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New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2000. 8vo. Hardback printed covers. 218 pages. This fourth volume in the Print Networks series salutes the impact of the printing press. Taken from the proceedings of the Seventeenth Seminar on the British Book Trade held in Aberystwyth in July 1999, this collection of scholarly essays covers the regulation of printed matter and its distribution, the preservation of Welsh language and culture in print, and various aspects of printing..... READ MORE

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The Coming of Print to York, c 1490–1550


CAN WE PUT a date to the advent of print in York? An easy answer might be 1509, the year in which Hugo Goes published the first known book with a York imprint, the Directorium Sacerdotum.1 Another possible date is 1493, when John Hamman or Hertzog printed the earliest surviving edition of a service book of York use.2 It is likely, however, that the inhabitants of York and the city’s hinterland had heard of, and had probably come into contact with productions of the new technology of print a number of years before 1493. An indication of the number of printed books imported into the city on a commercial basis or acquired by individual readers is occasionally available, but how do we, or even can we, interpret these figures in order to assess the impact of print on the book trade of York? When did the scribes first realize the threat of print to their business? Was it after fifty, a hundred or a thousand books had been brought into or produced in the city? In this paper I shall attempt to discover how immediate and how dramatic were the consequences of print for the scribes of York.

In order to assess the impact of print on the York book trade a brief overview of the trade in printed books and the early printing industry in York will be given. Through an analysis of the freemen’s register of York and other prosopographical details, an investigation will then be made of the manuscript copyists in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and how they might have been affected by the advent of print. The book artisans of York, like those of most other European cities, are not known to have directly protested against the use of printing technology, unlike, for example, the London stationer, Philip Wrenne, who complained in around 1487 that ‘the occupation ys almost destroyed by prynters of bokes’.3 Yet the lack of evidence of protest does not mean that the scribes meekly accepted the loss of their business for the sake of technological progress. The attempts of the producers of manuscript books to safeguard their livelihoods as revealed through their guild ordinances will be discussed.

It is likely that print first came to York in the form of woodcut pictures. Sheets of paper decorated with woodcut designs had been imported into Hull since the late fifteenth century. Important uses of the paper would have been as wall-paper or material for binding books.4 In 1471–2, for example, Maynard Clauson brought a cargo of 120 painted papers into Hull.5 In 1493, as we have already seen, the first service book of York use, a breviary, was produced in Venice. In the first decade of the sixteenth century, printed books began to be mentioned in Yorkshire wills and probate inventories in significant numbers. These included not only the wealthy and powerful ecclesiastics such as Martin Collins, treasurer of York Minster, who left at least fifty-three printed books at his death in 1508, but also some of the more humble clergy and laity.6 An example is John Fell, a chantry priest of the Minister, who bequeathed ‘a boyk in prynt with a blak coveryng’ in 1506, and Jane Harper, the widow of a York merchant, who mentioned a printed massbook in her will dated 1512.7

An indication of the size of the trade in printed books by the early part of the sixteenth century is revealed by the large number of books imported into York by the stationer Gerard Freez or Wanseford. At Wanseford’s death in 1510, a court case arose over his importation of 252 missals, 399 breviaries and 570 picas from France.8 During this period, the trade in printed sheets also continued to grow. Painted papers, for example, were imported to Hull in 1511 by Clemencele Countay and in the next year by Harman Johnson, both times aboard ships from Dieppe.9 London and Continental printers such as Pierre Violette, François Regnault, Richard Pynson and Wynkyn de Worde were also active in producing liturgical texts for the York market, sometimes in partnership with York stationers.10 The most well-documented York stationer who financed the production of texts abroad, aimed at the York market, was John Gachet. At least six editions of service books were printed in Rouen and Paris and then sent to Gachet for sale in the city.11 The surviving customs accounts of Hull record the importation of printed books by Gachet between 1517 and 1526.12 Another York stationer, Neville Mores, is also known to have imported books through the port at Hull. Mores’s probate inventory, made at his death in 1538, lists the 126 books in his shop at that time, valued at £3.3s.10d.13 It is likely that this list of books is only a small indication of Mores’s business as, on 5 August 1520, Mores is known to have paid customs dues on a cargo of printed books worth a higher value of £4.13s.4d.14 Printed books were likewise imported through Hull by John Welles aboard the Bonaventure of Dieppe on 16 August 1526.15 Welles can probably be identified as the same John Welles who became free as a bookbinder in York in 1519.16

It is possible that the first press in York was operated by Frederick Freez, the brother of the already mentioned Gerard Freez or Wanseford, and who became free of the city as a bookbinder and stationer in 1497.17 In 1510, during the proceedings of the court case over the goods of Gerard Wanseford he was described as a ‘buke prynter’.18 Unfortunately none of his productions have survived. Probably at the same time as Freez was printing, a press was also operated at York by Hugo Goes. Goes is known to have printed three texts in York, but only copies of his 1509 edition of the Directorium Sacerdotum have survived.19 Two grammar books printed by Goes, a Donatus and Accidence, have been described by Christopher Hildyard in the seventeenth century but these texts are not known to have survived to the present day.20

Another press was operated in York from around 1513 by Ursyn Milner. In that year, Milner produced a supplement to the York breviary called the Officia Nova.21 Another product of his press, a Festum Visitacionis Beate Marie Virginis, has been described by Joseph Ames, but there are no surviving copies.22 The colophon of the Festum has also been found on two folio sheets used as endleaves to a printed copy of Joannes Gaufredus, held in Hereford Cathedral Library.23 The colophons can be differentiated by minor variations in spelling, which suggest that the waste sheets had been used as proofs. The Festum was probably produced soon after 1513 when the feast was established by statute at York.24 In 1516 Milner printed an edition of the grammar of Whittinton, of which only one copy has survived.25

The last known sixteenth-century York printer was John Warwick, who became free of the city in 1531.26 In 1532 Warwick produced an edition of the grammar of John Stanbridge.27 Warwick’s probate inventory, made in 1542, itemizes the contents of his ‘printing chamber’.28 Inside the room was stored ‘the prysse with iij maner of letters with brasse letters iij matteresses with all other thinges concernynge the prynthinge with glasse’, valued at £8.5s. A stock of books, worth £22.10s.10d, is also mentioned.

We might expect the scribes to have viewed the coming of printed books and printing technology with dread and fear as the market for books in York was filled with cheap texts printed on paper. During the fifteenth century, there are indications that the craft of writing was becoming more professional. Not only were there increasing numbers of scribes obtaining the franchise, but also, more terms were being used to describe their trade. From the early fourteenth century, the York scribes were known as either ‘clericus’ or ‘scriptor’ in Latin, or ‘clerk’ and ‘scrivener’ in English. In 1419 the term ‘writer’ is first recorded in York to describe the trade of a new freeman, Thomas Lymber.29 Other new freemen also used this term in 1452, 1456 and 1470.30 In 1473 Richard Couke appears in the freemen’s register as York’s first ‘textwriter’.31 He was followed, in 1479, by the textwriters Thomas Lemyng and Henry Archer, and by William Sted and John Markynfeld in the early 1480s.32 During this period, the number of scriveners who became free of the city also continued to rise. They included Thomas Benyt in 1478, John Calton in 1480 and Richard Riplyngham in 1484.33

The words ‘writer’, ‘textwriter’ and ‘scrivener’ may have been deliberately chosen to distinguish different areas of expertise. Evidence of the activities of the scriveners of York, for example, relates only to the production or authentication of administrative and legal documents. The scrivener Adam Gunby, for example, was paid 6d by the city chamberlains in 1449–50 for writing diverse bills concerning the justices of the peace of the city.34 He also frequently appears as a witness to legal documents between 1446 and 1476.35 In 1446 and 1475 he was appointed as an attorney.36 John Wodd, who became free as a scrivener in 1486, is likewise known to have often written out the last wishes of testators.37

The textwriters or writers, in contrast, are likely to have specialized to a greater extent in the production of books. In 1487 the textwriters formed a guild with the other book crafts of the limners, noters, turnours and flourishers.38 The ordinances of the guild refer specifically to the production of books. If a foreigner (that is, a person who was not a member of the franchise) wanted to sell books in the city, he was ordered to contribute to the upkeep of the guild’s pageant in the Corpus Christi play. Evidence of a textwriter producing a book can be seen in York Minster Library MS Additional 30, a fifteenth-century missal of York use. The volume was produced by at least seven different hands. One of the scribes can be identified as Thomas Lemyng, a textwriter, who inscribed in the bottom margin of folio 132r: ‘Thomas Lemyng dwellyng in Yorke’.39

This theory that a distinction was made between the scriveners and textwriters is supported by a comparison with earlier developments in the London book trade. During the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a specialist trade in writing books was developing in London. In 1357 the mayor and aldermen of London issued an ordinance which exempted the limners, barbers and scribes who wrote either court letter or text letter from serving on sheriffs’ inquests. The distinction made between writers of court and of text letter is instructive: by the middle of the fourteenth century a contrast was being made in London between the scribes who wrote and witnessed wills and other legal deeds and those who produced books. A guild of the writers of court letter was formed in 1373 and in 1403 an amalgamated mistery of textwriters, illuminators and those who bound and sold books was formed. The formation of separate misteries emphasized the distinction between the two types of scribal activity. In other types of record, the separation of scribes into scriveners and textwriters took a while longer to come into general use. Yet, increasingly through the fifteenth century in London the term scrivener came to refer only to legal writers.40

With the advent of print, there would still have been a continuing need for the services of book scribes to write texts which had not yet been printed, or were not available in print locally. Manuscript books of music, for example, continued to be made throughout the first half of the sixteenth century. William Prince, a priest of York, was paid by the church of Louth to write song books in 1510 to 1513.41 The fabric rolls of York Minster likewise include expenses to John Gibbons in 1518–19 for copying a number of hymnals.42 In 1526, the church of St Michael, Spurriergate, paid a friar to write a sequence and later three mass books in 1536.43

Yet despite this demand for manuscript music books, it is clear that the printing of service books and grammar texts within the city of York, and the import of a wide range of other printed texts, particularly legal works, clerical manuals and vernacular books, seriously affected the trade of the scribes. The term textwriter quickly declined in York in the early sixteenth century. Fifteen textwriters became free in the period 1450–1499, compared with only two freemen between 1500 and 1549 and only one in the second half of the sixteenth century. A likely explanation for this trend is that a fall in the demand for manuscript books deterred new entrants to the craft of textwriting. Furthermore, some of the textwriters in the city seem to have decided to change their trade to scrivening. Henry Archer, for example, had became free as a textwriter in 1479.44 But in his will, proved in 1520, he described himself as a scrivener.45 Likewise, in 1483, John Markynfeld obtained the city’s freedom as a textwriter, yet when he witnessed the will of Ninian Markenfeld, a knight, in 1528, he was called a scrivener.46 Richard Middleton, who had become free as a textwriter in 1512, appears in a register of bonds as a scrivener in 1532.47

The craft of the scrivener continued to attract new freemen throughout the first three-quarters of the sixteenth century, which suggests that their trade was not greatly threatened by the advent of print. During the second half of the fifteenth century eleven scriveners became free of the city of York and a further ten in the first half of the sixteenth century. Demand for the copying and authenticating of wills, deeds, letters and other legal and administrative records continued. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the scribes’ production of indulgences began to be usurped by the presses during the early sixteenth century. The York printer Ursyn Milner produced an indulgence for the York guild of St Christopher and St George in 1519, and an indulgence for the confraternity of St Mary of Mount Carmel in York was printed in around 1520 by Richard Pynson.48 In 1527, widow Warwick was paid 10s in the city chamberlains’ accounts for ‘pryntyng of a thowsand breyffes’.49 This printed brief can also be identified as an indulgence, as in the same year, 1527, the civic authorities were granted the right to issue an indulgence to raise funds for rebuilding the Ouse Bridge.50 The production of a large number of indulgences was necessary, as they were intended for sale not just in York and its hinterland, but elsewhere in England. The register of Charles Booth, bishop of Hereford, refers to a licence to collect alms granted for the repair of the four bridges over the Ouse and Foss on 10 December 1527.51 A commission by the mayor of York, dated 30 April 1528, appointed two citizens as messengers to collect gifts in the dioceses of Lincoln, Norwich and Ely for the bridges.52 In 1530, indulgences were being sold to inhabitants of southwest England by representatives of a York guild.53 The advantage of printing technology for producing indulgences may also have been capitalized on by the Dean and Chapter of York Minster, who had made payments for the writing of indulgences during the fifteenth century. In 1469–70, for example, 17s.14d was paid for the writing of 312 indulgences.54 The production of books was therefore not the only type of scribal activity that was affected by the new technology of print. The printing of indulgences in the early sixteenth century represents a significant loss of work and revenue for the scribes.

The freemen’s register of York thus gives an indication of some of the changes in the book trade after the advent of print. Many of these changes can be dated to around the first decade of the sixteenth century, at approximately the same time as the first presses in the city were set up by Freez and Goes and as printed books begin to appear in wills and probate inventories. What the freemen’s register does not give us, however, is an indication of how the scribes reacted to the threat of the new technology and how they might have tried to safeguard their livelihoods. In the final part of this paper I would like to put forward a suggestion that we can see a reaction against print at least twenty years before the establishment of the first York press. This reaction can be seen in the formation of the already mentioned textwriters guild in 1487.

As we have seen, the ordinances of the textwriters’ guild show a notable concern with the production of books. This preoccupation is absent from the previous ordinances of the guild of scribes called ‘escriveners de tixt’, which were registered in the early fifteenth century.55 The late fifteenth-century ordinances reveal an anxiety about the production of books by unofficial part-time scribes and the consequent attempts of the guild members to establish a monopoly for themselves. This is shown in the guild’s dispute with a chaplain, William Incecliff. In 1486/7 Incecliff was fined 8s for writing books without the freedom of the craft.56 The tensions that this produced were revealed in 1487 when the textwriters Henry Archer, Thomas Lemyug and John Markyngton on one side and Incecliff on the other side were compelled to swear that they would do no bodily harm to each other.57 An arbitration between the two parties decided that Incecliff should be allowed to finish the two books he was making, one of which was for his own use and the other for his chantry in the chapel of Foss Bridge.58 He was also allowed to keep an apprentice and sell any books that the two of them made as long as it was for the upkeep of the apprentice and not for his own profit. Nevertheless, despite the settlement with Incecliff, the conflict continued. Revised regulations59 of the guild of textwriters were presented to the civic authorities in 1491/2. The main changes concerned the fines, indicating that the guild was experiencing difficulties in asserting its authority. The fee for non-enfranchisement was raised from 3s.4d to 13s.4d; the fee to set up a business was doubled; the fine on aliens was raised from 20s to 40s; and, perhaps most interestingly, the fine on priests who wrote books without the freedom of the craft was increased from 13s.4d to 40s. It was agreed that no priest with a salary of seven marks or above would be allowed to exercise the craft or to take an apprentice.60 In the conclusion of the dispute with Incecliff, he was allowed to finish the books he was writing, but he could not take an apprentice and henceforth he and other priests were only permitted to produce texts ‘to ther awn proper use or to giffe in almose and charitie’.61

The production of books by part-time unofficial scribes such as Incecliff was not new in the late fifteenth century. Robert Wolveden, treasurer of York Minster, for example, bequeathed a book in 1432 which had been written by a notary public, John Arston.62 In 1443/4 a priest was employed by the mercers’ guild of York to rule lines onto sixteen pieces of parchment to make a register book.63 A Dominican friar, John Roose, was also paid for sheets of organ music by the Dean and Chapter of York Minster in 1458 and 1469.64 Why then did the textwriters begin to fight against the part-time production of books in 1487?

The anxiety with book production in the textwriters’ ordinances suggests that the writing of books was becoming an increasingly important issue in the fifteenth century. The regulations can be related to a certain extent to a growing market for books during this period, which meant that the production of books formed a more important part of the scribes’ work. A concern with the trade in books might also have been caused by the advent of print. The scribes would have heard reports of the new technology from travellers and small stocks of books might have reached the city by this date. Although as we have seen, the first known service book of York use was not published until 1493, printed books of Sarum use were produced from around 1475 and could be used without great difficulty.65 It is possible therefore that the anxieties of the scribes were a response to the new technology of print. By 1487 the number of printed books brought into the city might already have been large enough for the professional scribes to suffer from a loss of business and they responded by attempting to gain a monopoly of the manuscript trade for themselves. Thus the ordinances seem to suggest that print was already a looming threat or menacing presence in York by the late 1480s, only a decade after Caxton produced his first book in Westminster. The history of the coming of print to York therefore does not start with the printing of the first service book of York use in 1493, or the establishment of the first York press, or the mention of printed books in Yorkshire wills, but with the self-protecting activities of the scribes in the late 1480s.


1.  A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland and Ireland and of English Books Printed Abroad, [ed]. Alfred William Pollard & Gilbert Richard Redgrave, 2nd edn, revised by W A Jackson, F S Ferguson & Katharine F Pantzer (London: The Bibliographical Society, 1976–91), 16232.4 [hereafter STC].

2.  STC 15856.

3.  C Paul Christianson, A Directory of London Stationers and Book Artisans 1300–1500 (New York: Bibliographical Society of America, 1990), 44n.

4.  Wendy Childs [ed], The Customs Accounts of Hull 1453–1490, Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series, 144 (Leeds: Yorkshire Archaeological Society, 1984), 244; Nicholas Pickwoad, ‘Onward and downward: how binders coped with the printing press before 1800’, in A Millennium of the Book, [ed] Robin Myers & Michael Harris (Winchester: St Paul’s Bibliographies; New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1994), 61–106.

5.  Childs, Customs Accounts, 163.

6.  York Minster Library, L1(17)18.

7.  York Minster Library, Dean and Chapter probate register, vol 2, fol 56r–57r; York, Borthwick Institute of Historical Research [hereafter BIHR], probate register, vol 8, fol 98v–99r.

8.  York Minster Library, Pi (i) vii; E Brunskill, ‘Missals, portifers and pyes’, The Ben Johnson Papers, 2 (1974), 20–33.

9.  Public Record Office [hereafter PRO], E 122/60/3, fol 4v; E 122/64/2, fol 21r.

10.  A list of the York service books printed in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries has been compiled by Gordon Duff, ‘The printers, stationers and bookbinders of York up to 1600’, Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, 5 (1899), 87–107 (107), and revised by William K Sessions, Les Deux Pierres: Rouen, Edinburgh, York (York: Sessions, 1982), 24.

11.  STC 15858, 16135, 16221, 16223, 16250.5, 16251.

12.  PRO, E 122/202/4, fol 18r; E 122/64/5, fol 3r, E 122/202/5, fol 4r.

13.  BIHR, Dean and Chapter original wills, 1538; D M Palliser & D G Selwyn, ‘The stock of a York stationer, 1538’, The Library, 5th ser, 27 (1972), 207–19.

14.  PRO, E 122/64/5, fol 21v.

15.  PRO, E 122/202/5, fol 27v.

16.  Francis Collins [ed], Register of the Freemen of the City of York I: 1272–1558, Surtees Society, 96 (Durham: Andrews, 1897), 241.

17.  Collins, Register, 221.

18.  York Minster Library, Pi (i) vii (8); Brunskill, ‘Missals’, 22.

19.  STC 16232.4; Cambridge, Sidney Sussex College, Bb.5.17 and York Minster Library, XI.N.31.

20.  British Library [hereafter BL], Harley 6115, 6.

21.  STC 15861.3; Cambridge, Emmanuel College, 4.4.21.

22.  Joseph Ames, Typographical Antiquities (London: Faden, 1749), 468.

23.  STC 15861.3; Paul Morgan, ‘Early printing and binding in York: some new facts’, The Book Collector, 30 (1981), 216–24.

24.  R W Pfaff, New Liturgical Feasts in Later Medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 59–60.

25.  STC 25542; BL, 68.B.21.

26.  Collins, Register, 250.

27.  STC 23151; BL,

28.  BIHR, Dean and Chapter original wills, 1542.

29.  Collins, Register, 128.

30.  Collins, Register, 172 (Welles), 175 (Jameson), 190 (Letheley).

31.  Collins, Register, 193.

32.  Collins, Register, 200–1, 204, 206.

33.  Collins, Register, 199, 201, 207.

34.  York City Archives, C3:2; R B Dobson [ed], York City Chamberlains’ Account Rolls 1396–1500, Surtees Society, 192 (Durham: Andrews, 1980), 67.

35.  York City Archives, E20 (A/Y Memorandum Book), fol 309v; E20A (B/Y Memorandum Book), fol 85r, 96v, 138v, 156v.

36.  York City Archives, E20A, fol 132r, 133r, 137r.

37.  Wodd is named as the scribe in York, BIHR, Probate Register, vol 5, fol 402r, 418v, 472v, 473v and also appears as a witness to thirteen wills, fol 378v–481v.

38.  York City Archives, E20A, fol 149r–150r. The meaning of ‘turnour’ is ambiguous, referring in general to those who turn or fashion things, or, from the fourteenth century, a translator, and a ‘noter’ is a writer of musical scores: Robert E Lewis, Middle English Dictionary (Ann Arbor, 1956–1993), VI, 1098, XII, 1182.

39.  A mid-fifteenth century date has been suggested for MS Additional 30, but as Lemyng became free of the city of York in 1479, it is more likely that it was written in the last quarter of the century. N R Ker & A J Piper, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969–92), 4: 800; Collins, Register, 201.

40.  Christianson, London Stationers, 22–3.

41.  Reginald C Dudding [ed], The First Churchwardens’ Book of Louth 1500–1524, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941), 131, 148.

42.  York Minster Library, E3/38.

43.  BIHR, PR Y/MS/4, fol 61r, 125v; Dudding, Churchwardens’ Accounts, I, 166, 179.

44.  Collins, Register, 200.

45.  BIHR, Probate Register, vol 9, fol 96v–97r.

46.  Collins, Register, 206; BIHR, Probate Register, vol 9, fol 407r–408r.

47.  Collins, Register, 235; York City Archives, F86, fol 17v.

48.  STC 14077c.84, 14077c.84A.

49.  York City Archives, CC3, fol 188v. I owe many thanks to Jennifer Kaner for this reference.

50.  BIHR, Archbishop’s Register, vol 27, fol 131r.

51.  Arthur Thomas Bannister [ed], Registrum Caroli Bothe, Episcopi Herefordensis, Canterbury and York Society, 28 (London: Canterbury and York Society, 1921), 358.

52.  York City Archives, G24A.

53.  Robert Whiting, The Blind Devotion of the People: Popular Religion and the English Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 113.

54.  York Minster Library, E3/24.

55.  York City Archives, E20, fol 21r.

56.  York City Archives, C4:1; Dobson, Chamberlains’ Account Rolls, 178.

57.  York City Archives, B6, fol 71r.

58.  York City Archives, B6, fol 150r–150v.

59.  York City Archives, B6, fol 161r.

60.  Seven marks was the average annual wage of a chantry priest during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries: Jenny Kermode, Medieval Merchants: York, Beverley and Hull in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 128.

61.  York City Archives, E20A, fol 162v–3r.

62.  York Minster Library, Dean & Chapter probate register, vol 1, fol 235r–6r.

63.  York, Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, Mercers’ Guild draft account book 1443–5.

64.  York Minster Library, E3/23, E3/24.

65.  An example which illustrates the use of Sarum books in the diocese of York is the bequest of James Bathley, a chantry priest of Newark in 1517/8: ‘also I gif and bequeth to the church of Hokerton … a portouse of York use with an other of Salesbury use in prynt’; BIHR, Archbishop’s Register, vol 27, fol 145r.