Book collectors become fixated on ‘firsts’: the first edition, an author’s first book, the first book on a particular subject. Collectors of 20th-century books are especially focused on first editions and call their quarry ‘modern firsts’. The collector of early printed books has a different field of attention. Many firsts were established in the earliest years: the very first printed book, the first book printed in a particular place, the first in a particular language. But the choice for English-speaking collectors is complicated. Do you prioritise the first book printed in English, the first book printed in England, or the first printed book by an English author?
Printing came late to England, more than two decades after Gutenberg produced his Bible. The first book printed in English was a translation of a French-language romance, popular at the court of Burgundy. Titled The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye, it was printed in Bruges in 1473 or 1474. In the wider literary context The Recuyell is an underwhelming book. It is a mere translation rather than an original work, and not an especially confident one at that. Its title immediately lets on that the translator, William Caxton, couldn’t think of an English equivalent for the French word recueil.
The book doesn’t savour much of Englishness, either. The typeface was designed by a German typecutter, a stylistic magpie who managed to make the book look quintessentially Burgundian. That says a good deal about England’s status at the time: Burgundy was fabulously rich, renowned among other things as a production centre for luxury manuscripts, while England was an out-of-the-way place, battered by civil wars. The leading nobleman of Bruges, though only the second wealthiest collector in Burgundy, had a magnificent library, housing twice as many books as that of the king of England. As it turned out, England was on the way up and Burgundy, as an independent country, was about to be wiped off the map, but no one could have predicted that.
About the only thing England had going for it was a willingness to explore the wider world. Whereas most countries waited for printing to come to them – a moment usually signalled by the arrival of a German with a boatload of printing equipment – Caxton sought out the new technology himself.
For twenty years Caxton had been making a good living from his base in Bruges, importing English wool and sending boats back to London laden with Flemish luxury goods. In around 1471 he took a break to travel to Germany. In the university town of Cologne he printed a book – or at least financed its publication – which has a deeper claim to be the first English book than his Franglais romance of Troy.
I was reminded of this by a version we recently handled at Peter Harrington – not the first edition, which is now effectively unobtainable, but a later edition titled Batman uppon Bartholome, which was published in London in 1582. The book has nothing to do with Ben Affleck looking glum in Kevlar. Batman is the name of its editor, Stephan Batman, who was of Dutch ancestry. He later anglicised his name to Stephen Bateman. The handsome volume is a revision in modernised English of De proprietatibus rerum (‘On the Properties of Things’), an encyclopaedia originally compiled in 1240–50 by Bartholomaeus Anglicus, or Bartholomew the Englishman.
During Caxton’s brief stay in Cologne, he financed three printed books, all with some English connection, the largest being the first edition of Bartholomew’s encyclopaedia. This book deserves the palm as the first English printed book. Again the printing does not look English; it closely apes the layout of Gutenberg’s Bible. But it reminds us that England was not always the parochial backwater it had become by Caxton’s day.
Bartholomew was educated in England before moving to Paris, where he taught at the university. A trainer of preachers in the revolutionary Franciscan movement that swept across 13th-century Europe, persuading many a cleric to renounce his costly vestments and worldly wealth, Bartholomew next went to Magdeburg in the province of Saxonia, where he wrote his encyclopaedia, or rather compiled it from the best authorities he could find. Circulated in manuscript, Bartholomew’s was the most widely read and quoted encyclopaedia of the late medieval period. Bartholomew wanted to arm his preachers with an arsenal of facts, but any reader could appreciate that such an accumulation within a single volume was immensely useful.
Naturally, Bartholomew did not write in English, the vulgar tongue of servants and market holders, but in Latin, the universal language of the medieval church. But Latin was nearing the end of its shelf life. In the 14th century, first in France and then in England, lay readers increasingly preferred the vernacular, both for themselves and as a language in which to have their children educated. In 1399, Cornish-born John de Trevisa translated Bartholomew’s useful compendium of facts into Middle English.
In about 1495 Caxton’s former assistant and successor Wynkyn de Worde printed Trevisa’s translation. In his preface he recalled the pride Caxton had taken in being the first person to print Bartholomew’s encyclopaedia, which is how bibliographers came to identify the earlier unsigned Cologne printing as Caxton’s work.
Almost a century later, the industrious Batman updated the translation into modern English, with several additions of his own. His edition is sometimes called ‘Shakespeare’s Encyclopaedia’, though of contemporary authors only Edmund Spenser demonstrably read it. Nevertheless, this is how Bartholomew was transmitted from the high Middle Ages to the Elizabethan Golden Age, having claimed his place en route as the first English author in print.
The copy we acquired has several indications of a long chain of ownership, including a note of having been bought for sixpence at an auction in Edinburgh in 1714. Appropriately for a book with such a complex history, we bought it in Japan from the private collection of a professor of English literature, and sold it to a dealer in Paris, who has by now no doubt placed our Bartholomew in another private collection (French, recueil).