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Britain Brought To Book

With its founder president, the Rt Hon the Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven LG, OM, FRS, its president, the Rt Hon the Lord Tebbit of Chingford, CH PC, and vice-president, the Rt Hon the Lord Lamont of Lerwick, the “independent all-party think tank” the Bruges Group has undoubtedly a strong political pedigree. The name of the organisation derives from a famous speech given by Margaret Thatcher to the College of Europe in September 1988, a speech which is less a declaration of Britain’s separate identity à la UKIP than a typically brazen assertion of its superiority as a European nation, and a declaration of its determination to have its own way politically: “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”

Unsurprisingly, Mrs Thatcher called at Bruges for “action to free markets, action to widen choice, action to reduce government intervention”, to deregulate and “remove the constraints on trade”. Above all, she insisted, the Community must not be “ossified by endless regulation”. She also mentioned, in the context of England’s long engagement with the continental mainland (the origin of course of its constituent peoples) that its first national literary figure, Geoffrey Chaucer, had been a frequent visitor to Bruges and indeed that William Caxton, “the first English printer” had produced there the first printed book to appear in the English language, the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye. It was, of course, a translation from the French.

As Mrs Thatcher pointed out, over the centuries Britain was often “a home for people from the rest of Europe who sought sanctuary from tyranny” – which is certainly true, just as indeed Spain and France and Russia and Austria were to become homes for some Irish people who had to seek sanctuary from British tyranny.

The reason the first English book was printed in Bruges was that at that stage continental Europe (in particular Germany along the Rhine and Danube, the Low Countries and northern Italy) was at a much more advanced stage in the development of the new technology. Just as Venice dominated European printing at the close of the fifteenth century and the bulk of the print workers there were Germans, so also in England the majority of workers in the trade ‑ up to two-thirds during the first fifty years of English printing ‑ were foreigners, in this case mostly French.

From the early 1520s, Lutheran books began to enter England in some numbers. Alexander Monro writes:

By March 1526 English New Testaments were streaming into England despite the bans quickly placed on them and the public burnings of Luther’s books in London. They were smuggled in oil and wine barrels, in sacks of grain, flour or wheat, or in the hidden compartments of pieces of furniture. The historian Diarmaid McCulloch estimates that, during [William] Tyndale’s lifetime, 16,000 copies of his translation reached England, then a population of 2½ million with a primitive book market.

Towards the end of this decade the serious suppression of this trade began under Sir Thomas More. But with the break from Rome in the 1530s there was no longer any obstacle to the printing of Protestant books, or of the Bible in English. In 1539 Matthew’s Bible, or the “Great Bible”, was printed in London.

Suppression of undesirable books and control of the print trade were not so much to cease, however, as to reverse direction in an attempt to keep out Catholicism. Foreigners in particular were targeted. Print shops were forbidden to accept apprentices from the continent; no works could employ more than two journeymen from the continent; no bound books could be imported from the continent; no one from the continent could establish a retail bookshop or a print shop. Meanwhile, particular printers deemed trustworthy were given a monopoly in particular areas: religious books, almanacs, school books or common law. Indeed it would scarcely be going too far to say that the entire book trade was “ossified by endless regulation”. The English trade was to remain under strict control for many centuries, through bodies like the Stationers’ Company, which received a royal charter in 1557, or through measures like the 1662 Licensing of the Press Act.

There is a common narrative in popular versions of British history which comfortably wraps together progress, Protestantism, the development of the English language and the (inexorable) march of liberty. This can take exceedingly simple-minded forms (“In 1530 English religion was delivered to the laity by the priesthood.” – Alexander Monro) and it can exist in leftish, of the people (Lord Bragg) as well as right-wing, of the military versions. Reality, however, is usually a good deal more complex than these versions allow.

It can at least be said of Mrs Thatcher that she did not seek to ignore Britain’s long historical involvement with Europe. One might quarrel with her individual judgments, perhaps above all with her keenness to have retold “the story of how Europeans explored and colonised ‑ and yes, without apology ‑ civilised much of the world” (this to an audience in Belgium of all places). Still, there is a much greater sense of belonging to Europe in the 1988 Bruges speech than one is likely to get from any Tory, wet or dry, today.

Sources: Histoire et pouvoirs de l’écrit, by Henri-Jean Martin; The Paper Trail, by Alexander Monro, This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair, by Hugo Young.

9/6/2015