A false imprint: the strange case of Ecclesiasticae disciplinae

Imprint of Travers' 'Ecclesiasticae disciplinae', with defaced imprint location (Sp Coll BE6-g.21)

Imprint of Travers’ Ecclesiasticae disciplinae, with defaced imprint location (Sp Coll BE6-g.21)

An imprint – usually found at the bottom of a book’s titlepage (from the 16th century onwards at least!) – is a statement to the reader and to the authorities, on behalf of the publisher and printer, claiming responsibility for the work. Given this fact, the existence of false or misleading imprints is hardly surprising in a trade where, for centuries, opportunistic printers pirated copyrighted works and protesting voices used the printing press to attack powerful individuals and established ideas and practices. Let’s be honest, if you were ‘up to no good’ in the eyes of law enforcement, effectively taking out an advert implicating yourself in the treason, piracy, heresy or other illegal act wouldn’t have been a sensible plan! Therefore some publishers chose to omit the imprint entirely, while others (as I’ve written about in a previous blog) chose to create a false imprint to throw the authorities off the scent.

Titlepage of Travers' 'Ecclesiasticae disciplinae', with defaced imprint location (Sp Coll BE6-g.21)

Titlepage of Travers’ Ecclesiasticae disciplinae, with defaced imprint location (Sp Coll BE6-g.21)

While cataloguing a recent batch of early printed books I came across another interesting example of a false imprint. The work in question is a little octavo volume, entitled, Ecclesiasticae disciplinae, et Anglicanae ecclesiae ab illa aberrationis…. According to the imprint it was printed in Rupellae (i.e. La Rochelle, in France) by Adam de Monte in 1574. At first, I didn’t notice anything unusual about the work: it is a small volume produced in France in the late 16th century, written in Latin, and on the subject of church government – hardly unusual. However, a few things soon made me investigate more closely: firstly it was published anonymously implying perhaps that the author didn’t want anyone to know who he was; secondly, despite being produced in France it was critically targeting the governance of the Church of England; and thirdly – and perhaps most interestingly – an early owner/reader had attempted to scrape away ‘Rupellae’ in the imprint.

A good deal of digging later and everything fell into place: the story is an interesting one, and starts at Trinity College Cambridge in 1570.

Senior fellow William Travers, a puritan, became increasingly fed up arguing his religious views with college-master John Whitgift and decided to ‘up-sticks’ and head to Geneva, home of Calvin and a safe bet for Presbyterians everywhere. Once there, he was joined by his friend and fellow puritan Thomas Cartwright, and they both quickly became friends with Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor as leader of the Genevan reformation. Travers soon began work on his magnum opus – what would become the Ecclesiasticae disciplinae… – a model for a restructure of the governance of the Church of England along Presbyterian lines using the Bible as sole authority. When it was ready to publish he passed the manuscript to his intellectually-gifted and influential friend Thomas Cartwright – a man of whom Theodore Beza apparently once said, ‘The sun, I think, does not see a more learned man’. Cartwright approved of his plans and agreed to write a laudatory preface to the work and to see it through the press. However, Cartwright was not a popular man back in England. His forthright and critical views on the established Church led, in 1573, to an order for his arrest. So he decided to proceed to the German town of Heidelberg to lie low. It is from here that the Ecclesiasticae disciplinae was published. The false imprint location and fictitious printer were evidently chosen to make it more difficult to trace Cartwright to Heidelberg.

Schirat's unusual fleuron on the titlepage of Travers' 'Ecclesiasticae disciplinae', with defaced imprint location (Sp Coll BE6-g.21)

Schirat’s unusual fleuron on the titlepage of Travers’ Ecclesiasticae disciplinae, with defaced imprint location (Sp Coll BE6-g.21)

Contemporary letters tell us that, despite its anonymous publication, few in senior positions of the English Church doubted that Travers was responsible for the work. Similarly many early users were apparently sceptical that the book was printed in La Rochelle, evidenced by the survival of numerous examples of the work where the imprint location has been defaced, like in our copy. Yet for years it remained a mystery exactly where it had been produced. The truth was finally discovered by bibliographer A. F. Johnson in 1948 after a close examination of the typeface and printer’s ornaments used. The unique combination of the size 86 roman type and certain unusual fleurons (particularly the one on the titlepage) pointed to a printer called Michael Schirat in Heidelberg.

Our copy of the work has been in the University of Glasgow Library since at least the 17th century. The titlepage has been signed by the University Principal, Robert Baillie, and bears a 17th century pressmark. It is listed in our earliest surviving catalogue, written by hand and dating to 1691. The catalogue mistakenly lists the printer location as La Rochelle but clearly – at an early date – a reader (or librarian?) was not convinced, hence the scraped imprint location!

If you’d like to pop up to Special Collections to see this intersting little book, we’d be more than happy to let you view it.



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