While working on the exhibition “Age of Lawyers” (currently on view at the Folger Shakespeare Library), I came upon several interesting copies of Thomas Littleton’s Tenures, the first textbook written on English land law. There are five different copies of Littleton’s book printed in London 1588 and 1591 by Richard Totell.1 The text in all of them lies in the inner top quadrant of each page, creating unusually wide margins on each side and below the text. One copy (STC 15749 copy 1) is interleaved. In all the copies, the margins are covered with manuscript notes.
While the first editions of Littleton’s book appeared in the fifteenth century, starting in 1482, they multiplied during the following century (ESTC counts over 60 editions). Written in law French, a technical language based on Norman French (although translations of Littleton’s book were published, most of the editions were in Law French), Tenures would not have been easily accessible to the common reader; but for the community of lawyers, this textbook was one of the pillars of their education: they would read and re-read it. For printers, it represented a juicy market.
Peter Blayney has noted that in the early 1500s English printers realized what the uniqueness of English common law meant for them: they did not face continental competition when printing legal texts. This, of course, did not entirely eliminate competition between English printers as Richard Pynson and Robert Redman, among other printers, engaged in a fierce battle to obtain control of the English law book market.2 However, the law printing landscape changed in the mid-1500s with the emergence of a newcomer on the scene, the printer Richard Totell.
Tottell established his own printshop in 1553, in London, and shortly thereafter managed to secure printing privileges for legal texts. At first, the privileges were for any law book not already covered by a privilege, and later, they were expanded to cover any authorized law book. In 1559, this latter privilege was renewed and granted to him for life, securing his domination over the English law book market. From 1557 to the early 1590s (Tottell died in 1594), all editions of Littleton’s Tenures were printed by his shop.
The Folger copies of Tottell/Littleton illustrate how he refined his offerings to a market whose demands he knew well. Serious and well-off students wished to obtain a copy of the Tenures with wide margins, possibly interleaved, in which they could make heavy annotations. Since 1525, when Pynson had published an edition of this textbook in pocket size,3 the majority of Littleton’s editions were printed in a small format (octavo, duodecimo, sixteenmo) rather than in folio. Likewise, some of the Folger copies under discussion are in an octavo format. They were, however, printed on large paper to produce the wide margins, as shown in the images above.
Carter’s ABC For Book Collectors describes “large paper copies” of a text as special copies printed in small number after the main run of an edition for presentation or, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for sale by subscription.4 An example of a presentation copy on large paper at the Folger is a copy of Harington’s translation of Orlando Furioso from 1591.5
Carter also writes that “extravagantly large paper makes an unsightly book, unless the type is reset to accord with the increased page-size; for the result is all too often a blob of type in an expanse of margin.” One may think Totell’s editions of Tenures on large paper are, indeed, “unsightly” but their wide margins were neither created for decoration nor to give the appearance of a fancy book: they were intended to be filled with notes by readers, as our copies illustrate.
Tottell went even further by printing some large paper copies with extra wide margins. These were printed in a quarto format (i.e. the chain lines of the paper in these copies run horizontally) using the standing type of the octavo format edition.6
The extensive manuscript notes in the Folger copies, written in both English and Law French, include references to cases and notes on readings.
The various ownership inscriptions in the Folger copies confirm that students and lawyers read and studied Tenures. From the chain of ownership in copy STC 15748, one may suspect that its extra wide margins and the notes written in it by previous owners were an attractive selling point for its successive purchasers.
- Sir Thomas Littleton, Les tenures de Monsieur Littleton … Imprinted at London : In Fleetestrete within Temple Barre, at the signe of the Hand and Starre by Richarde Tottell, Cum priuilegio, 1588, STC 15748; 1591, STC 15749 Copies 1 & 2 and STC 15749.2 Copies 1 & 2
- Peter Blayney, The Stationers’ Company and the printers of London 1501-1557, Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2013, vol.1, pp.54-55
- Sir Thomas Littleton (d.1481), Lyttylton tenures newly and moost truly correctyd [et] amendyd. [Londini : In edibus Richardi Pynsoni regii impressoris, Anno a Christi natu. 1525. quarto idus Octobris.] , STC (2nd ed.) 15726
- John Carter, ABC for book collectors. 8th ed. [with corrections, additions, and an introduction by] Nicholas Barker. New Castle, DE : Oak Knoll Press ; London : British Library, 2004, p.139
- Lodovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso in English heroical verse, by Iohn Haringto[n]. [Imprinted at London : By Richard Field dwelling in the Black-friers by Ludgate, 1591]. STC 746 copy 1.
- More research remains to be done to determine exactly how these copies were printed.