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England and the Printing Press: A Subject Guide

About the Early English Printing Collections

[Higden, Ranulf]. [Woodcut image from The Description of Englonde, Westminster]. 1498. Rosenwald Collection. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Early English printing is represented in many different collections within the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

More than half of the Division's English incunabula were given to the Library of Congress by Lessing J. Rosenwald, and form a part of the Rosenwald Collection. The majority of these volumes have been digitized, a selection of which have been included in the carrousel below for easy browsing.

The image on the right is from the Rosenwald copy of Caxton's 1498 printing of the Description of England. This short work is an adaptation of an earlier medieval Chronicle. Caxton created his Description of England by extracting geographically relevant passages from Ranulf Higden's universal history, the Polycronicon, which was written in Latin in 1387 and translated into English by John Trevisa (c.1340-c.1402) in the late fourteenth century.

Caxton's choice of texts reflects his knowledge of the English book market, which prior to the arrival of printing was exclusively scribal. The Polycronicon (and therefore also the Description of England) are part of the historical narrative known as the Brut (after Brutus, the mythical founder of Britain who was said to have been descended from the ancient epic hero, Aeneas of Troy). The Brut was extremely popular, and more than 170 manuscripts survive in English alone, with other copies surviving in Anglo-Norman and Latin. The fifteenth-century imprints in the Rosenwald Collection are a testament to how the early English printers were operating in a book market where the reading public were informed by traditions and literature that circulated in manuscript form.

The Vollbehr Collection of Incunabula, purchased by an act of Congress in 1930, also contains English imprints--among them a copy of Caxton's 1482 printing of Polycronicon. Likewise, the John Boyd Thacher Collection contains three English incunabula, one of which is Caxton's 1483 printing of the English poet John Gower's Confessio amantis.

While the Division's collection of fifteenth-century English imprints were acquired as part of larger collections, the Division's holdings for sixteenth-century English imprints were acquired mostly through individual purchases or donations. Nevertheless, researchers interested in this period of English printing will not be disappointed, as more than 1,500 items have been reported to the international database, the English Short Title Catalog (ESTC) External, a comprehensive catalog hosted by the British Library. While only a portion of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division's English imprints have been digitized, researchers can often find links to digitized copies in other libraries by cross-referencing the Library of Congress catalog with the item in the English Short Title Catalog (ESTC) External.

The selection of images in carrousel below represent only a fraction of the English imprints that can be found in the Division. Researchers interested in specific printers, particular titles, or assistance with secondary material pertaining to these items are encouraged to contact the reference staff through the Ask a Librarian service.