Review of E.P. Goldschmidt and S.C. Roberts.

["Publisher's History." Review of E.P. Goldschmidt, The First Cambridge Press in its European Setting and S.C. Roberts, The Evolution of Cambridge Publishing. Queen's Quarterly 55.2 (1958): 361-3.]


S. C. Robert’s Sandars lectures form a welcome addition to his History of the Cambridge University Press, 1921.  Two points of particular interest emerge: the way the Cambridge University Press became a major publishing house after more than three centuries of tentative and intermittent activity; and the part played by this press in the typographical revival of this century.  In such matters, a former Secretary to the Syndics speaks with peculiar authority.

Under the leadership of Richard Bentley, at the end of the 17th century, a university press was founded at Cambridge by the acquisition of types, presses, and premises.  Previously the University, on traditional authority, had granted licenses to print under its name; now it decided to make its books under the direction of a committee of 37 dons (of which five constituted a quorum).  The aims of the press were scholarly rather than commercial, in token of which the Suidas Lexicon was undertaken in 1701 and completed in three volumes in 1705.  This bold and disinterested enterprise was beset with difficulties from the start; it was a handsome work, reasonably priced; yet fifty years later attempts were still being made to remainder the book.  The fate of the Suidas is symptomatic of the difficulties of financing a learned press without any steady source of funds or effective methods of marketing.  In the second half of the 18th century the press was forced into rigorous retrenchment; and so consistent was its devotion to printing bibles and prayerbooks that even by 1860 the Cambridge list comprised only 30 titles, most of which were assignable to a fund established in 1781 for financing scholarly works of limited public interest.  Early in the nineteenth century technical improvements were introduced from London.  In 1850 a regular Business Sub-Syndicate was formed to make an annual survey of finances and policy, but prosperity was elusive.  The Royal Commission of 1852 suggested that what the press needed was an infusion of the profit-motive.  After a suitable interval of sceptical delay, the Syndics formed a partnership with a London bookseller and brought in a London printer as manager of the press.  The Press became efficient and prosperous.  And after a tentative approach to the problems of publishing through an association with Macmillan, the Cambridge Press opened its own London office in 1872.  In the last forty years of the century their list increased from 30 titles to more than 500.  The press has now grown far beyond that size and influence, and has gathered to itself technical refinements and the niceties of business management.  But it is still governed and directed, as it was in Richard Bentley’s day, by a group of dons whose taste and judgment determine the quality of the list.

The early output of the Cambridge Press, though lacking in variety, had included some impressive examples of book-making – the Suidas for example, and the Baskerville Bible of 1781.  Even though the late 19th and early 20th century books were solid and uninspiring in design, the press had established over the years a solid tradition of painstaking craftsmanship and flawless textural accuracy.  In 1917 the Syndics invited Bruce Rogers to make a survey.  He expressed amazement that the press had operated for so long with undistinguished types and with no clear policy of design.  On the basis of Cambridge craftsmanship, Rogers was able to effect a revolution in designs which since 1917 has been largely responsible for a reconsideration of book design all over Europe.  Of this revolution too little has yet been written from the inside.  And for those not fortunate enough to possess the handsome privately printed Report by Bruce Rogers, and Stanley Morison’s Tally of Types, Mr. Robert’s third lecture with its illustrations of changes in design will be especially illuminating.

The quality of Cambridge printing has always rested – all good printing does – upon the scrupulous care with which every detail is planned and executed.  Mr. Roberts’s book is a handsome but unpretentious quarto, set in Centaur types and printed on Basingwerk Parchment.  If the impression is slightly less brilliant than one might have expected that can only be from looking at the same time at another Cambridge book which is at first sight almost identical in treatment.  Set in Bembo, this other book is executed with just the extra touch of perfection that no press can guarantee.  This is appropriate; for E. P. Goldschmidt has died before his lectures were delivered, and the book was produced as a dignified memorial to the author as bibliophile, scholar, and bibliographer.

John Sieberch, otherwise John Laer of Siegburg, came from Europe to Cambridge and set up a press there in 1521, backed by the leading Cambridge humanists of the time.  He printed ten books within on year, then returned to the continent.  The books were mostly small and trivial: two speeches and an anonymous letter, a piratical edition of Erasmus’s de Conscribendis Epistolis, a small translation from Lucian, and a humanist manifesto in the form of a Lucianic dialogue; Siberch’s largest book is a book to be proud of – Linacre’s translation of Galen on the Temperaments.  From the commercial point of view, this “freakish, somewhat inexplicable enterprise was foredoomed to prompt failure” and cannot be regarded in any continuing sense as the founding of a great university press.  But Mr. Goldschmidt, by examining the output of this press in its European setting, shows that Siberch’s work is a typical expression of the wakening humanism of the time.

Much as one may have supposed that Renaissance thought was nourished upon the assimilation of Greek thought, it is clear that much of this was transmitted through Latin translations.  (In an appendix Mr. Goldschmidt has given a valuable list of “Renaissance Translations from the Greek”.)  The use of Greek types, except for purposes of brief quotation or for scholarly and typographical display, was extremely rare in the early 16th century, before Aldus Manutius began issuing his great series of Greek classics.  Few men in Europe knew Greek; a knowledge of Greek was highly prized but hard to come by.  What gives the singular pattern to university printing all over Europe in the early 16th century is not so much the use of the new roman types in preference to black letter, nor an exclusive concentration upon classical texts (for many mediaeval manuscripts were admired, recovered, and printed at that time), but the feud between poetae, the outsiders, the champions of the new learning, and the established theologi whom the poetae condemned as vague and indifferent scholars even in matters of theology.  The controversy produced not only the infectious buffoonery of the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum, but also a host of little speeches, elegant compliments, and neat specimens of translation from the Greek, printed off at the author’s expense for presentation (like offprints from learned journals) to potential patrons.  The pursuit of patronage by manuscript had been prohibitively expensive; with the arrival of the printing press, patrons could be hunted with the shotgun instead of a rifle.

But no press, university or otherwise, could flourish on such trifles.  Every press wanted an Erasmus; competition was savage; in the absence of copyright law the pursuit of profitable manuscripts was hazardous; the chances of beating pirates to a reprint was a matter of skill, sound nerves, and sometimes force.  Above the period Johan Froben towers (if we neglect Aldus Manutius) as the one publisher of genius.  He had had a hand in printing St. Augustine and the Fathers; he was the first to design a one-volume pocket bible; he printed in one year Erasmus’s Greek Testament and the first of the nine volumes of Erasmus’s edition of St. Jerome.  By the end of his life he had seven presses running; Hans Holbein was his artistic assistant and designer; Eramus lived in his house.  Beside Froben, John Siberch shrinks to a provincial curiosity.  Yet Siberch was in an almost uncanny degree, a man of his time.  The pattern of his ten Cambridge books is a pattern that repeats all over Europe, as far afield as Cracow.  And if the beginning of Cambridge printing was modest, even ludicrous, the tracing of its setting by Mr. Goldschmidt, with his copious information and acute sense of period, takes us to the heart of the process by which a number of obscure, often vagrant, presses released the new learning – and much old learning – throughout Europe.