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Read to Death: The Sole Surviving Copy of an Early Modern Bestseller

inverted woodcut of the crucifixion and Spear of Longinus used on lower pastedown.

By Nora Epstein |

For regular readers of the PWRB blog, it will come as no surprise that some of the rarest early modern books were not necessarily specialty items printed in small runs. Rather, some the most ubiquitous bestsellers of the Renaissance print market survive with only a single copy to attest to what may have been hundreds or thousands of copies originally published. One of early modern Europe’s most pervasive print genres was personal collections of devotional texts, like books of hours, or ‘primers’ as they were often called in England. Born out of the lay desire to structure daily devotions in a manner that mirrored the clergy’s use of breviaries, primers were consulted throughout the waking hours and were often used to oblivion.

One of these paradoxically rare, although common in its time, primers is Henry Bull’s Christian Praiers and Holie Meditations. In her study of The Tudor Books of Private Devotion, Helen C. White refers to Bull’s primer as ‘probably the most influential of the devotional collections of the middle decades of the [sixteenth] century’. Bull’s influence is supported by the USTC, which records a remarkable nine editions of Bull’s prayer book printed between 1568-1614. However, for a number of these editions of Bull’s primer, bibliographers were only able to identify an edition based on a single extant copy. Such is the case for the circa 1576 edition, whose sole surviving copy is held byUniversity of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

Like four of the other editions of Bull’s Christian Praiers and Holie Meditations, the Fisher’s copy is printed in 16° in 8s, which means the resulting book is no larger than a modern deck of cards. This portable format underscores the very personal use of the book and its role as a godly manual to be consulted at any time of day. Primers’ traditionally flexible content and popularity among the laity made them remarkably well-suited for disseminating and cementing religious practices and they were quickly adopted as official tools for spreading the state-supported faith by all the post-Reformation Tudor monarchs.

With this in mind, studying official or quasi-official primers allows for exhilarating glimpses into the processes of establishing a new orthodoxy and can reveal the threads of continuity that were maintained from the pre-Reformation tradition. Bull borrowed prayers and meditations for his primer from a number of sources, including the Book of Common Prayer, early Tudor primers, and John Bradford’s translation of Juan Luis Vives’ prayers. However, with so much of the Catholic primer content jettisoned, Bull’s tiny work expanded the occasional prayers, including prayers to be said ‘when you goe foorth of the doores’ and ‘at the sunne going downe’, or ‘a prayer for the afflicted and persecuted under the tyrannie of [the] Antichriste’.

Unlike other English Protestant primers, such as those written and compiled by John Bradford or Thomas Becon, Bull’s primer reflects the contemporary discourse surrounding the doctrine of justification by faith, by stressing humanity’s helplessness and God’s mercy. In the introduction to the primer, the reader is told ‘…we must have such a feeling of our own miserie and wretchednesse, as may worke in us an earnest sorow and vexation of mind for the same….This anguish and sorrow, stirreth up in Gods childrē a fervent desire to obtaine comfort, helpe, and succour at Gods hand….’.   According to White, Bull’s conscientious editorial choices ‘…suggest that its compiler is a careful and systematic scholar, who approaches his field in a spirit not only hortatory and pastoral but also philosophic, with a serious interest in the theory as well as the practice of the art with which he deals.’

type ornaments
‘A Godlie Instruction’ set in a border of type ornaments, which Bull attributes to John Bradford. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, shelfmark stc 00086.

A notable absence in Bull’s thoughtful compendium is the rich illustrations and decorations that are characteristic of Catholic books of hours. Whether for economic or dogmatic reasons, Bull and his printer, Henry Middleton, did not include a single image in the Fisher’s 1576 edition. Instead of verdant vegetation and amusing drolleries, each page of this primer is set in a border of arabesque type ornaments. Perhaps the inclusion of religious imagery was deemed too dangerous in a period when the boundaries of acceptable image use were constantly shifting. Once the book left the bookstall, it was up to the reader to take Bull’s compendium and expand or delete the content to suit their personal devotional practices. For an early user of the Fisher’s copy, this meant pasting a woodcut of crucifixion upsidedown to the pastedown of the back board of Bull’s unillustrated book. Under Jesus’ right palm, we can see holes left in the back board for what was likely silk fore-edge ties that would have complemented the heavily gilt calf panel-stamped binding with its gilt and gauffered edges. Much like Bull in his textual compilation, the user of this primer enhanced a traditional book to suit their needs, which seemly included having a crucifixion image, encased in a lovely binding, to serve as a focus of their medications.

As a girl, seventeenth-century diarist Elizabeth Isham would pore over her great-grandfather’s copy of Bull’s primer that he had ‘marked in many places that he liked.’ She explains that ‘it doth much rejoyce mee…to tred in the selfe same stepes towards heaven wherein my forefathers have walked.’ While the Fisher’s copy does not contain the type of marginalia that Isham describes, it was similarly shaped by its owner to reflect their personal spiritual journey. As Isham’s dairy entry explains, primers were mutable surfaces that are fashioned and refashioned by generations of readers. Given the primer’s prevalence in educational, familial, and devotional practices, it is no wonder that so many were read to death.

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Nora Epstein is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews researching the intersections of print history and material culture by tracing image transmission during English and Scottish Reformations. In particular, she focuses on the impact and popular reception of English devotional woodcuts. After receiving her Masters in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, she earned a Masters in Book History from the University of St Andrews. Most recently, she was a Special Collections and Archives Librarian at DePaul University. You can follow her on Twitter at @NoraEpstein