The Early English Presses

Our old lawyer friend and bibliophile J. H. Slater seems to have been particularly attracted to English incunabula as well as some early sixteenth century books, such as those printed by John Day. It was the latter who printed the early editions of the great John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, otherwise known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. By some good fortune your Jotter picked up, for the ridiculous sum of £50, a nice copy of the second and best edition of this very famous book, possibly in its original binding, and dated 1570, on one of Mr George Jeffries stalls in the Farringdon Road around 1988. Less than a month later a copy of a later edition, in a larger format but without a title page, was secured at the same establishment for the equally low price of £25. Such bargains were not uncommon features of the Farringdon Road stalls, at least in the period that your Jotter frequented them regularly, which was throughout the eighties and early nineties. It is quite possible that Slater himself acquired early English books there in the 1880s and 90’s, though the Jeffries family, who may have run the stalls back then, did not specialise in antiquarian books.

The rarity of fifteenth century books coming to light unexpectedly on bookstalls or in junk shops at any time is highlighted by Slater:

‘…a single discovery of a hitherto unknown book of the fifteenth century acquires an importance proportionate to the exceptional nature of the occurrence; and though the book hunter never despairs, he knows only too well that such rarities fall only to fortunate mortals like the French bibliophile Resbecq, whose extraordinary luck was proverbial , or to those whose ignorance is so dense that they seem provided , as compensation, with more than a fair share of attractive power. It seems a pity that the unappreciative should often obtain chances which are denied to those who could utilise them to advantage, but it is often the case. The merest tyro sometimes experiences a success which the experienced bibliophile sighs for in vain…’ 

All too true, both then and now. Anecdotes relating to the chance discovery of early English books ( particularly incunabula) in Slater’s time must wait for another Jot; meanwhile, here are the prices cited by Slater in 1892  for some choice items printed by William Caxton that had been sold ‘ within the last few years ‘:

The Game and Playe of Chess, 1474. £645

Dictyes and Sayings of the  Philosophers, 1477. £650.

Higden’s Discripcion of Britayne, 1480. £195. A made up copy.

Chronicles of Englonde, 1480. £67.

Higden’s Polychronicon, 1482. £31. A ‘ very imperfect copy, containing only 250 leaves.’

Ryal Book, Or Book for a King, ?1487. £365. Perfect copy.


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