: The earliest printing in Devon
It is the linked factors of the church and education which were instrumental in the first appearance of the printed book in Exeter.
In the 1509 inventory of all the treasures and goods of the cathedral, now missing but transcribed in the 19th century (Oliver 322-375) only seven of the 625 volumes in the Cathedral's possession are listed as being printed. Over sixty years after the invention of printing and with some 30,000 editions of printed works in circulation this may seem a paltry total, but it is unlikely that the compiler of the inventory omitted many printed items, indeed the very fact that he indicates that they were "arte impressorie" implies that they were something of a novelty. Five of the volumes belong to one set, the commentary of Abbas (Nicholas Panormitanus de Tudeschis) on the Decretals, a massive compilation on canon law which had first appeared in print in Venice as early as the 1470s. They formed part of a small group of 38 volumes out of the total of 374 housed in the Cathedral Library which were unchained, perhaps because they were less highly regarded than the manuscript volumes or perhaps because they were recent additions. The two other printed volumes formed part of the 250 volumes found elsewhere in the Cathedral, mainly because they were the working tools of the Cathedral - the service books. Both were missals, one at the altar of the Holy Cross being printed on paper. The other, in the chapel of St Edmund, was printed on vellum and was the gift of Johannes Major who also gave a manual for use in the chapel.
For a short while Devon was in the unusual situation for the English provinces in the early sixteenth century of having its own printing press. Printing was not widespread in England compared with most European countries and almost all the presses were active in London and Westminster. Even in Oxford and Cambridge presses had been short-lived. So when a press was set up in the precinct of Tavistock Abbey it is perhaps not surprising that it too does not appear to have been very active, indeed only two titles are recorded as being printed there. The first in 1525 was The boke of comfort called in laten Boecius de consolatione philosophie. The imprint of this book reads "Enprinted in the exempt monastery of Tauestok in Denshyre. By me Dan Thomas Rychard monke of the sayd Monastery." The Abbey had been founded in about 974 by Ordulf and granted a charter by Ethelred the Unready in 981. Its privileges had been augmented by later kings. By a bull of Pope Celestinus dated 11 May 1193 it had been exepted from all episcopal and archiepiscopal visitations. After a controversy with Bishop Oldham lasting some years this privilege had been confirmed by Henry VIII on 18 May 1519 and only accepted by Bishop Veysey on 20 April 1525, hence the insistence on the word "exempt" in the imprint. (Radford 1928, 62).
The Abbey had a long tradition of owning and caring for precious manuscripts. Apart from their cartulary, they possessed a life of St Rumon who was buried at Tavistock, and Leland (1715 v.3, p. 152-3) also reports seeing the writings of the learned reforming bishop of Lincoln Robert Grossteste (c1175-1253) and the Dominican Robert Kilwardby (d. 1279), as well as a medical work by Constantinus Africanus and John of Cornwall's addess to Pope Alexander III. In Trinity College Cambridge a volume of Saxon homilies survives which was presented by Bishop Parker, who had received it from Francis Russell, the only son of the Earl of Bedford. The care bestowed on their manuscripts is shown by a 1399 record of twenty pence being paid for "4½ cress of linen bought in which to wrap the books while carrying them into the country because of the enemy". (Radford 1928, 62).
Thomas Richard, who extended this Benedictine devotion to books to the establishment of a printing press, had been ordained subdeacon at Exeter in 1502 when he was already described as a monk at Tavistock Abbey. In 1507 he was admitted as a student at Gloucester Hall in Oxford, where Tavistock Abbey had special privileges. In 1510 he was appointed as representative of the Abbot of Tavistock at a chapter of the Benedictine Order to be held at Coventry. He obtained his degree of BD in 1515. It is possible that while in Oxford Thomas was in contact with John Scolar who was printing there briefly in 1517 and 1518, later reappearing in the Abbey at Abingdon in 1528. A visit to Tavistock in the interim is not out of the question. Whatever the source of his technical expertise, a more definite stimulus came from his friend Robert Langdon (1483-1548) of Keverell in St Martin-by-Looe, Cornwall who suggested the translation of Boethius into rhyming quatrains with annotations made in 1410 by John Walton, canon of Osney for Elizabeth Berkeley and not previously printed. Caxton had printed the translation made by Geoffrey Chaucer. Seven copies survive of the 272 page quarto, which was printed in two black letter fonts, both of which lacked the letter "w" and thus were probably of French origin, with a wooduct of God seated, holding an orb and cross and surrounded by the emblems of the four evangelists. There is al ill-assorted collection of French-style border pieces, one of which is used upside down. The woodcut of the arms of Robert Langdon below the colophon would have to be specially made and probably indicates some financial involvement by Robert Langdon. (Finberg 1951, 290-2).
No further printing survives until 1534 although a Latin grammar called the Long accidence, by John Stanbridge, was recorded by Joseph Sanford in the 18th century (Finbery 1951, 292). In 1528 Thomas Richard had left Tavistock to become prior of Totnes and the printing equipment, which remained behind, may have been taken over by William Williams, a monk who was present at the Abbey on its surrender in 1539. In the pension list that year he is misnamed John. The choice as a text for publication of The confirmation of the charter perteynings to all the tinners wythyn the cou[n]tey of Deuonshyre wyth there statutes also made at Crockeyntorre, the statutes which were drawn up in 1509, reflects the Abbey's long interest in tin mining and the Dartmoor region where its estates were situated. Tavistock had been a stannary town, where ingots of tin were tested, since the early 14th century and among its most important documents was the original charter of 1203 granted by King John for the disafforesting of Dartmoor. In 1320 the bishop of Exeter Walter de Stapledon had considered it so significant that he arranged for it to be sent to London to be copied into his register (Radford 1928, 61). The type employed in the 52 page quarto is the larger of the two faces used for the Boethius. There is a woodcut of the royal arms on the title-page and a woodcut of the martyrdom of St Andrew faces the colophon with the woodcut of God surrounded by ther symbols of the evangelists on the verso. There is the same cheerful disregard for the correct orientation of the border pieces. The only survivng copy of ths publication is in the library of Exeter College, Oxford and the edition may have had a more restricted circulation than the Boethius. The imprint states merely "Imprented yn Tavystoke" without any printer's name but is very specific about the day printing was completed, 20 August. (Finberg 1951, 292; Radford 1928, 69-71.
There is a mystery over the fate of the press. On 6 May 1567 the Rev John Williams rector of St. Edmund in Exeter drew up his will. In it he says "I give to Mr Gregory Doodes my litle clock wh I had of Sir Wm Hearne decd parson of St. Petrocks and all such stuff as tooles concerning my printing with the matrice with the rest of the tooles concerning my press, I now give unto my cosen John Williams." An explanation of how Williams had come into possession of a printing press is probably that he was related to William Williams, the monk at Tavistock Abbey. It has not been ascertained what Williams or his cousin may have done with the press and other equipment, although under the terms of the Stationers' Company charter of 1559 he was not entitled to use it outside London. (Radford 1928, 70-2, Finberg 1951, 292).
So far as is known there was no further printing in Devon until the King's printer arrived briefly in Exeter during the Civil War. It is enlightening to compare this situation, which is typical of all of provincial England outside Oxford and Cambridge with two French towns with which Exeter has recent twinning links, Caen in Normandy and Rennes in Britanny. In Caen between 1550 and 1599 a total of some 260 titles were printed by 21 different individuals or partnerships, an output dominated by the Wars of Religion. Numerically legal titles predominate with some eighty items. Apart from the substantial Norman custumals there are about sixty decrees, edicts or proclamations, either from the King or from the Norman Parlement which was frequently in session at Caen. There are also some 40 titles on recent history or current political events, including newsbooks, especially from the period around 1590 when Henri IV was reconquering his kingdom. The approximately 60 religious titles represent both factions with works by Calvin and translations of Luther balanced by Le tombeau des hérétiques ... où le faux masque des Huguenots est descouvert by M. de Caumont (Benedic Macé, 1597). There are bout 20 works of French literature including two dramas. There are three items with music types, and other unusual fonts include civilité, noted in Les proverbes de Salomon (Benedic Macé, 1587). Unlike Exeter, Caen was a university town but its presence does not seem to play a major role in the output of the Caen printers with about two dozen works of Latin grammar, some of them at an elementary level, and a dozen or so items of rhetoric, philosophy or logic. Only two medical works are recorded, one a treatise on the plague and the other on dysentery. As can be expected in an age of conflict Caen also has its share of fictitious imprints. (Aquilon & Girard). Rennes even had its own typefounder and a series of custumals issued from presses there as well as edicts by the Parlement and missals. Many of these publications were typographically very accomplished with Renaissance woodcut ornaments.
The contrast with such publishing activity in the French provinces and its lack across the Channel is very telling and the account of the world of the book in Devon during this century must be read against this background. The bottom of the barrel is being assiduously scraped and it is almost a story concoted out of thin air.
This page last updated 8 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.