Richard Pynson (1448 in Normandy – 1529) was one of the first printers of English books. The 500 books he printed were influential in the standardisation of the English language. Pynson, whose books make him technically and typographically the outstanding English printer of his generation, is credited with introducing Roman type to English printing.
Life and career
Pynson was born in 1448 in Normandy and may have been a glover and/or a pouchmaker before he turned to printing It is possible that he is identical with one Richard Pynson who was enrolled as a student in Paris in 1464.
He is also mentioned as being a bookbinder, although he probably did not bind the books himself. It has been suggested that Pynson at one time worked as an assistant to William Caxton-–whom he called "my worshipful master" in the introduction to his Canterbury Tales, 1492-–but this is now considered highly unlikely.
Pynson began his printing career as early as 1492, the year in which he printed Alexander Grammaticus's Doctrinale, his first dated book. He had probably learned his trade from Guillaume de Talleur, a printer in Rouen, whom he charged with printing at least two books in the early 1490s. It is likely that he took over William de Machlinia's premises after de Machlinia's death; it is also possible that Julian Notary in turn took over Pynson's vacated place in 1501.
During the first years, he worked in St Clement Danes just outside Temple Bar, but he moved inside Temple Bar in 1501, possibly because of xenophobic riots but perhaps simply "[...] to be closer to the book trade, most of the leading men having their shops in the neighbourhood of St Paul's Cathedral."
Pynson became King's Printer to Henry VII (and subsequently to Henry VIII) in 1506,  an office that carried not only great prestige but also an annuity of two pounds, later raised to four pounds. Since this was a prestigious lifetime position, it is not surprising that he was naturalized in 1513.
The output of Pynson's press was varied but limited in scope. He was recognized as an expert at printing law texts (e.g., statutes of the King) and also printed many books of a religious nature like Books of Hours or Missals. He is noted for being one of the first English printers to print a classical text – several plays of the Roman poet Terence – and he was the first publisher of the famous Wayes to Jerusalem by Sir John Mandeville, a book that has been called "an ancestor of science fiction".
Other first printings by Pynson include popular romances like Sir Tryamour and a translation of the German Narrenschiff by Sebastian Brant. Considering that he was the King’s Printer, it is not surprising that the historically most important book he ever printed – the Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum (1521), which netted King Henry VIII the title of "Defensor Fidei" – was produced on behalf of his royal employer. Strangely enough, he never printed any travel accounts by Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, or other famous explorers, although it would have been the logical thing to do since there were many versions in several European languages at that time – and neither did any other English printer of Pynson’s time print them. "The absence of a single English imprint is surprising. The same is true of works connected with the so-called 'alliterative revival', whose texts at that time no English printer touched.
Pynson's business attitude was fairly conservative; he does not seem to have been a great risk-taker but relied instead on steady-sellers. Literary patronage, still important in the early printing period, was not an important factor for his press (Lathrop, 1922/23, p. 93). Like the other printers of his time, he used woodcuts and initials, often of a higher quality than those of his competitors; the initials of the so-called Morton Missal of 1500 are among the finest ever to have been used in England at that time. According to Plomer, he had “[...] a large and varied stock of type”.
Pynson printed more than 500 books during his lifetime, more than 75% of which were printed after 1500 and are therefore not counted as 'incunabula'. He was not as productive as for example Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton’s one-time assistant, but his books were of a higher quality. He must have had assistants himself, but only two of them are named in his will: John Snowe and Richard Withers. It is interesting to note that he does not seem to have imported books, since his name does not appear on the Customs rolls. This suggests that he was not really a bookseller in addition to being a printer.
Pynson died in 1529 at the age of 80 or 81. It is possible that his son, Richard, was meant to take over after his father’s death; this would have been the normal thing to do in the Middle Ages. Since Richard the son died before his father, the press was not continued as a family enterprise. It may be that Pynson sold his business to Robert Redman, his successor as the King’s Printer.
In sum, Richard Pynson seems to have been a very competent, quite risk-averse, and fairly successful printer. Judging by his will, he was moderately well-off but not as wealthy as, for example, Wynkyn de Worde. Calling him "a systematic, careful man of business" (Bennett, 1952, p. 191) seems to fit him well if one considers that this does not rule out high-quality products; in fact, high quality is one requirement for successful business. And he seems not to have been without "a sense of style that raised him above other English printers of the fifteenth century [...]", so it is not surprising that he produced what has been called "[...] the finest book that had been printed in England up to that time", the Morton Missal of 1500.
What he probably was not is a man of letters like Caxton, something modern scholarship seems to be more forgiving about than that of the past. Nonetheless, Pynson was a more accomplished stylist than Caxton. Pynson favoured Chancery Standard and consequently pushed the English language further toward standardisation.
Pynson's usage of devices, title-pages, types, and other technical aspects lend support to the common image of him as a highly skilled craftsman and capable businessman who invented nothing but was quite good at improving upon innovations others had made before.
- Plomer, 1922/23, pp. 49-51; the English record is of 1482
- Plomer, 1925, p. 110.
- Plomer, 1925, p. 109.
- Plomer, 1925, p. 148.
- Painter, 1976, p. 190,
- Duff, 1906, p. 57; Glasgow University Library, Special Collection: Book of the Month May 2004: "a reference to his indebtedness to Caxton’s second edition of the poem, upon which this publication was based".
- Peddie, 1927, p. 179.
- Duff, 1906, p. 56; Plomer, 1925, pp. 160ff.
- Clair, 1965, p. 41.
- Plomer, 1909, pp. 115-133.
- Plomer, 1925, p. 65.
- Neville, 1990.
- Clair, 1965, p. 35.
- Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, Vol. 1, No. 4373.
- Hodnett, 1988, p. 15.
- Steinberg, 1955, p. 77.
- Hirsch, 1978, p. 1.
- Plomer, 1925, p. 149.
- Plomer, 1903, p. 3.
- Hellinga/Trapp, p. 140.
- Plomer, 1925, p. 147.
- Plomer, 1925, p. 145.
- Chappell, 1970, p. 77.
- Plomer, 1925, p. 120.
Bibliography and sources
- Bennett, H.S.: English Books and Readers 1475 – 1557. London 1952.
- Bühler, Curt F.: The Fifteenth-Century Book. Philadelphia 1960.
- Chappell, Warren: A Short History of the Printed Word. Boston 1980 (1970).
- Christianson, C. Paul: "The rise of London’s book-trade". In: Lotte Hellinga / J. B. Trapp (ed.): The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. Vol. III (1400-1557), pp. 128-147.
- Clair, Colin: A History of Printing in Britain. Norwich 1965.
- Driver, Martha: The title-page. Its early development 1460-1510. London 2000.
- Duff, E. Gordon: The Printers, Stationers and Bookbinders of Westminster and London from 1476 to 1535. Cambridge 1906.
- Hellinga, Lotte: “Printing”. In: Lotte Hellinga / J. B. Trapp (ed.): The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. Vol. III (1400-1557), pp. 65-108.
- Hirsch, Rudolf: Printing, Selling and Reading 1450 – 1550. Wiesbaden 1974.
- The Printed Word: Its Impact and Diffusion. London 1978.
- Hodnett, Edward: Five centuries of English book illustrations. Avon 1988.
- Lathrop, H.B.: “The First English Printers and their Patrons”. The Library, 4th series (3), (192/23), pp. 69-96.
- Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, Vol. 1, No. 4373.
- Neville, Pamela A.: Richard Pynson, King’s Printer [1506-1529] : Printing and Propaganda in Early Tudor England. Diss., London 1990.
- Painter, George D.: William Caxton. A Quincentenarial Biography of England’s first printer. London 1976.
- Plomer, Henry R. (ed.): Abstracts from the Wills of English Printers and Stationers from 1492 to 1630. London 1903.
- "Great Britain and Ireland". In: R. A. Peddie (ed.): Printing. A Short History of the Art. London 1927.
- "Richard Pynson, Glover and Printer". The Library, 4th series, (3), 1922/23, pp. 49-51.
- "Two Lawsuits of Richard Pynson". The Library, 2nd Series (10), 1909, pp. 115-133.
- "Wynkyn de Worde and his Contemporaries from the Death of Caxton to 1535. Folkestone 1974 (1925).
- Steinberg, Sigfrid H.: Five Hundred Years of Printing. Harmondsworth 1955.