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“Im-pressing the Realm: The Imprint of Royal Authority in Henrician England”

By Douglas A. Brooks, Texas A&M University


If the law of God suffer it, then let his grace put forth a little treatise in print, and even in the English tongue, that all men may see it, for his excuse and the defense of his deed, and say, ‘Lo, by the authority of God’s word do I this.’

                William Tyndale, The Practice of Prelates: Whether the King’s Grace may be Separated from his Queen because she was his Brother’s Wife. (Antwerp 1530.)

            The thirty-six day dispute over who was elected as the next President of the United States is over.  But when I began to write this paper in mid-November, the central question that had emerged from the election controversy in Florida was a technological one: the Bush campaign maintained that machine counting was the most accurate and fair method of assessing voters’ intentions; in the Gore camp, only manual recounts could adequately determine voters’ intentions.  More than three decades after Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault wrote their notorious elegies for authorship, intentionality was back with a vengeance.  As both parties made their respective cases in various state and federal courts on behalf of intentionality, it was the technological question that loomed ever larger on the epistemological horizon of the conflict.  There was indeed something rather new, yet simultaneously old about the repeatedly televised images of weary canvassing officials peering through magnifying glasses at punch-card ballots that not only were designed to be read by machines, but in their very form recall the material origins of the computer revolution in the first half of the twentieth century.  No doubt, some astute, Historicist-minded commentator will attempt to locate the Florida election crisis within the incunabula phase of the digital age; but, in fact, technology of one kind or another has been at stake in the transfer and consolidation of power since the moment, some five thousand years ago, that two emergent conceptions of authority -- epistemic and executive -- began to converge in the invention of cuneiform.

            Consisting of wedged-shaped lines the first known writing system was impressed with a reed tool in moist clay tablets subsequently baked or dried. “Thus clay,” Stephen L. Sass observes, “so critical for storing food, came to play an equally important role in storing information.”[1]  Indeed, writing in clay rapidly became the originary royal and bureaucratic technology of choice, with cuneiform script remaining in use for nearly three thousand years and being employed for the transcription of some fifteen different languages.[2]  In a sense, then, there is a kind of back-to-the-futurism about voters expressing their intentions by using a metal stylus to leave an impression in a paper card, a method that might have been easily understood by a Mesopotamian scribe. But clay served another important contemporary function as well. Preserved as a badly fragmented cuneiform text from the third millennium BCE, the oldest known story of human creation records the following exhortation from Enki, the Sumerian water god, to his mother,

Nammu, the primeval sea: 
Mix the heart of the clay that is over the abyss,
The good and princely fashioners will thicken the clay,
Thou, do thou bring the limbs into existence;
Ninmah (the earth-mother goddess) will work above thee,
.... (goddesses of birth) will stand by thee at thy fashioning’
O my mother, decree thou its (the new-born’s) fate,
Ninmah will bind upon it the ... of the gods,
.... as man ...[3]

As such, clay constituted the essence of human life in a narrative that was used to authorize and legitimate Sumerian royal genealogies and dynastic successions, and clay also served as the main component of an administrative technology relied upon by a given king during his reign. Subsequent traditions would more clearly articulate the links between writing technology and authority. For example, coffin texts dating back to Fifth Dynasty Egypt (ca. 2500 BCE) under Pharaoh Asosi prominently display the following saying: “their officials (magistrates) rise for you and their scribes who are on their mats before you tremble for you.”[4] The close relation between officials and scribes glimpsed here points to an important historical truth about the nature of power in ancient Egyptian society:  hieroglyphic technology was an obscure and complex field of knowledge, and the relatively few who had mastered it played a fundamental role in governing.  When the alphabet, a new epistemic technology, was introduced in ancient Greece, the mythic account of its origins further emphasized its ties to executive authority. As Marshall McLuhan observes,

The Greek myth about the alphabet was that Cadmus, reputedly the king who introduced the phonetic letters into Greece, sowed the dragon’s teeth, and they sprang up armed men.  Like any other myth, this one capsulates a prolonged process into a flashing insight.  The alphabet meant power and authority and control of military structures at a distance.... That the power of letters as agents of aggressive order and precision should be expressed as extensions of the dragon’s teeth is natural and fitting.[5]

The particular convergence of technology and power that will be the primary focus of this paper, that of print and royal authority in early sixteenth-century England, also generated a myth or two.  Such myths did not begin to emerge, however, until after England shocked much of Europe in 1649 by executing Charles I, then restored his son, Charles II, to the throne two decades later.

            In 1664, nearly two hundred years after William Caxton ushered England into the age of mechanical reproduction by setting up a press in Westminster, the first full-length history of England’s encounter with print appeared, The Original and Growth of Printing.  Written and published by Richard Atkyns and John Streater, the subtitle on the title page of their text rather clearly states its raison d’ętre: “Collected out of HISTORY, and the Records of this KINGDOME. Wherein is also Demonstrated, That PRINTING appertaineth to the Prerogative Royal; and is a Flower of the Crown of England.” In other words, the first published history of printing in England sought to demonstrate that the technology’s legacy was inextricably bound up with that of the monarchy. But Atkyns and Streater, who were embroiled at the time in a legal conflict with the London Stationers’ Company, were no historians, and their motives for documenting the advent of print were less than scholarly. Both Atkyns and Streater had previously held patents for printing law books under Charles I, new editions of which were suddenly in great demand now that the country needed to remind itself how the law worked with a king once again in the throne.  Upon being enjoined by the Restoration government not to publish such books until their dispute with the Stationers’ Company over who held printing privileges could be settled, Atkyns and Streater set out to prove that the patents they were awarded before the Interregnum regime were still valid.[6]  To do so, as Adrian Johns observes, they were compelled “to legitimate the crown’s continued retention of powers over printing by characterizing it as royal and personal property.”[7] Such a characterization, in turn, required that a history of the press in England be written, one in which an English king was credited with personally instigating the introduction of print. 

            Epistemic authority was forced to take a back seat to executive authority, for the first published history of printing in England was much less concerned with telling the story of an emergent technology than it was with documenting the role of a king in that story.[8]  At stake in this historiographic undertaking were the livelihoods of two London printers, though Atkyns and Streater themselves contended that no less than the authority of the monarch and the future of the nation hung in the balance.  If their royal patents were not honored, they reasoned, then royal prerogative became meaningless; and if the king’s prerogative faltered, then a political crisis of the type experienced in the 1640s was inevitable. Beneath the recent escalation of rhetoric about the impact machine counts versus hand recounts will have on the future of democracy, one can faintly hear a kind of aural palimpsest: the muffled outcries of those involved in a previous controversy involving technology and succession.  

            When Atkyns and Streater set out to write and publish their history of printing, the received wisdom -- indeed, the unverifiable orthodoxy -- held that the printing press had been invented by Johann Gutenberg, with the financial support of Johann Fust, in Mainz, Germany.  After Mainz was sacked in 1462, the technology was dispersed, offering Caxton an opportunity to import it to England a decade later. This account, now accepted by most print historians, did not serve Atkyns and Streater’s needs, as it made no room for an English monarch’s agency.  Consequently, it could not provide the grounds for undermining the Stationers’ Company’s control of the London book trade nor for giving the crown direct authority over print. Alternatively, in the Original and Growth of Printing, Archbishop Thomas Bourchier had heard of the new invention and mentioned it to Henry VI (r.1422-61), who enthusiastically allocated funds for the purpose of bribing a workman from Gutenberg’s shop to leave and take the new technology with him. 

            For five hundred pounds of Henry’s money,  Frederick Corsellis was allegedly lured away from his job and taken to Oxford, where he eventually revealed the secrets of printing to his interrogators.[9]  Thus, Oxford became the third city in Europe -- after Mainz and Haarlem -- to enter the age of mechanical reproduction, and printing, as Atkyns put it, had been “Nursed up by the Nursing Father of us all,” the king; the first generation of printers in England had been “the Kings sworn servants.”[10] Where once clay linked the birth of humanity with a technology that was quickly appropriated by Sumerian royalty for the purpose of ruling, now a new technology was nursed into robust health by a king. Moreover, in much the same way that Vice-President Gore recently subordinated the epistemic to the executive by claiming that he had invented the internet, Atkyns and Streater offered a history of the propriety of printing in which, as Johns observes, “the press was entirely the product of royal action and investment.”[11]

            A number of histories of printing have since been written, many of them in the past forty years when there has been a growing sense that the era of the printed book is drawing to a close.  Such histories, generally, have shifted attention back toward epistemic authority and the technology itself.  For example, in his preface to The Coming of the Book, first published as L´Apparition du livre in 1958, Lucien Febvre observes that, “About the year 1450 some rather unusual ‘manuscripts’ made their appearance in the northern regions of Western Europe.  Although not very different in appearance from traditional manuscripts, they were ‘impressed’ on paper, sometimes on vellum with the mechanical aid of a printing press which used moveable type.”[12] Febvre’s initial focus on the machine itself and the mysterious, seemingly agent-less appearance of printed texts constituted the beginning of something like a trend in subsequent scholarship represented most clearly by the title of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial study, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.[13] Correlatively, New Historicists critics, writing in a decade when a Hollywood actor served as President for two terms, largely ignored links between kings and printers in the period in favor of focusing on performative or theatrical aspects of royal authority. This latter trend, which has generated a number of important studies of early modern drama and dramatists, was in some sense already anticipated in the final years of the seventeenth century when, as I have argued elsewhere, authorship in general, and Shakespeare’s authorship in particular, began in England to replace kingship as the paradigm for the individualized embodiment of the national consciousness.[14]  A significant consequence of both these scholarly trends is that the convergence of epistemic and executive authority, of printers and monarchs, in sixteenth-century England has for the most part remained uninvestigated.  In the remaining pages of this paper, I want to offer the beginnings of such an investigation by briefly reviewing the events that culminated in the establishment of the office of the King’s printer in the early years of Henry VIII’s reign.

            Atkyns and Streater, we recall, maintained that Henry VI had been the “nursing Father” of print, but the historical evidence suggests that a certain mother actually played an important role in promoting the press in England before any English King had.  In 1494, some three years after Caxton died and Wynkyn de Worde had taken over his printing business, de Worde printed a new book written by a Carthusian monk. The book, Scala Perfectionis, the first de Worde published under his name, was written and printed at the request of Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother.  Beaufort, who -- along with Henry’s wife, Elizabeth of York -- had previously commissioned Caxton to print books at their expense, was no stranger to the press when she hired de Worde. But what makes her involvement with de Worde and the printing of the Scala so interesting in this context is a short poem included at the end of the volume.  The first of its two stanzas offers details of the book’s production indicating that, “Whereof thauctor Walter Hylton was, / And Wynkyn de Worde, this hath sette in printe / In William Caxton’s hows so fyll the case, / God rest his soul, in joy ther mot is stynt.”  The second stanza, alterntaively, depicts other less material aspects of the book’s publication:

This heavenly boke, more precyous than golde
Was late dyrect, with great humylyte,
For godly plesur, theron to beholde
Unto the right noble Margaret, as ye see,
The Kynges moder, of excellent bounte,
Herry the seventh, that Jhu him preserve,
This myghte princesse hath commanded me
Temprynt this boke, her grace for to deserve[15] 

Noting the proliferation in the early modern period of metaphorical links between mechanical and sexual reproduction, imprints and children,  Margreta de Grazia has argued that the press was imagined primarily as a father who impressed himself upon the female page.[16]  Thus was the printed book conceptualized as a child of human parents; but in the case of Henry VII, it was a mother -- and sometimes a wife -- who linked the king to a printer. Conspicuously absent from the extant evidence of these early transactions, however,  is the figure of the nursing father.

            It is true that in 1485, the first year of Henry’s reign, Peter Actors was appointed as the King’s Stationer, but the December 5 document formalizing this arrangement, indicates that Actors was given the license “to import, so often as he likes, from parts beyond the sea, books printed and not printed into the port city of London, and other ports and places within the kingdom of England.”[17]  Four years later, Henry involved himself for the first time in the printing of a text, commissioning Caxton to produce an English translation of Christine de Pisan’s Feats of Arms. Here, it was a French woman’s text that brought the “nursing father” and England’s first printer into contact. Subsequently, from 1496 to 1503, the King apparently had extensive business dealings with a scribe and bookbinder known only as Quintyn. Then, in 1503, shortly after the death of Actors, the King’s Stationer, Henry appointed William Faques as King’s printer.  Faques’ appointment, the first time in English history that a member of the burgeoning London book trade had been given the title of King’s printer, was a short-lived achievement as Faques died two years later, leaving behind a relatively small number of proclamations and statutes published on behalf of the crown.

            Arguably, however, the first significant convergence of executive and epistemic authority, of prince and prints, occurred in England in 1507, more than a half century after Gutenberg, when Richard Pynson officially succeeded Faques as King’s Printer.  Born in 1450, the year the machine that would ultimately shape his destiny was invented, Pynson entered the University of Paris in 1564, then settled in England (in St. Clemens Danes Parish) some two decades later.[18]  By January of 1500, Pynson had moved to London, where he began to print law books, and continued doing so at a fairly constant pace for the next seven years. He also produced various yearbooks and a new edition of statutes called the Nova Statuta, all of which must have prepared him well for his subsequent job.

            More importantly, perhaps, during this period Pynson began to publish chivalric romances, an activity that could well have ingratiated him with the royal family, as Henry VII had struggled to bolster the legitimacy of the Tudor claim to the English throne -- bloodily cleared of its prior occupant at Boswell field -- by frequently characterizing himself as a descendant of King Arthur. What is more certain is that in November 1504 Pynson received his first recorded payment from the crown, and less than a year later, he took on his second commission to print a book for Beaufort, Henry’s Mother.  That book, The Mirror of Gold for the Sinful Soul, is notable for being the first produced by Pynson to include a new printer’s ornament incorporating the Royal coat-of-arms.

            No record of payments made to Pynson by the crown between July 12, 1504 and March 3, 1511 have survived. Nevertheless, payments made thereafter indicate that not only did Pynson continue in his official capacity as King’s Printer upon the death of Henry VII in 1509, but that under Henry VIII he began to play an increasingly important role in the business of ruling the state.  Indeed, the records of these early payments suggest that printing on behalf of the crown had grown tremendously serious in the two decades since Henry VII’s initial encounter with the new technology:

March 1511: “To Pynson, for printing of informations to the Commissioners taking musters.”
March 1511: 

“Pynson, printing statutes and proclamations”

July    1511:

“Ric. Pynson, printing books of statutes for the army over sea”
Feb.   1513: “Pynson, printing and binding 1600 Books of ‘statutes of war’”
June   1513: “Pynson, printing of the enterdityng of Scotland
Dec.   1513: “Pynson, printing 100 parchment rolls of the last subsidy act, each containing four skins”

          In the ancient Greek myth of Cadmus, writing technology and war were linked via the teeth planted by Thebes’ storied founder.  Referring to twentieth-century military conflict, McLuhan observes that "an army needs more typewriters than medium and light artillery pieces, even in the field....[19]  In this context, the earliest encounters between executive and epistemic authority in Henrician England suggest something of a missing link between these two major phases of technological development.  Less than a decade after Caxton set up shop in Westminster, Henry VII’s accession to the throne was accomplished on the battlefield.  He was the last English King to succeed in this manner.  By the time Henry VIII came to power twenty five years later, the office of the King’s printer was being relied on to help legitimate his succession and impose his military goals.  As is often the case with such oedipalized struggles, the son, that is, the printed book, was poised at that moment in history to displace the nursing father.     

[1] The Substance of Civilization: Materials and Human History from the Stone Age to the Age of Silicon (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998), p. 33.

[2] C.B.F. Walker, Reading the Past: Cuneiform (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 40.

[3] Quoted in Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium BC (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972), p. 70.

[4] Allesandro Roccati, “Scribes,” in The Egyptians, ed. Sirgio Donadoni (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 61-86; p. 66.

[5] Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1964), pp. 85-6.

[6] For a detailed discussion of this strange episode in the history of English printing, see Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book:  Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 299-323. 

[7] Nature, p. 305.

[8] For a detailed discussion of this historiographic enterprise, see Johns, Nature, pp. 324-79.

[9] For a fuller account, see Johns, Nature, pp. 338-42.

[10] Quoted in Johns, Nature, p. 340.

[11] Nature, p. 341.

[12] Trans. David Gerard (London: Verso, 1976), p. 9.

[13] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

[14] See my From Playhouse to Printing House: Drama and Authorship in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 95-102.

[15] Quoted in Henry R. Plomer, Wynkyn de Worde and His Contemporaries from the Death of Caxton to 1535 (London: Grafton & Co., 1925), p. 52.

[16]  “Imprints: Shakespeare, Gutenberg and Descartes.” Alternative Shakespeares, Volume 2. Ed. Terence Hawkes. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 63-94.

[17] Quoted in Stanley Howard Johnston, Jr, A Study of the Career and Literary Publications of Richard Pynson (Dissertation: University of Western Ontario, 1977), p. 70.

[18] Johnston, Jr, Study, p. 1.

[19] Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London: Sphere Books Ltd., 1973) 276.