The First English Bibliography

By Graeme Kemp |

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Andrew Maunsell completed a novel project: the publication of a national bibliography of all English printed books. In a triple dedication, he humbly offered Elizabeth I his work as a remembrance of the advance in literature and print under her stewardship. Next, he commended it to the Stationers company as a reference work for both buyer and seller alike.  Finally, to the “Reverend Divines” and those with a “good conscience”, he wisely suggested that his scholarly ambition had not overridden his common sense:

…the Ancient Popish Books that have been printed here, I have also inserted among the rest, but Books written against the present government, I do not think meat for me to meddle withal.

Maunsell Catalogue, title page
Title Page of Maunsell’s Catalogue

Catholic imprints aside, this remarkable catalogue lists a total of 1,832 sixteenth-century editions, with 1,614 scholarly cross-references. It is structured into neat thematic sections, such as Sermons or Arian Controversies, and, in contrast to earlier attempts at bibliographies (Gesner, Bale, Simler), authors are helpfully rendered under their surnames.


First page of Maunsell Catalogue
Example of the Layout of Maunsell’s Catalogue


Scholars have judged the catalogue to be relatively accurate, albeit falling rather short of what we know was printed at that time – the USTC lists over 12,000 editions before 1595. The modern bibliographer may be infuriated by Maunsell at times as he takes pains to modify the actual title of a text into more of a subject description. Indeed, according to the historian Franklin Williams, he has the dubious credit of attempting to create 33 bibliographic ghost editions, such as a funeral oration that was issued years before the individual’s death. Yet, the potential value of this text for recovering lost books is evident. Some exploratory work in this direction suggests that perhaps 15% of all the works listed do not survive in a physical copy today.

So why is this catalogue of particular interest to those of us working on Preserving the World’s Rarest Books? It is, after all, not particularly rare. We know of 28 copies in public hands, with many more likely in private hands. The last sale I can trace was in 2005 at Christie’s when a slightly damaged copy reached a sale price of $18,000 at auction. For our project, what grabs our attention in such a text lies less in the number of surviving exemplars than in the unique wealth of contemporary annotation, marginalia and comment that commonly accompanies each copy.

Maunsell left ample space in the text for such a purpose, even encouraging his readers to modify the text where necessary:

… having besides (because I would not be injurious to any man) left blank room here and there throughout my book, that what I have left out may be easily inserted, or what new Book commeth may be laced in due order.

Contemporaries were no slouches in this regard. The copy at Trinity College Cambridge (VI.3.60[1]) is interleaved and annotated throughout and has an additional manuscript catalogue entitled Catalogus libro[rum] prohibito[rum] (VI.3.60[2]) inserted. It provides a list of the Catholic books Maunsell did not think would be prudent to list. Another heavily annotated copy with interleaved pages is held at the Henry Huntington Library (54169) and is available for consultation on Early English Books (EBBO). The copy I was fortunate enough to view at the Grolier Club ( \*01.12\M451\1595\Folio) in New York City was no different:

Dates and printers were added to those entries missing:

Date annotations on Maunsell catalogue

Additional editions printed in the course of the century were added:

Annotations of additional editions


A checklist of copies that one owner of this catalogue wanted, or perhaps even had, in their collection is evident:

List annotations on Maunsell catalogue

No academic survey of such annotations exists to date. With our Preserving the World’s Rarest Book project we not only hope to direct our partners to those books that survive in the fewest copies, but also suggest they might want to take a trip down to the stacks, leaf through a text like Maunsell’s and discover the wonderful peculiarities of those who owned such a book centuries before.



  • An open access exemplar of Maunsell’s catalogue Is available on Google Books.
  • Elisabeth Leedham-Green, ‘Maunsell, Andrew’ in ODNB.
  • Franklin Williams, ‘Lost Books of Tudor England’ in The Library 5th Series, vol. XXXIII, No. 1, March 1978.


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Are you a librarian interested in learning more about the rarity of your collection? Learn more about how to partner with Preserving the World’s Rarest Books.


Graeme Kemp is the Project Manager of the Universal Short Title Catalogue. He received his PhD from the University of St Andrews for a study of religious controversy in the sixteenth century. His current research focuses on the buying and selling of early modern editions in contemporary booklists and auction catalogues. You can follow him on Twitter at @gj_kemp.


All images used with permission from the Grolier Club, New York.

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