Biographical and bibliographical information on the book trades
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16 January 2007

Devon Book 32

Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History; 12
A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
32: The book trade in the early period of printing

Printed books of a more modest nature than those in the Cathedral were arriving in Exeter in the first years of the sixteenth century through the activities of Exeter's first recorded bookseller, Martin Coeffin.

His name first appears in the imprint of two schoolbooks printed for him in Rouen. The earlier in date is the vocabulary known from its first three words as Os, facies, mentum (translated as "a mouthe a face a chyne") which was printed by 'Laurentij Hostingue et Iameti Loys' in about 1505. It is now represented by a unique copy in the Folger Library, bound after the title leaf of a similar vocabulary by John Stanbridge which is ascribed to the London printer Wynkyn de Worde and was probably printed somewhat later, in about 1511. The whereabouts of the second is no longer known so identification is uncertain. It is probably the Tractatulus verborum defectivorum and was printed by Richard Goupil around 1510. It was probably bound after a copy of Cato cum commento, the moral verses of the fourth century Dionysius Cato, also a popular schoolbook. These and similar school texts were widely printed in London, mainly by William Caxton's partner and successor Wynkyn de Worde and by Richard Pynson, but most editions date from a period after 1505, so Coeffin was something of a pioneer in making these works available locally.

No other imprints are recorded for Coeffin, but his London contacts may have been useful to the Hospital of St Roche in Exeter when Richard Faques of London printed a letter of confraternity granting graces to the members and benefactors of that foundation (STC 14077c.41). Nicholas Orme (1988, 220-30) has located 32 references to Coeffin in Exeter documents between 1511 and 1538 but his trade, where it is given, is always stated to be that of a bookbinder. His publishing activities, although pioneering, appear to have been short-lived. Coeffin had his premises in the parish of St Martin, close to the Cathedral, where he is listed in the Exeter military survey of 1522. He was then stated to be a native of Normandy and was assessed for a sallet, a bill and as being worth twenty marks. He had a servant, also born in Normandy, named as John Bokebender, who was assessed for 20s. On 28 April 1524 he was granted letters of denization and was then described as a 'bokebynder'. His fines as a non-freeman for permission to trade are considerably higher than normal, suggesting a measure of success. He was admitted a freeman of Exeter on payment of £2 as late as 1531/2, perhaps 25 years after he had first begun to trade in Exeter.

Despite the intellectual and religious upheaval of the time, the book trade of Exeter was slow to develop. Coeffin died some time after 1538 and it is tempting to see John Bookbinder, Coeffin's servant, as being the same as John Gropall, Exeter's second recorded bookseller, active in Exeter between 1541 and 1554. Gropall was also an alien, although his alias, Lumbard, indicates that he was born in Lombardy rather than Normandy. He was admitted as a freeman of Exeter on 5 September 1541 on payment of a fine of £3 6s 8d and granting that he will not use any other trade than bookbinding and printing of books. It may be that Gropall had access to the printing press formerly at Tavistock Abbey which had been dissolved in 1539 but there is no evidence that Gropall printed any books, nor indeed does his name appear in the imprints of any surviving publications. Gropall died between 1 December 1553 and 9 October 1554 and in his will bequeathed a dictionary to Master Barthelet, presumably the London printer Thomas Berhelet "for his travell and paynes taken" with his son John, who was probably sent to London as his apprentice. He also appointed John Walley of London, bookseller, as executor, again illustrating the close links with the London book trades in this period (Plomer 1917).

The status of both Coeffin and Gropall as aliens made them typical of the book trade in the century after the introduction of printing. The fact that printing was introduced into England by an Englishman, William Caxton, has sometimes obscured the fact that until 1535 two thirds of recorded printers and booksellers were aliens. Indeed no other native printer is definitely recorded for twenty years after Caxton's death when Robert Copeland began printing in 1514.

Printed books were reaching households in Devon in the early 16th century, or at least the households of the aristocracy. On 2 January 1528, one month after the death of Katherine Courtenay, Countess of Devon, an inventory was made of the contents of the castle at Tiverton. In the chapel were four printed mass books and the matins book of the Countess. One of these was covered with tawny velvet with silver and gilt clasps, and another with black velvet with engraved silver and gilt clasps. Other books, both manuscript and printed, included "The Apposteler", probably an epistolary, Ortus vocabularum, Catholicon by Johannes Balbus and Legenda aurea by Jacobus de Voragine as well as a law book. An analysis of two surviving account books, for 1522-3 and 1523-4 shows no evidence of expenditure on books although in the latter year ink, copperas, a form of ferrous sulphate used in making ink, and a ream of paper was purchased (Westcott 1992, 29, 32).

Meanwhile in Ottery St. Mary, where he was chaplain in 1508, the poet Andrew Barclay (c.1475-1552) felt impelled to add the following personal comment on the proliferation of books to his translation of Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff:

Say worthy doctors and clerks curious:
What moveth you of books to have such number,
Since divers doctrines through ways contrarious
Doth man's mind distract and sore encumber;
Alas, blind men awake, out of your slumber,
And if ye will needs your books multiply
With diligence endeavour you some to occupy.

Brant's poem castigating all types of folly headed by the book fool, had first appeared in Basle in 1497 and Barclay's translation, published in London by Pynson under the title Shyp of folys of the worlde and illustrated by 118 lively woodcuts copied from a German edition, made Barclay the first Devon author to appear in print. His words prompt us to consider whether the mere presence of a multitude of books or information necessarily represents a good face of learning:

Still am I busy books assembling
For to have many it is a pleasant thing,
In my conceit, and to have them aye in hand,
But what they mean I do not understand.
Lo in likewise of books I have store,
But few I read, and fewer understand;
I follow not their doctrine, nor their lore,
It is enough to bear a book in hand;
It were too much to be in such a band,
For to be bound to look within the book;
I am content on the fair covering to look.

This page last updated 8 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.