Harm Done by Booksellers and Publishers


Bookseller[Note: This is taken From P.H. Ditchfield’s Books Fatal to Their Authors.]


 The Printers of Nicholas de Lyra and Caesar Baronius—John Fust—Richard Grafton—Jacob van Liesvelt—John Lufftius—Robert Stephens (Estienne)–
Henry Stephens—Simon Ockley—Floyer Sydenham—Edmund Castell—Page—John Lilburne—
Etienne Dolet—John Morin—Christian Wechel—Andrew Wechel—Jacques Froulle—Godonesche—William Anderton.


Authors have not been the only beings who have suffered by their writings, but frequently they have involved the printers and sellers of their works in their unfortunate ruin. The risks which adventurous publishers run in our own enlightened age are not so great as those incurred a few centuries ago. Indeed Mr. Walter Besant assures us that now our publishers have no risks, not even financial! They are not required to produce the huge folios and heavy quartos which our ancestors delighted in, and poured forth with such amazing rapidity, unless there is a good subscribers’ list and all the copies are taken.

The misfortunes of booksellers caused by voluminous authors might form a special subject of inquiry, and we commend it to the attentions of some other Book-lover. We should hear the groans of two eminent printers who were ruined by the amazing industry of one author, Nicholas de Lyra. He himself died long before printing was invented, in the year 1340, but he left behind him his great work, Biblia sacra cum interpretationibus et postillis, which became the source of trouble to the printers, Schweynheym and Pannartz, of Subiaco and Rome. They were persuaded or ordered by the Pope or his cardinals to print his prodigious commentary on the Bible; when a few volumes had been printed they desired most earnestly to be relieved of their burden, and petitioned the Pope to be saved from the bankruptcy which this mighty undertaking entailed. They possessed a lasting memento of this author in the shape of eleven hundred ponderous tomes, which were destined to remain upon their shelves till fire or moths or other enemies of books had done their work. These volumes began to be printed in 1471, and contain the earliest specimens of Greek type.

The printers of the works of Prynne, Barthius, Reynaud, and other voluminous writers must have had a sorry experience with their authors; but “once bitten twice shy.” Hence some of these worthies found it rather difficult to publish their works, and there were no authors’ agents or Societies of Authors to aid their negotiations. Indeed we are told that a printer who was saddled with a large number of unsaleable copies of a heavy piece of literary production adopted the novel expedient of bringing out several editions of the work! This he accomplished by merely adding a new title-page to his old copies, whereby he readily deceived the unwary.

Catherino, in his book entitled L’Art d’Imprimer, quotes the saying of De Fourcey, a Jesuit of Paris, that “one might make a pretty large volume of the catalogue of those who have entirely ruined their booksellers by their books.”

But the booksellers and printers whose hard fate I wish principally to record are those who shared with the authors the penalties inflicted on account of their condemned books. Unhappily there have been many such whose fate has been recorded, and probably there are many more who have suffered in obscurity the terrible punishments which the stern censors of former days knew so well how to inflict.

One of the reputed discoverers of the art of printing, John Fust, is said to have been persecuted; he was accused at Paris of multiplying the Scriptures by the aid of the Devil, and was compelled to seek safety in flight.

The booksellers of the historian Caesar Baronius, [Footnote: Cf. page 97.] whose account of the Spanish rule in Sicily so enraged Philip III. of Spain, were condemned to perpetual servitude, and were forced to endure the terrible tortures inflicted on galley slaves.

The early printers of the Bible incurred great risks. Richard Grafton and Edward Whitchurch, together with Miles Coverdale, were entrusted to arrange for the printing of Thomas Mathew’s translation. The work was given to the printers in Paris, as the English printers were not very highly esteemed. The book was nearly completed when the Inquisition effectually stopped the further progress of the work by seizing the sheets, and Grafton with his companions were forced to fly. Then Francis Regnault, whose brother’s colophon is the admiration of all bibliophiles, undertook the printing of the New Testament, made by Miles Coverdale, which was finished at Paris in 1538. Richard Grafton and Whitchurch contrived to obtain their types from Paris, and the Bible was completed in 1539. Thus they became printers themselves, and as a reward for his labour, when the Roman Catholics again became rulers in high places, Richard Grafton was imprisoned. His printer’s mark was a graft, or young tree, growing out of a tun.

The title of the Bible which was begun in Paris and finished in London is as follows:–

The Byble in Englyshe. 1539. Folio.

“The Byble in Englyshe, that is to saye the content of all the Holy Scrypture, bothe of the Olde, and Newe Testament, truly translated after the veryte of the Hebrue and Greke textes, by the dylygent studye of dyuerse excellent learned men, expert in the forsayde tongues. Printed by Rychard Grafton and Edward Whitchurche. Cum priuilegio—solum. 1539.”

This Grafton was also a voluminous author, and wrote part of Hall’s Chronicles, an abridgment of the Chronicles of England, and a manual of the same.

Whether by accident or intention, a printer of the Bible in the reign of Charles I. omitted the important negative in the Seventh Commandment. He was summoned to appear before the High Commission Court, and fined three thousand pounds. The story is also told of the widow of a German printer who strongly objected to the supremacy of husbands, and desired to revise the text of the passage in the Sacred Scriptures which speaks of the subjection of wives (Genesis iii. 16). The original text is “He shall be thy lord.” For Herr (lord) in the German version she substituted Narr, and made the reading, “He shall be thy fool.” It is said that she paid the penalty of death for this strange assertion of “woman’s rights.”

We must not omit the name of another martyr amongst the honourable rank of printers of the Scriptures, Jacob van Liesvelt, who was beheaded on account of his edition of the Bible, entitled Bible en langue hollandaise (Antwerpen, 1542, in-fol.).

John Lufftius, a bookseller and printer of Wuertemburg, incurred many perils when he printed Luther’s German edition of the Sacred Scriptures.  It is said that the Pope used to write Lufftius’ name on paper once every year, and cast it into the fire, uttering terrible imprecations and dire threatenings. But the thunders of Roman pontiffs did not trouble the worthy bookseller, who laughed at their threats, and exclaimed, “I perspired so freely at Rome in the flame, that I must take a larger draught, as it is necessary to extinguish that flame.”

The same fatality befell Robert Stephanus, the Parisian printer. His family name was Estienne, but, according to the fashion of the time, he used the Latin form of the word. He edited and published a version of the Sacred Scriptures, showing the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts, and adding certain notes which were founded upon the writings of Francois Vatable, Abbot of Bellozane, but also contained some of the scholarly reflections of the learned bookseller. On the title-page the name of the Abbot appears first, before that of Stephanus. But considerable hostility was raised against him by this and other works on the part of the doctors of the Sorbonne. He was compelled to seek safety in flight, and found a secure resting-place in Geneva. His enemies were obliged to content themselves with burning his effigy. This troubled Stephanus quite as little as the Papal censures distressed Lufftius. At the time when his effigy was being burnt, the Parisian printer was in the snowy mountains of the Auvergne, and declared that he never felt so cold in his life.

The printers seem ever to have been on the side of the Protestants. In Germany they produced all the works of the Reformation authors with great accuracy and skill, and often at their own expense; whereas the Roman Catholics could only get their books printed at great cost, and even then the printing was done carelessly and in a slovenly manner, so as to seem the production of illiterate men. And if any printer, more conscientious than the rest, did them more justice, he was jeered at in the market-places and at the fairs of Frankfort for a Papist and a slave of the priests.

This Robert Stephanus (Estienne or Stephens, as the name is usually called) was a member of one of the most illustrious families of learned printers the world has ever seen. The founder of the family was Henry Stephens, born at Paris in 1470, and the last of the race died there in 1674. Thus for nearly two centuries did they confer the greatest advantages on literature, which they enriched quite as much by their learning as by their skill. Their biographies have frequently been written; so there is no occasion to record them. This Robert Stephens, who was exiled on account of his books, was one of the most illustrious scholars of his age. He printed, edited, and published an immense number of works in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, amongst others the Biblia Latina (1528), Latinae linguae Thesaurus (1531), Dictionarium latino-gallicum (1543), Ecclesiastica Historia Eusebii, Socrates, Theodoreti (1544), Biblia Hebraica (1544 and 1546), and many others. In the Bible of 1555 he introduced the divisions of chapter and verse, which are still used.  With regard to the accuracy of his proofs we are told that he was so careful as to hang them up in some place of public resort, and to invite the corrections of the learned scholars who collected there. At Geneva his printing-press continued to pour forth a large number of learned works, and after his death, one of his sons, named Charles, carried on the business.

Another son of Robert Stephens, named Henry, was one of those scholars who have ruined themselves by their love of literature, devoting their lives and their fortunes to the production of volumes on some special branch of study in which only a few learned readers are interested. Hence, while they earn the gratitude of scholars and enrich the world of literature by their knowledge, the sale of their books is limited, and they fail to enrich themselves. The Thesaurus Linguae Graecae cost poor Henry Stephens ten years of labour and nearly all his fortune. This is a very valuable work, and has proved of immense service to subsequent generations of scholars. A second edition was published in London in 1815 in seven folio volumes, and recently another edition has appeared in Paris.

One of his works aroused the indignation of the Parisian authorities. It was entitled Introduction au Traite des Merveilles anciennes avec les modernes, ou Traite preparatif a l’Apologie pour Herodote, par Henri Estienne (1566, in-8). This work was supposed to contain insidious attacks upon the monks and priests and Roman Catholic faith, comparing the fables of Herodotus with the teaching of Catholicism, and holding up the latter to ridicule. At any rate, the book was condemned and its author burnt in effigy. M. Peignot asserts in his Dictionnaire Critique, Litteraire, et Bibliographique that it was this Henry Stephens who uttered the bon mot with regard to his never feeling so cold as when his effigy was being burnt and he himself was in the snowy mountains of the Auvergne. Other authorities attribute the saying to his father, as we have already narrated.

Noble martyrs Literature has had, men who have sacrificed ease, comfort, and every earthly advantage for her sake, and who have shared with Henry Stephens the direst straits of poverty brought about by the ardour of their love. Such an one was a learned divine, Simon Ockley, Vicar of Swavesey in 1705, and Professor of Arabic at Cambridge in 1711, who devoted his life to Asiatic researches. This study did not prove remunerative; having been seized for debt, he was confined in Cambridge Castle, and there finished his great work, The History of the Saracens.  His martyrdom was lifelong, as he died in destitution, having always (to use his own words) given the possession of wisdom the preference to that of riches. Floyer Sydenham, who died in a debtors’ prison in 1788, and incurred his hard fate through devoting his life to a translation of the Dialogues of Plato, was another martyr; from whose ashes arose the Royal Literary Fund, which has prevented many struggling authors from sharing his fate. Seventeen long years of labour, besides a handsome fortune, did Edmund Castell spend on his Lexicon Heptaglotton; but a thankless and ungrateful public refused to relieve him of the copies of this learned work, which ruined his health while it dissipated his fortune. These are only a few names which might be mentioned out of the many. What a noble army of martyrs Literature could boast, if a roll-call were sounded!

Amongst our booksellers we must not omit the name of Page, who suffered with John Stubbs in the market-place at Westminster on account of the latter’s work entitled The Discoverie of a Gaping Gulf whereinto England is like to be swallowed by another French marriage, if the Lord forbid not the banes by letting her Majestie see the sin and punishment thereof (1579). Both author and publisher were condemned to the barbarous penalty of having their right hands cut off, as we have already recorded.  [Footnote: Cf. page 129.]

“Sturdy John,” as the people called John Lilburne of Commonwealth fame, was another purveyor of books who suffered severely at the hands of both Royalists and Roundheads. At the early age of eighteen he began the circulation of the books of Prynne and Bastwick, and for this enormity he was whipped from the Fleet to Westminster, set in the pillory, gagged, fined, and imprisoned. At a later stage in his career we find him imprisoned in the Tower by Cromwell, for his Just Reproof to Haberdashers’ Hall, and fined L1,000; and his bitter attack on the Protector, entitled England’s New Chains Discovered, caused him to pay another visit to the Tower and to be tried for high treason, of which he was subsequently acquitted. To assail the “powers that be” seemed ever to be the constant occupation of “Sturdy John” Lilburne. From the above example, and from many others which might be mentioned, it is quite evident that Roundheads, when they held the power, could be quite as severe critics of publications obnoxious to them as the Royalists, and troublesome authors fared little better under Puritan regime than they did under the Stuart monarchs.

Another learned French printer was Etienne Dolet, who was burned to death at Paris on account of his books in 1546. He lived and worked at Lyons, and, after the manner of the Stephens, published many of his own writings as well as those of other learned men. He applied his energies to reform the Latin style, and in addition to his theological and linguistical works cultivated the art of poetry. Bayle says that his Latin and French verses “are not amiss.” In the opinion of Gruterus they are worthy of a place in the Deliciae Poetarum Gallorum; but the impassioned and scurrilous Scaliger, who hated Dolet, declares that “Dolet may be called the Muse’s Canker, or Imposthume; he wildly affects to be absolute in Poetry without the least pretence to wit, and endeavours to make his own base copper pass by mixing with it Virgil’s gold. A driveller, who with some scraps of Cicero has tagged together something, which he calls Orations, but which men of learning rather judge to be Latrations. Whilst he sung the fate of that great and good King Francis, his name found its own evil fate, and the Atheist suffered the punishment of the flames, which both he and his verses so richly merited. But the flames could not purify him, but were by him rather made impure. Why should I mention his Epigrams, which are but a common sink or shore of dull, cold, unmeaning trash, full of that thoughtless arrogance that braves the Almighty, and that denies His Being?” The conclusion of this scathing criticism is hardly meet for polite ears. A private wrong had made the censorious Scaliger more bitter than usual. In spite of the protection of Castellan, a learned prelate, Dolet at length suffered in the flames, but whether the charge of Atheism was well grounded has never been clearly ascertained.

Certainly the pious prayer which he uttered, when the faggots were piled around him, would seem to exonerate him from such a charge: “My God, whom I have so often offended, be merciful to me; and I beseech you, O Virgin Mother, and you, divine Stephen, to intercede with God for me a sinner.” The Parliament of Paris condemned his works as containing “damnable, pernicious, and heretical doctrines.” The Faculty of Theology censured very severely Dolet’s translation of one of the Dialogues of Plato, entitled Axiochus, and especially the passage “Apres la mort, tu ne seras rien,” which Dolet rendered, “Apres la mort, tu ne seras plus rien du tout.” The additional words were supposed to convict Dolet of heresy.  He certainly disliked the monks, as the following epigram plainly declares:–

Ad Nicolaum Fabricium Valesium
De cucullatis.

“Incurvicervicum cucullatorum habet
Grex id subinde in ore, se esse mortuum
Mundo: tamen edit eximie pecus, bibit
Non pessime, stertit sepultum crapula,
Operam veneri dat, et voluptatum assecla
Est omnium. Idne est mortuum esse mundo?
Aliter interpretare. Mortui sunt Hercule
Mundo cucullati, quod inors tense sunt onus,
Ad rem utiles nullam, nisi ad scelus et vitium.”

Amongst the works published and written by Dolet may be mentioned:–

Summaire des faits et gestes de Francois I., tant contre l’Empereur que ses sujets, et autres nations etrangeres, composes d’abord en latin par Dolet, puis translates en francais par lui-meme. Lyon, Etienne Dolet, 1540, in-4.

Stephani Doleti Carminum, Libri IV. Lugduni, 1538, in-4.

Brief Discours de la republique francoyse, desirant la lecture des livres de l’Ecriture saincte luy estre loisable en sa langue vulgaire.  Etienne Dolet, 1544, in-16.

La fontaine de vie, in-16.

Several translations into French of the writings of Erasmus and Melanchthon may also be remembered, and the Geneva Bible, which was printed by Dolet.

One of the few remaining copies of Cymbalum mundi, en francais, contenant quatre Dialogues poetiques, antiques, joyeux, et facetieux, par Thomas Duclevier (Bonaventure Desperiers, Valet de chambre de la Reyne de Navarre) (Paris, Jehan Morin, 1537, in-8) reveals the fact that the printer, Jean Morin, was imprisoned on account of this work. Therein it is recorded that he presented the copy to the Chancellor with the request that he might be released from prison, where he had been placed on account of this work. The reasons given for its condemnation are various. Some state that the author, a friend of Clement Marot, intended to preach by the use of allegories the Reformed religion. Others say that it was directed against the manners and conduct of some members of the Court.  Whether Morin’s request was granted I know not, nor whether Desperiers shared his imprisonment. At any rate, the author died in 1544 from an attack of frenzy.

Another famous printer at Paris in the sixteenth century was Christian Wechel, who published a large number of works. He was persecuted for publishing a book of Erasmus entitled De esu interdicto carnium, and some declare that he fell into grievous poverty, being cursed by God for printing an impious book. Thus one writer says that “in the year 1530 arose this abortive child of hell, who wrote a book against the Divine Justice in favour of infants dying without baptism, and several have wisely observed that the ruin of Christian Wechel and his labours fell out as a punishment for his presses and characters being employed in such an infamous work.” However, there is reason to believe that the book was not so “impious,” expressing only the pious hope that the souls of such infants might not be lost, and also that no great “curse” fell upon the printer, and that his poverty was apocryphal. At any rate, his son Andrew was a very flourishing printer; but he too was persecuted for his religious opinions, and narrowly escaped destruction in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. He ran in great danger on that eventful night, and states that he would have been slaughtered but for the kindness of Hubert Languet, who lodged in his house. Andrew Wechel fled to Frankfort, where he continued to ply his trade in safety; and when more favourable times came re-established his presses at Paris. He had the reputation of being one of the most able printers and booksellers of his time.

The Revolutionary period in France was not a safe time for either authors or booksellers. Jacques Froulle was condemned to death in 1793 for publishing the lists of names of those who passed sentence on their King, Louis XVI., and doomed him to death. This work was entitled Liste comparative des cinq appels nominaux sur le proces et jugement de Louis XVI., avec les declarations que les Deputes ont faites a chacune des seances (Paris, Froulle, 1793, in-8). He gives the names of the deputies who voted on each of the five appeals, until at length the terrible sentence was pronounced, 310 voting for the reprieve and 380 for the execution of their monarch. The deputies were so ashamed of their work that they doomed the recorder of their infamous deed to share the punishment of their sovereign.

We have few instances of the illustrators of books sharing the misfortunes of authors and publishers, but we have met with one such example. Nicolas Godonesche made the engravings for a work by Jean Laurent Boursier, a doctor of the Sorbonne, entitled Explication abregee des principales questions qui ont rapport aux affaires presentes (1731, in-12), and found that work fatal to him. This book was one of many published by Boursier concerning the unhappy contentions which for a long time agitated the Church of France. Godonesche, who engraved pictures for the work, was sent to the Bastille, and the author banished.

In all ages complaints are heard of the prolific writers who have been seized by the scribbling demon, and made to pour forth page after page which the public decline to read, and bring grief to the publishers.  Pasquier’s Letters contains the following passage, which applies perhaps quite as forcibly to the present age as to his own time: “I cannot forbear complaining at this time of the calamity of this age which has produced such a plenty of reputed or untimely authors. Any pitiful scribbler will have his first thoughts to come to light; lest, being too long shut up, they should grow musty. Good God! how apposite are these verses of Jodelle:–

“’Et tant ceux d’aujourd’huy me fashent,
Qui des lors que leurs plumes laschent
Quelque-trait soit mauvais ou bon,
En lumiere le vont produire,
Pour souvent avec leur renom,
Les pauvres Imprimeurs destruire.’” 

This has been translated as follows:–

“The scribbling crew would make one’s vitals bleed,
They write such trash, no mortal e’er will read;
Yet they will publish, they must have a name;
So Printers starve, to get their authors fame.”

One would be curious to see the form of agreement between such prolific authors and their deluded publishers, and to learn by what arts, other than magical, the former ever induced the latter to undertake the publication of such fatal books.

The story of the establishment of the liberty of the Press in England is full of interest, and tells the history of several books which involved their authors and publishers in many difficulties. The censors of books did not always occupy an enviable post, and were the objects of many attacks. “Catalogue” Fraser lost his office for daring to license Walker’s book on the Eikon Basilike, which asserted that Gauden and not Charles I. was the author. His successor Bohun was deprived of his orffice as licenser and sent to prison for allowing a pamphlet to be printed entitled King William and Queen Mary, Conquerors. The Jacobite printers suffered severely when they were caught, which was not very frequent. In obscure lanes and garrets they plied their secret trade, and deluged the land with seditious books and papers. One William Anderton was tracked to a house near St. James’s Street, where he was known as a jeweller. Behind the bed in his room was discovered a door which led to a dark closet, and there were the types and a press, and heaps of Jacobite literature. Anderton was found guilty of treason, and paid the penalty of death for his crime. In 1695 the Press was emancipated from its thraldom, and the office of licenser ceased to exist. Henceforward popular judgment and the general good sense and right feeling of the community constituted the only licensing authority of the Press of England. Occasionally, when a publisher or author makes too free with the good name of an English citizen, the restraint of a prison cell is imposed upon the audacious libeller. Sometimes when a book offends against the public morals, and contains the outpourings of a voluptuous imagination, its author is condemned to lament in confinement over his indecorous pages. The world knows that Vizetelly, the publisher, was imprisoned for translating and publishing some of Zola’s novels. Nana and L’Assommoir were indeed fatal books to him, as his imprisonment and the anxiety caused by the prosecution are said to have hastened his death. The right feeling and sound sense of the nation has guided the Press of this country into safe channels, and few books are fatal now on account of their unseemly contents or immoral tendencies.