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The Book as Author Work: 15th-16th Century

During the 15th century, the term "author" was used to describe an amateur avocation rather than a professional position. A person might be an authority in a particular area, however this wasn't directly connected with book publishing.


Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an English poet and playwright. However he didn't view himself as an author. This disinterest in publishing reflects the time period as authors were still becoming established.

In Shakespeare and the Book, David Scott Kastan (2001, 5) explores how Shakespeare's plays became books. Although Shakespeare's works of poetry were published in thoughtfully printed editions, there's no sign of his involvement in books related to his plays. Kastan states that

"at least in his role as playwright, Shakespeare had no obvious interest in the printed book. Performance was the only form of publication he sought for his plays. He made no effort to have them published and none to stop the publication of the often poorly printed versions that did reach the bookstalls."


Writers and printers relied on patronage of nobles to support their work.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Haynes (2005) notes that a stigma was associated with printed materials. As such, many authors chose to publish anonymously or with the support of a patron. Many authors were connected with printing houses. Authors had little or no control over the editorial process.

The image on the right shows a dedication page for a book published in 1609.

Most writers during this time relied on patronage of the nobility. In Book Dedications and the Death of a Patron, Buchtel (2004) examined the book dedications of the time period to understand the relationship between the writer and their patron. The death of a patron could be devastating for a writer. Dedication pages were used to thank current patrons, memorialize past patrons, and appeal for new patrons.

Literary Ownership

In the century following the invention of the printing press, authors became aware of the important of literary ownership. The ease of content reproduction meant that authors could easily lose control of their works. Cynthia Brown (1995) noted that the lawsuits between authors and printers began to emerge at this time. The patents and "privileges" awarded to authors by royal authorities also showed the interest in authors of controlling reproduction of the their works. However, only a few authors were successful in maintaining control of content through legal means.

Robert Dallington is an example of an author whose work The View of France was published in 1604 without his permission. He had no other recourse than to print his complaint about the unauthorized version in the front matter of his authorized version printed a few months later.

jonsonJoseph Loewenstein (2002) in Ben Jonson and Possessive Authorship describes the quest of an author in the 16th century to gain authorial identification with their printed word. Ben Jonson (image shown on right) recognized the competitive economic aspects of authorship. Loewenstein (2002, 2) notes that

"the new possessiveness of authorship in turn transformed the commercial practices within the book trade, adjusted the public debate on liberty of the press and, eventually, changed the legislative activities of Parliament."

Samuel Daniel was the first English author to published a collected works. While he didn't hold a Stationers' Company registration, he did hold a patent that provided protection of his work. By developing a long-term relationship with a stationer, he was able to maintain control.

George Wither was one of the first to attack stationers' copyright. He rejected the Stationers' Company monopolies and asserted his rights as an author to control publication of his work.

Author and Printer

During this time period many authors were also printers.

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) is a great example of an artist and printer who was also an author and illustrator. He illustrated a version of Apocalypse in 1498. His Four Books On Measurement was self-published in 1525. As the subtitle states, the book is "a manual of measurement of lines, areas, and solids by means of compass and ruler." The book combines a study of geometry, architecture, and visual illustration.

The image below left is the title page to his book. Notice Durer's printer's mark. The image below right shows an image by Durer.

Albrecht Durerdurer

The Power of Publishing

Vincenzo Scamozzi (1548-1616) reflects a new generation of authors who understood the power of publishing. A Venetian architect, Scamozzi realized the value of self-promotion. By publishing and distributing his book on architecture titled L'idea Della Architettura Universale or The Idea of Universal Architecture (1615), he hoped to drum up business for his design practice (Lommen, 2012).

The images below are from the works of Scamozzi.


ErasmusAuthor Success

While many of the works of the time were simply reprints of earlier works, a few new authors emerged.

Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536) was a Dutch Renaissance humanist, teacher, theologian and writer. He was a proponent of religious tolerance and raised important questions about theology. He was also a popular writer. Erasmus collaborated on a collection of proverbs and adages, wrote about Christian life, and published satire.

One of Erasmus' best known works is The Praise of Folly published in 1515. According to Galli and Olsen (2000), by the 1530s, his writings accounted for 10-20 percent of all book sales.

The portrait of Erasmus shown on the right is was made by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1523.

new testamentIn 1516, Erasmus edited the Novum Instrumentum or New Instrument. It was the second printed book to contain the original Greek text of the New Testament after Complutensian Polyglot (1514). Erasmus's edition was the basis for a majority of modern translations.

The image on the left shows the title page for the Novum Instrumentum or New Instrument.

According to Lommen (2012, 76), Erasmus

"was one of the first modern authors: in Basel, in the shop of his printer and publisher Johann Froben, he personally saw to it that his text was reproduced correctly. This edition had a major influence on the Protestant Bible editions and Bible translations that were published shortly after Novum Instrumentum."

Not all authors seek fame and recognition for their work.

Maximilian I (1459-1519) was the Roman Catholic German emperor. He wrote a somewhat fictionalized autobiography titled Theuerdank. He worked closely with his publisher Johann Schosperger the Elder to create the layout and design of his choosing. He instructed the publisher that the book would be printed and distributed after his death.

The image below left is from a 1679 version of Theuerdank. The image below right is from the 1519 version.



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