Chantry Priest of Barnet - Alfred J. Church

Of Thomas Caxton and Others

The First day of September, 1477.

I have this day returned from London, where I have seen a sight so notable that I am constrained to make some mention of it. There is a most worthy and learned gentleman of this country, John Goodere, of the parish of Hadley, who is a great lover of books, a quality not common in these parts, or indeed in any other of which I have knowledge. This Master Goodere cometh to me some ten days since or thereabouts and biddeth me to dinner on the morrow. Saith he, "An thou wilt come, thou shalt not only see a certain friend of thine, but also hear of a most wonderful invention." So on the morrow I go, and so soon as I come into Master Goodere's parlour, I find besides mine host and Mistress Alice, his wife, and his son John, a lad of some sixteen years, to whom in time past I taught the rudiments, one of the brotherhood of St. Albans, John Herford by name, who came into the house near about the time of my own entering, and with whom I had had no small friendship. He was in his degree a lover of learning and books, and but a short while before my departing from the house had been appointed to be schoolmaster. After dinner, of which it will suffice to write that it was a well-furnished entertainment, saith Master Goodere, "Thou hast sojourned, methinks, Sir Thomas, in this neighbourhood for a matter of six years or thereabouts?"

"'Tis even so," I answered. "I came hither—that is to say, to Barnet town—on the eve of St. Peter in the year of the battle; nor have I travelled abroad for so much as a day."

"Then," said he, "I propose that thou shalt have thy will, if will it be, to-morrow, coming with me and Sir John Herford here to London, where thou shalt see such a sight as thou hast never looked upon in thy life. What it is, I will not tell thee; but thou hast the word of a gentleman that it will be worth thy pains, ay, even were they ten times so great as they shall be. And if thou confess not as much when thou hast seen, then will I forfeit one hundred pounds, or what would be more to thy liking than money, all the books that I have."

"But who," say I, "shall sing my mass—for I take it that we shall scarce go and return in one day? "

"That," said Brother John, "is a matter of which we have been not unmindful. For know that this is no new plot which we have laid against thee. See this letter from my lord Abbot of Westminster, in which he giveth licence for Sir Thomas Aylmer to say mass in one of his chapels at Westminster for as many days as it shall please him so to do."

Then said Master Goodere, "Thou shalt dine with me to-morrow, Sir Thomas, if thou wilt; and, as we have a journey to make, the dinner shall not be later than half-past eleven in the forenoon. So will we set forth at one of the clock or there about, and be in London before sunset."

To this I agreed, and after had much talk with my host, and also with Brother Herford, about matters in the Abbey, where since my departing many things have been changed, the late Prior, Walling of Wallingford, having been chosen to be Abbot, and Thomas Nayland, that was before master of the kitchen, to be Prior, On the morrow we journeyed to London without mishap on our way, and lay that night at the house of William Pratt, in the parish of St. Margaret, Westminster, a citizen and mercer, and, as I should judge from the plenishing of his house, a man of much substance. On the morrow I said mass in the chapel of St. Edmund, where, indeed, Sir Humphrey Bourchier lies buried. And about nine of the clock in the forenoon Master Pratt leadeth us to a tenement in the Almonry, which standeth on the outside of the Abbey. This tenement was a building of wood, some sixty feet, as I should judge, in length and about half as much in breadth. 'Twas divided into three chambers, into the greatest of which we entered at our coming. And that I may declare at once what we saw therein, 'twas the art and mystery of Printing. There were some six men in the chamber, standing at their work without their doublets, like to those that have some great toil, as of reaping or the like, upon their hands. Of these every one had his several place as near as might be to the windows for the better advantage of the light, which indeed was somewhat scanty, and doth oft times fail altogether by reason of the mists from the river and the smoke of many fires from the town. And before each was a great box, and in it many parts, and in each part a multitude of pieces of lead, or of some other substance (but of what it was I took no special note). Handling one of these pieces I perceived that it was of an inch's length or thereabouts, and that at the end thereof was the similitude of a letter, or, may be, of two letters. These the man would take one by one, as he had need of them, from the parts of the box wherein they severally lay, and would set them side by side in a line, from the left hand to the right. And when he had ended one line he set another below it, and yet another, some twenty or thirty altogether, till he had made, as it were, a page. And all these were made fast so that they could not shift from their place.

This being done the page was set in a box, and the man took in his hand what they called in the place a ball ('twas of wood with leather upon it, and under the leather wool). This ball he dipped in a pan of ink that stood by, and inked the page therewith, all over, as evenly as he might. This being done he took in his hand a portion of paper, larger by somewhat than the page, so that there might be a space remaining above and below and on either side. This paper he made fast to a board, and the board he pressed upon the page, lightly indeed, yet so that there was not any place which it did not touch. And when he had taken the paper away it had the writing, or, I should rather say, the printing of the letters, upon it, plain to see. Then he laid upon the page another and yet another portion of paper. And if he saw that the letters grew faint, he would add more ink with the ball. And this he did till he had made as many copies as he would; and indeed I was told that of the book which was then in hand they were minded to make a thousand copies.

early printing press


That this printing was as shapely and fair to see as the writing of a ready scribe I say not. Nay, there were many blemishes in it, for certain of the letters were faint where the ink was somewhat scanty, and others were over-dark where it had too much abounded; and I noted two or three places where the man had set one letter wrongly in the place of another. But that it was fairer to behold, and such as a man might more easily read, than the writing which is commonly to be seen, I doubt not. Nor is it to be doubted that such faults as it hath will be mended by the ingenuity of them that practice the craft, even as the art of writing hath now come to such perfection as it never had before. But the marvel of it is, that in the space of a day a man may make with these 'types'—for so they call the letters wherewith the printing is done—more than another may accomplish with his pen in his whole life.

After this I passed into the smaller chamber, where sat two men binding the sheets together. But this part of the work I knew already, for it differed not from the binding of books that are written, save only that it was done with less care and regard for show. Nevertheless, I did not conceive within my own mind how great a change this said art of printing shall work till I saw how great a heap of paper there was before each of the binders.

When we were entered again into the greater chamber there stood there, talking with one of them that set the types in order, a man of fair presence, having, as I should judge, five and fifty years of age or thereabouts. Then saith Master Pratt, "'Tis the master himself," and he led us to him. The other of the company were already known to him; and when he had greeted these, saith Master Pratt to me, "This is Master Caxton, sometime citizen and mercer of London, and now printer of Westminster." And to Master Caxton, "This is Sir Thomas Aylmer, now chantry priest of Barnet, sometime monk of St. Alban's Abbey, and a notable scribe, as I have understood. So now I have brought the new and the old together."

Master Caxton stretched forth his hand to me and saith, "Doubt not that we shall agree together as the Old Testament and the New agree together, if I may compare small things to great. But now—for these things, I take it, are new to thee, but these thy friends have seen them before—I will show thee this place and the mysteries of my craft."

Then he showed me all the work, making clear to me sundry things that I had not understood before; and when I had seen everything he took me into his own house, and gave me a book, and "This," he said, "is the first book that ever was printed in this realm of England; but in Flanders and elsewhere books have been printed for some years past."

(This book beareth the title, "Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers," and is done into English from the French by my lord Rivers, brother to the Queen. In his Prologue my lord saith, that being on a journey to the shrine of St. James of Campostella he fell in with a very valiant knight of Saxony, Sir Lewis de Bretaylles, who showed him this book writ in French, and that being much edified therewith, he hath rendered it into English. To this Master Caxton hath added a Prologue writ by his own pen, "Touching Women.")

Then Master Caxton set forth to me how he had come to learn this art of printing. "When I ceased," said he, "to be governor of the English merchants at Bruges—about which occupation, as it hath nought to do with this present subject, I will not speak—I took service with my lady Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, that is sister to the King. This I did because I was wearied and worn with the cares of trade, and desired to have more leisure for letters and books, things that I have loved from my youth up. But lest I should fall into sloth and idleness, to which some men give themselves over under cover of book learning, I set myself to render certain works from other tongues into English, my good lady the Duchess approving and encouraging me therein. Among them was 'The Relation of the Histories of Troy,' rendered into French from the Latin by Raoul le Fevre, that was chaplain to Philip de Good, sometime Duke of Burgundy. This I did into English, and when I had presented it to my lady the Duchess, and many that I knew in the city desired to have it for themselves, I learned from a certain Master Collard, that is a printer at Bruges, this art and craft, for I found that it was an intolerable weariness to make as many copies as were desired. Verily it was a marvellous thing to me, as I doubt not it hath been to thee, to see so many copies finished in the space of one day. And after, I having a great desire to return to my own country, and having good hopes of favour from my lord the King, and believing also that I had in this same printing as honest a trade and as profitable withal, as a man can follow, I left service with my lady the Duchess, and having purchased the necessary implements of the craft, came with them to this place, where I have hired of the Abbey of Westminster. And this book, which I do desire thee to keep for a remembrance of me, is the first that hath ever been printed in this kingdom of England. It may ill compare with the masterpieces of thy handicraft—and indeed it were passing strange if this art which hath lived but twenty years at the most should match with that which hath been now growing for so many generations—yet it hath in it, I do believe, such a promise as I can neither express with my tongue nor conceive in my heart. Verily, Sir Priest, I do almost tremble to think what this same art of printing shall grow to in times to come. Then shall knowledge be no more the inheritance of a few, but the possession of the many, so that there shall be in the poor man's cottage more books than be now found in the noble's hall. And when these things are so what shall not happen? Thinkest thou that men will be content to take from others that which they can find out for themselves? Many things will be changed, I doubt not. I pray God that it may be for the bettering both of Church and State."

After this, Master Caxton entertained us in sumptuous fashion, as is the wont of the citizens, and we departed, Master Herford talking much of what he had seen.

Sept. 1, 1480.

'Tis three years since I last wrote in this book, and I have heard this day something that calls to my mind the substance of my last writing. Nothing would content Brother Herford but he must set up in the Abbey such a printing press as he had seen at Master Caxton's. And this he did, but not without much opposing from certain of the brotherhood. There were those who love to stand upon the old ways, and like not what they call new-fangled things. Others there were who feared from their heart what this new thing should grow to, and they that worked in the scriptorium, and were highly esteemed for their skill of penmanship, were ill-disposed to that which seemed like to destroy their craft. So it was that there were many who hindered. Nevertheless, Master Herford was not discouraged, and having gained the ear of the Abbot, who looked upon things somewhat more broadly than do others of the brethren, he had his way. And I have this day received the first fruits of his skill, to wit, "The New Rhetoric of Brother Lawrence William of Saone." I do greatly rejoice in this thing, for I am persuaded in my mind that ill will befall the Abbeys and Priories of this realm, being, as they are, so wealthy, if they are not foremost in every good that is done.

October 4, 1486.

There is ill news come from St. Albans. Master Herford, sometime schoolmaster, and late printer, of whom I have before written in this book, is dead, and the business of printing in that place is ended. He had during the space of six years finished many excellent books, of which the most notable was "The St. Alban's Chronicle;" but there were now, as I have said, many against him; and as it seemeth to me, when there was a change in the government of the house (for John of Wallingford died in the year 1484, and Thomas Ramryge was chosen in his room) these prevailed. This I speak not of my own knowledge, but there are rumours to this effect. Certain it is that the printing is stopped, and Master Herford is dead. But whether he died of vexation and disappointment, as some report, or in the course of nature, I do not venture to affirm. But I do lament from my heart that which hath been done. There will be none willing to write in the scriptorium, knowing that their labor can be so easily surpassed by this art of printing. And if there be no scriptorium, how shall the brethren be employed? And if they be not employed, seeing the idleness is the mother of many evils, how shall they be hindered from falling into bad ways? The houses which follow the order of St. Benedict do not in all things maintain such strictness of rule as may be found elsewhere, as, for example, to wit, in the houses of the Carthusians. But they have ever loved letters and learning. And if these be taken from them—and verily there are at this moment of writing scarce any that do care for them—what shall be the end?