bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

In Our Time: the outtakes

Posted in Incunabula by bonaelitterae on 18 October, 2012

So, if everyone is allowed fifteen minutes of fame, I must now be overdrawn from the fame-bank to the tune of 25 minutes. I have just walked away from Broadcasting House where Richard Gameson, Julia Boffey and myself were discussing with Melvyn Bragg ‘Caxton and the printing press‘. Of course, there are, in fact, no outtakes from BBC  Radio Four’s In Our Time, as it is broadcast live — a fact that yesterday I was facing with equanimity until a friend pointed out that it has an average audience of 1.5 million (thank you, Jonathan). But it would be unnatural not to rewind in one’s mind what was said and, more importantly, what we did not have time to say. As I think any listener would have discerned, the participants all enjoyed the conversation and could not stop discussion afterwards, so in some way this is a little insight into what happens in the interview room over tea and croissants after the programme is done.

There is so much I would have wanted to say: I talked about Caxton working with a printing press in Ghent or Bruges and made the point that Bruges is a more significant commerical city than London in these years, but I did not have chance to expand that further. It would have been useful to explain more fully how ships from the Mediterranean travelling north might stop off at Southampton or London but there final destination was usually Bruges; that this traffic made the Channel and the North Sea a thoroughfare rather than a barrier; and that books crossing from the Low Countries to serve an English market were no new thing with print, since there were manuscript Books of Hours made in Bruges speculatively for potential owners in the British Isles.

We also talked about Caxton’s rivals printing in England — Theoderic Rood in Oxford, John Lettou and later Richard Pynson in London — as well as Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton’s protege and successor in Westminster. But perhaps we did not draw out clearly enough that Caxton is unusual for being English: in most countries, the first printer was a German, and in England the print market was dominated by immigrants, into the sixteenth century. This was not an entirely new phenomenon, as I explained in my chapter in The Production of Books in England edited by Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin, but the intensity of English debt to continental expertise was increased by the intervention of print.

That continental expertise was also increased by print’s preference for paper over parchment — here was a technology that helped make print possible, and that was known across Europe, with paper being used in England. But, apart from ten years at the end of the fifteenth century, there was no paper-mill in England: in other words, the vast majority of paper used in books was imported. That includes every page printed by Caxton. Without continental materials, there would have been no printing in England in the 1470s or 1480s. Nor was this a passing phenomenon: after the closure of that first mill, there was not another until well into Elizabeth’s reign and even then the import trade remained the main supply.

And I am sure I used the ‘b’ word live air: England was a backwater. Of course, in other of my studies, I am emphasising the contrary — the engagement of England in humanist activities suggests cultural proximity within a shared civilisation, not unbridgeable distance. But, in terms of print, and partly through Caxton’s idiosyncratic choice of texts, England was certainly at the periphery, with many of its leading scholars, like Thomas More or Richard Pace (let alone visitors like Polydore Vergil), preferring to have their major works printed on the European mainland.

What a good interview I could have given! But, then, if I had said all this, the programme would have had to have been so much longer, and consequently I would be in debt to the fame-bank to such a degree I would be as likely to go bankrupt as many early printers were — excepting Caxton.

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2 Responses

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  1. Adam Mowl said, on 18 October, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Wonderful stuff. I’m going to try to track down a version of the broadcast which I can listen to here in the US. And how was the man Melvyn himself?

  2. […] of the bon mot you should have said in the drawing room. Or, in this case, the studio. On Thursday, after recording In Our Time, we were escorted down in the lift, but since then it is as if I have been on a staircase where the […]


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