Astringent Ms Davis and prospering Mein herr de Worde

Malcolm has followed Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco these twenty years. This is a time-span Malcolm finds slightly frightening.

She has been loyal to her creation, taking him, Helena and their growing family, not forgetting Nux the dog, across the length and breadth of the first-century Roman Empire. She deviated only to do a “biography” of Caenis, the hapax legomenon who was the Emperor Vespasian’s companion and mistress.

And then came Rebels and Traitors, which (as Malcolm almost explained in yesterday’s post) is the Old Boy’s current reading. Late last evening, having reached page 155, Malcolm came on this typical piece of Davisonian wisdom:

During his apprenticeship, Gideon had absorbed the history of printing in London. He knew how William Caxton had first set up in the precincts of Westminster Abbey, producing legal and medical texts,, then Caxton’s successor, Wynkyn de Worde, moved to Fleet Street, to be close to his lawyer customers. From early days the principle applied that authors should not attempt to make a living from writing; their role was merely to keep printers and booksellers in business.

The emphasis is there in the original.

Ms Davis never fails to provide us with wise saws and modern instances. Malcolm raised a wry eye when she smuggled Falco 12, Ode to a Banker, past her long-suffering editor: it puts a delicate bootee into the world of “Roman” banking and publishing.

Wynkyn de Worde? A literary joke, yes?

So Malcolm, too, half-imagined when (many decades since) he encountered the name.

This was, though, a real guy, about whom we know quite a bit, thanks to legal and ecclesiastical records. He and his wife Elizabeth were renting a tenement from Westminster Abbey in 1476. In reprinting a Caxton edition, he notices it originated in Cologne in 1471: this knowledge might explain how he came to be associated with Caxton, and return with him, via Bruges, to London around 1475-6.

Wynkyn’s  “surname” obviously indicates his place of origin. When he is “naturalised” in 1496, he is described as “originating in the duchy of Lorraine”: that implies (with a bit of historical and geographical haziness allowed) he may have been born in Woerth-sur-Sauer or Wörth am Rhein.

After Caxton’s death in 1492 he had taken over the business. He and Elizabeth are on the parish roll of St Margaret’s, Westminster, until her death in 1498. The rent on his shop next door to the Abbey continues until the winter of 1499-1500. Then, as Lindsey Davis says, he establishes himself in Fleet Street, at the sign of the Sun, in St Bride’s parish. By 1509 he has a second shop at St Paul’s Churchyard. Later still, he builds a distribution network by linking up with other book-sellers in York, Oxford, Bristol, the Low Countries and France.

When he died, sometime in 1534-5, he was a person of wealth and importance, requiring that he be buried before the altar of St Bride’s.

Wynkyn has a different, and more ambitious business plan than Caxton. His publications invariably are illustrated with woodcuts. He branches into sermons and books of “self-improvement”, poetry and romances. He boasts the patronage of Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother, whose accounts show she was a regular customer. This might suggest he was cultivating the more-serious equivalent of the “chick-lit” market. It also says something about the extent of literacy among the wives of London guildsmen and their betters. This clearly worried the authorities: in October 1524 he was among the London printers given a severe bollocking by the Bishop of London over heretical texts. The following year Wynkyn was obliged to pulp John Gough’s translation of The Image of Love; but not before the nuns of Syon and the two Universities had received copies.


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Filed under Lindsey Davis, Literature, London, reading

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