The Pastyme of people: the first English printed portrait book

Woodcut of Richard I ('the Lionheart') in Rastell's The Pastyme of people (Sp Coll Hunterian Ds.2.1)

Woodcut of Richard I (‘the Lionheart’) in Rastell’s The Pastyme of people (Sp Coll Hunterian Ds.2.1)

As book reviews go, the following is a bit of a stinker:

“[B]arbarous arrangement of materials … [and] still more barbarous typographical execution. … It is hardly possible to conceive a book more rudely printed”1

This was the rather uncharitable view of eminently quotable nineteenth-century bibliophile T. F. Dibdin on John Rastell’s 1530 chronicle The Pastyme of people. On the face of it this is a pretty harsh judgement on a book which has been described as “one of the earliest printed chronicles produced by a humanist printer in … England”2 and – due to its eighteen full-page woodcuts of English monarchs – “the first English printed portrait book”.3 Yet, despite his low opinion of its aesthetic appeal, Dibdin clearly knew The Pastyme was an important work since he prepared and published a new edition in 1811. And, when he visited Glasgow in 1836, he was evidently delighted to stumble across a copy of it in the Library of William Hunter since, in pencil on the verso of an early leaf of our copy he has scribbled:

“I had never heard of this perfect copy of a most rare work – which was reprinted & edited by me in 1811″4

T.F. Dibdin's 1836 annotation in oor copy of Rastell (Sp Coll Hunterian Ds.2.1)

T.F. Dibdin’s 1836 annotation in our copy of Rastell (Sp Coll Hunterian Ds.2.1)

Rastell’s The Pastyme is a history of England from the earliest times right up to the end of the Plantagenet period. While largely basing the work on Robert Fabyan’s chronicle Rastell – a well-educated humanist lawyer and dramatist (as well as author and printer) – referred to a wide range of additional sources and chronicles to place his history in a wider European context while critically challenging any poorly sourced or legendary material.5 The most remarkable feature of The Pastyme is the series of full-page woodcuts of English monarchs – William the Conqueror to Richard III – forming the second part. A. W. Pollard called them “coarse in design and execution” ,6 which again, is a harsh judgement; they may be a bit rough but they are certainly bold and striking.

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Additionally – perhaps influenced by the design of printed European chronicles like Rolewinck’s Fasciculus temporum – Rastell chose an innovative graphic arrangement for his work .7 Several parallel rows run across the page, each describing the chronology of a different realm – one for Popes, another for Roman Emperors, another for English monarchs etc. In theory this would help the reader gain European-wide context for historical events by glancing to the lines above and below the one under study to see what was happening contemporaneously.

Parallel chronology layout of Rastell's The Pastyme (Sp Coll Hunterian Ds.2.1)

Parallel chronology layout of Rastell’s The Pastyme (Sp Coll Hunterian Ds.2.1)

Yet not every reader seems to have been a fan; it is this arrangement that Dibdin described as “barbarous”, further commenting:

“the Reader finds himself at Rome, Paris, and London, in the same page, and mixing with foreigners and Englishmen, before he knows where he is, or can remember preceding events”.

Dibdin did away with this structure for his 1811 reprint.

Well even if it wasn’t the most straightforward work to follow, we know that our copy at least was used in the sixteenth century. The title page bears the ownership inscription of William Humberston (d. 1574), an East Anglian based duchy official and Member of Parliament who acted as Royal surveyor during the 1550-1570s. And we know that Humberston could understand the “barbarous” structure since in numerous places, in a fine italic hand, he has noted in the margin every place the chronicle refers to changes to “the value of coyn” and other currency-related matters.

Notes

1 T. F. Dibdin (ed) The pastime of people (London: 1811), p. vi
2 Takako Harashima “The narrative functions of John Rastell’s printing: The pastyme of people and Early Tudor genealogical issues” Journal of the EBS 2008, p. 43
3 Cecil H. Clough “John Rastell” ODNB [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/23149, accessed 8 Sept 2016]
4 In this Dibdin was unknowingly incorrect for he mentions this copy – previously owned by the Suffolk bibliophile Thomas Martin of Palgrave – on p. 512 of his Bibliomania or Book Madness (London: 1811), as having been sold at the posthumous sale of Martin’s books. He was evidently unaware that the copy made it into Hunter’s Library. It should also be pointed out that the copy isn’t bibliographically perfect since it lacks leaf A6; however, since it has been re-sewn since Dibdin inspected it we can’t say with certainty that it wasn’t “perfect”, having lost the leaf since.
5 Takako Harashima “The narrative functions of John Rastell’s printing: The pastyme of people and Early Tudor genealogical issues” Journal of the EBS 2008
6 A. W. Pollard Early Illustrtaed Books: A history of the decoration and illustration of books in the 15th and 16th centuries (New York: Haskell, 1968), p. 241
7 Takako Harashima “The narrative functions of John Rastell’s printing: The pastyme of people and Early Tudor genealogical issues” Journal of the EBS 2008, p. 51



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