Properties and the press

Bartholomew already had a reputation in Europe as a notable author in his own right. ‘Properties’ in Latin and in French translation had been in print on the continent since the 1470s; the titles of the printed editions of Corbechon’s Propriétés indicate a widening function of ‘Properties’ in France, adding information on elixirs and herbs, remedies against plague and other maladies, and the casting of horoscopes — all ‘very useful and profitable for maintaining human health’ — and also ‘a very useful medicine … for horses’.[62] These titles suggest that in France the work was seen as a marketable and useful source of information needed by the well-to-do and the professional physician. The printed edition of ‘Properties’ in England in 1495 implies that in that country there was also a market for the work in an updated and manageable format, in the era of increased book-production and rising literacy.[63]

I have mentioned Seymour’s conclusion that the English translation copies were bibliophiles’ books. This being so, the implication is that the work would not have been readily marketable on a large scale. In the light of De Worde’s business preference during the 1490s for small, saleable items such as schoolbooks, psalters and the like, this printing venture seems anomalously risky. But ‘De Worde knew what was “commercial”, and the Subsidy Rolls show that he was a fairly rich man’.[64] Anthony Edwards and Carole Meale have explored the marketing considerations in detail and conclude that De Worde emerges as a ‘crucial figure’ in the consolidation of printing as a commercial structure in London. While the network of printer, merchant and sponsor could indeed be an important factor, it is rarely clear who footed the bill for an edition.[65] We may assume that cost was a major consideration for printers and buyers. Those involved in the first English printed edition of ‘Properties’ were businessmen well able to calculate risks and returns. Wynkyn de Worde was a Flemish artisan, and William Caxton, his predecessor, master and the founder of his Press, had been an English mercer and merchant venturer active in Bruges before coming to London.

The printing of Trevisa’s Properties by Wynkyn de Worde at Westminster in 1495 suggests that the work and the compiler had sufficient appeal to warrant such a major undertaking on a speculative basis. The justification for it may have rested on the work’s perceived commercial potential and practical value, as well as the prestige of the author. The possibly limited book-buying clientele may well have included other members of the prosperous merchant network: we have a glimpse of a copy of 'Properties' in the inventory of the possessions of Sir John Rudstone (d.1531), a wealthy and eminent member of the Draper’s Guild in London, made after his death. ‘Item a boke of Bartholome de proprietatibus ijs’ is listed among the contents of an expensively furnished chamber that was seemingly used for the display of valuable items.[66] This book, valued at two shillings, could have been either a manuscript or a copy of the 1495 printed edition.

De Worde’s verses at the end of his edition suggest that the project may have been made possible by the co-operation of a team of commercially and socially connected patrons, intermediaries and suppliers. De Worde adds 12 stanzas of cumbersome verse, naming in stanzas five and eight those to whom he is indebted:

By Wyken de Worde whyche thruh his dyligence

Emprentyd hath at prayer and desyre

Of Roger Thorney mercer and from thens

This mocion sprange to sette the hertes on fyre

Of suche as love to rede in every shire

Dyvers maters in voydynge ydylnesse

Lyke as this boke hath shewed to you expresse.

And also of your charyte call to remembraunce

The soule of William Caxton first prynter of this boke

In laten tonge at Coleyn hymself to avaunce

That every well disposyd man may theron loke

And John Tate the yonger Joye mote he broke

Whiche late hathe in Englonde doo make this paper thynne

That now in our englyssh this boke is prynted Inne.

These stanzas appear to acknowledge key players in the project, including the supplier of English-made paper. A handwritten note on the back flyleaf of the incunable copy, adjacent to the above printed colophon and dated 1590, states that in 1507 there was a paper mill at Hertford that belonged to John Tate, whose father was Mayor of London. Thus, De Worde would appear to have had the advantages of access to a local manufacturer of paper with powerful civic connections. Sutton and Visser-Fuchs point out that a merchant-adventurer background was the most likely to encourage a man to promote the printed book, not only because of the nature of ‘venturing’, but also because he could himself import the large quantities of paper required — normally the single most expensive investment of any printing venture.[67]

As in the case of Berkeley’s promotion of his manuscript of Properties through the good offices of his London agent, Knolles, and Hugh Bryce’s use of Caxton to present The mirour of the world to his patron, there is some evidence that civic connections were crucial to success as a book producer. When Caxton had printed Trevisa’s translation of Higden’s Polychronicon in 1482, Roger Thorney or Thornye (d.1515) — guildsman, merchant adventurer and book collector — had been involved in the arrangement.[68] Thirteen years later we again find Thorney acting in negotiations with the Chaworth family for the use of their manuscript as a copy-text for the printing of Properties by De Worde.[69] Bone describes Thorney as a staunch Yorkist and ‘a rich, enlightened mercer, with connexions in Flanders and friends among the humanists’. Evidence for his Yorkist sympathies can be found in his books and verses, and from his active support in the 1480s and ’90s for Caxton and his printing ventures under the patronage of Margaret Duchess of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV. He seems to have had a strong bond with John Pickering, Caxton’s successor as governor of the English merchants in Bruges.[70] Thorney appears to have used the services first of Caxton and then of De Worde to procure printed versions of the Polychronicon and Properties for himself or others. The evidence points to a perception of ‘Properties’ as a viable marketing project, worthy of the combined attention of a diverse group: a wealthy gentry family from the midlands in possession of a fine copy-text, the merchant-venturer fraternity, the manufacturing entrepreneur and the printing house itself.[71] It is reasonable to conclude that the first English edition was a product of a network of interested parties prepared to invest in ‘Properties’ as a commercially viable title.

Wynkyn de Worde’s printed edition of the English Properties in 1495 is a fine production, in spite of the doubtful quality of the translation.[72] The woodcuts, one at the start of each Book, indicate further cooperative networking, as there are strong similarities between this edition and those made in France at around the same time and referred to above. Similar or identical blocks appear to have been used in both, and were not necessarily made for Properties. A set of wood-blocks can be traced from the printer Verard to the printer Pynson, who either bought or copied them and used them in the Shepherd’s Kalendar. They then appear in the work of De Worde, and thence amongst the books of the printer Wyer, who for the most part used the cast-off blocks from other offices.[73]

This chapter has examined the passage of ‘Properties’ from its translation into English to its printed editions. The English translation provided a new route by which ‘Properties’ could reach yet another cohort of readers. The fact that the translated versions had shed the glosses allowed adaptors to use the factual content at face value. They were freed from the need for a conventional moralising interpretation, but could still exploit its many-sided potential for allegorical treatment. There is much that we do not know about its late-medieval reception, but disparate pieces of manuscript evidence tell us that some fifteenth-century people preserved the work in toto. Others took it apart to make new compilations; some at the level of selected detail to incorporate into specialist texts, others at the level of selected Books and chapters.

That things had properties was a fluid concept that could be taken as empirical, remedial, prognostic and moral. We find Bartholomew’s work lending itself to not only different genres of writing but also to different modes of production: in the home, in the professional workshop and at the printing press. The extant copies and abstracts of ‘Properties’ and Properties, and the fact that it was printed, testify to the status of ‘Properties’ as an important prose work that preserved respected authorities from the distant past and made them available in the English language.

Figure 5: Map of the world on the title page of Book 8, Bartholomeus De Proprietatibus Rerum. Printed by Wynkyn de Worde, 1495.Figure 5: Map of the world on the title page of Book 8, Bartholomeus De Proprietatibus Rerum. Printed by Wynkyn de Worde, 1495.

The illustration resembles a medieval T-O map, showing the world in three parts, surrounded by spheres. It is much simplified, however, and lacks the iconography of judgement and salvation associated with earlier maps. Its upside-down orientation, with buildings filling the area occupied by the Mediterranean and Africa, suggests a new importance given to Europe and the notion of urban civilisation. Used by permission of the British Library.

Figure 6: Title-page woodcut for Book 19, Bartholomeus De Proprietatibus Rerum. Printed by Wynkyn de Worde, 1495.Figure 6: Title-page woodcut for Book 19, Bartholomeus De Proprietatibus Rerum. Printed by Wynkyn de Worde, 1495.

The illustrations to Books 10, 12 and 13–18 in De Worde’s edition show animals, birds, plants and stones still depicted as properties or ‘ornaments’ of the four elements as Bartholomew had described. On the other hand, the illustration to Book 19 offers a very pragmatic interpretation of Bartholomew’s topics: colour as dyestuff or pigment, rather than light; food and drink as cooking ingredients, rather than metaphors for mystical experience; weights and measures as marketplace items, rather than spiritual properties. Used by permission of the British Library.




[62] Corbechon, J., Histoire universelle 1476; Le Proprietaire des choses…, n.d, 1530; Le Grand proprietaire de toutes choses…, 1556 (see Reference List for full titles); Seymour (1992, pp.262–3) summarises the early printed editions made between 1472 and 1609 in Germany, France and England, noting that: ‘The printing of eleven editions of the book between 1472 and 1492 is a remarkable witness to its popularity in the later years of the 15th c.’

[63] See Cressy, David, Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England: Cambridge University Press, 1980, esp. pp.157–70.

[64] Clair, Colin, A History of Printing in Britain. London: Cassell, 1965, p.7; see Hodnett, Edward, English Woodcuts 1480–1535: Oxford University Press, 1973, for a list of De Worde’s known publications; also Bennett H. S., English Books and Readers 1558–1603: Cambridge University Press, 1965, pp.242–76.

[65] Edwards, A. S. G. and Meale, Carole M., "The Marketing of Printed Books in Late Medieval England", The Library, 6th series, 15 (1993): 95–124.

[66] BL Ms Harley 1231, f. 25v. Thank you to John Tillotson for this information.

[67] Paper for printing was imported from the continent: see Visser-Fuchs, Livia, and Anne F. Sutton, Richard III's Books: Ideals and Reality in the Life and Library of a Medieval Prince, Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1997, p.254; on the Tate family, see Thrupp, p.369.

[68] Plomer, Henry R., Wynkyn de Worde and His Contemporaries, London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1925, p.54.

[69] Mitchner, pp.7–17: close examination of compositors' marks leads Mitchner to conclude that De Worde used the Chaworth ms (now Columbia University Ms Plimpton 263) plus at least one other as his copy-texts; the ms was probably owned in the 1490s by Sir Henry Willoughby of Wollaton, who was by then head of the Chaworth family.

[70] Bone, Gavin, “Extant manuscripts printed by W. De Worde with notes on the owner, Roger Thorney”, The Library XII (1932): 284–309, pp.297–302: three mss owned by Thorney contain what are arguably his own Yorkist verses and drawing of a white-rose emblem; evidence for Thorney’s wealth comes from his ownership of books and from his bequest of property to Jesus College, Cambridge; evidence for his high social connections can be found in the Jesus College muniments of 1499, where he heads a list of great names including knights, earls, constables, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, aldermen and others. Comparisons of three of Thorney’s mss with printed works indicate that he lent several mss to De Worde for use as copy-texts.

[71] Visser-Fuchs and Sutton, p.254: Thorney and Tate ‘are a rare indication of how the booktrade was viewed by the more cultivated of English entrepreneurs. Alien and Englishman worked together for profit when opportunity existed, but this could be a temporary alliance.’

[72] Clair (pp.2, 19) considers that Properties was one of the best-printed of all De Worde’s large books; Mitchner (pp.12–18) details some of the hundreds of modernisations made to Trevisa’s language, presumably by De Worde — including many ‘careless mistakes’ that reversed meanings.

[73] Plomer, p.231; Hodnett, in his Introduction (pp.11–22), analyses the evidence that blocks were shared and copied between De Worde, Pynson, Verard and continental printers, and compares their qualities; see Hodnett, pp.315–7 for detailed descriptions of all 19 woodcuts printed in De Worde’s edition of ‘Properties’.