Miskatonic University Press

Review of E.J. Devereux's A Bibliography of John Rastell

Denton, William. “Review of E.J. Devereux’s A Bibliography of John Rastell.” February 2005. http://www.miskatonic.org/library/rastell.html.

I wrote this for a course in Analytical and Historical Bibliography, taught by Sandra Alston in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. It was one of my favourite courses in my time at FIS and gave me a whole new appreciation for the history and making of books.


Devereux, E.J. 1999. A Bibliography of John Rastell. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

The title does a disservice to this book: not only is it a bibliography, it is a biography of John Rastell, the English writer, printer, lawyer, and religious activist of the early sixteenth century, who survived his brother-in-law Thomas More's execution by one year but met a similar fate when he was arrested, held without trial, and died a pauper in jail. Devereux has a masterful knowledge of Rastell's life, work, and times, from the Reformation and Henry VIII's break with Rome, to which journeymen printers Rastell employed and how his printer's devices wore out over years of use. The book is a work of serious scholarship, and the reader who is unfamiliar with Tudor history or descriptive bibliography will need to check other sources to understand the details, but Devereux's writing is clear and lively and Rastell's story, as shown through the biography and the pictures and bibliography describing his books, is an interesting and compelling one that brings the man to life.

This book itself has an interesting history. Devereux, an English professor and bibliographer at the University of Western Ontario, died in 1994. The book had been finished for a little while, but he had not been able to find a publisher who wanted to deal with his typed manuscript, so he left it and went on to other work. After he died, his family and colleagues decided to finish the job and over four years did all the necessary work to get the book through a publisher. Colleagues brought the work up to date with the latest research, family tracked down permissions for reproductions of photographs, and in 1999 the book was printed. It is a good monument to Devereux's decades of work, but some small errors through the book do perhaps betray that the author did not have a final hand in it. All bibliographies are imperfect, but if Devereux had been alive to proofread it then probably the table of contents would match the actual pagination (the last two entries are off by one page), a typeface that included a long s would have been used instead of making a confusing mix of black letter and roman type ("The pryſe of the whole boke"), and typographical errors would have been corrected (for example on page 88, where a collation is given as π4 a-b8 c-z6 A-R6 s8 (-S8); the s and S do not match). The book also suffers from having neither a complete list of all the books described nor an index. The faults of the book should not overshadow its high quality, however.

Devereux brings together Rastell's life with his printing work, so I will briefly summarize the biography. Rastell was born c. 1475, and led a busy life: he was a writer, printer, lawyer, legal writer, coroner, mathematician, public servant, member of parliament, engineer in a war against the French, historian, and playwright. He tried to move to North America but got stuck in Ireland when the crew of their ships turned pirate and "exortyd the seid Rastell ... to gyff vp his viage & to fall to robbyng vppon the see" (p. 9) — Rastell refused and they left without him. His printing house was responsible for inventing a new way of typesetting music. He was very involved in the religious disputes of the time, and became close to Thomas Cromwell, the man who suggested to Henry VIII that England break with Rome and oversaw the first Act of Supremacy and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Rastell married Thomas More's sister, and Rastell's first publication was of More's translation of the Life of Pico; he later printed More's Dialogue Concerning Heresies. Rastell ran various printing houses from 1505 to the 1530s, first amidst other jobs before settling down in the 1520s. He published his own writing as well as works by others. He was quite successful for a while, but by the 1530s he was estranged from friends and family and had lost his money. He died in 1536 after some months in jail on Henry VIII's order.

The stories of Rastell's books are first told with photographs of title pages, colophons, printer's devices, ornamental strips, and typefaces. The device Rastell used for years, McKerrow 37, is particularly interesting. It is a 103 x 72 mm rectangle, with Christ at the top between the English royal coat of arms and the badge of the Prince of Wales. Below are a man and a woman, each with one normal leg and one scaled leg, rising out of water on a small planet; behind them are the sun, moon, and planets in a dark sky. Below Christ hangs a cloth bearing Rastell's monogram, and the man is tearing at it. This bizarre illustration packs a lot of imagery into a small space, and Devereux explains the Biblical references and how it represented Rastell's thinking on law and religion. There are six pictures of the device, from books printed from 1513-1514 to 1528, and they show how Christ's hand wore away and a break appeared in the bottom border. The pictures show how the same device was used over and over, surrounded with different blocks or strips for different books, and how the device wore down, got cracked, and was repaired. This not only brings to life the continuity of Rastell's work and shows how analysis of a set of books can show their history, it also demonstrates the concept of the ideal copy: different works, and the various copies of each, all had slight variations on the perfect unblemished device that Rastell could rarely print. A preface on typography relates the type and design used in the books with what is known of Rastell's employees — as a gentleman, he would not have actually done any printing work — again bringing to life the actual day-to-day work of a printing house and the men in it through historical research.

The actual bibliography of what Rastell printed, fifty-nine works plus seven more that are uncertain, takes up just over half the book. It includes the two books by More mentioned above, Rastell's own writings (including Liber Assisarum, The Interlude of the Four Elements, and Pastime of the People or The Cronycles of England and of dyuers other realmes), and Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls. Some of the less important books are given full but brief descriptions while the major works receive several pages each, with descriptions, notes, histories, comments on what other bibliographers have said, and sometimes analysis of the work itself where Devereux acts as critic and historian of English literature. The result is thorough and informative.

Devereux follows the rules set out by Fredson Bowers in Principles of Bibliographic Description (1949). He gives title pages in quasi-transcription, incipits, explicits, headings, colophons, collations, contents in quasi-transcription, and type, and he carefully lists the copies he examined. He never discusses paper, and there is no explanation for why he ignored watermarks, chain lines, and so on. It is a mysterious omission, given the attention paid to all the other parts of the description.

Interesting details appear in odd places in some of the descriptions, for example Pastime of the People (1529-1530), a folio with 68 leaves (p. 157):

Type: text (2D2) 51 ll. and five lines of type ornament, 269(277)x(167 in first part, 171 in second), 93a textura, heading and explicit of first part 116 textura, letterpress title and heading of large woodcuts 220 textura. Presumably because of the demand so large a book made on the type supply there is a greater than usual use of the "ragged" r in the 93a textura, and the experimental th letter from Book of the New Cards (26) appears on A2.

In the contents in the same description, Devereux says (pp. 156-157):

A2v: text, divided to allow readers to understand a period at once: on each page the prominent names are in factotums for emphasis, the sections are delineated by rows of type ornaments, and each part is marked in the margins of both sides as P (papal history), E (imperial history), B (British history), F (French history), and T (all other history) ... The similarity in size [of woodcut initials just described] results only from their being planned for dropping six or seven lines into a pica or English text; they do not comprise a set.

These quotes show the scholarship and detail that Devereux gives and how understandably he presents it. The fine details of the histories of the books Rastell printed are very well described.

A Bibliography of John Rastell will be of interest not only to bibliographers and scholars of English literature but to historians of the Tudor period and the English Reformation as well as biographers of Thomas More and the other writers Rastell published. What small problems it has probably result from its posthumous publication and could be easily corrected in a second edition. Devereux's research and his knowledge of Tudor history, English literature, and bibliography combine to fully describe Rastell's life and work, researched with academic rigour and written in a clear and lively style.

(CORRECTION September 2009: Rastell married Thomas More's sister. I had said Rastell's sister married Thomas More.)