The Enemies of Books

BladesThese include: Fire, Water, Gas and Heat, Dust and Neglect, Ignorance and Bigotry, the Bookworm, Other Vermin, Bookbinders, Collectors, Servants and Children – at least according to William Blades, printer, bibliographer and author of the two-volume Life and Typography of William Caxton, England’s First Printer (1861–3). Blades (1824–90) was a printer by trade, from a family of printers, having risen from apprentice to partner in the family firm.

Like other printers before him – John Bowyer and John Nichols being the most obvious – Blades was interested in the history and mystery of printing, and became an expert on the products of Caxton’s presses. He travelled widely in France and the Low Countries as well as Britain, examining more than 450 of Caxton’s works. With the help of lithographer George Tupper and the Cambridge University Librarian Henry Bradshaw, and building on the work of Joseph Ames in Typographical Antiquities (coming soon!) his expertise enabled him to identify some of Caxton’s types, and from these to date undated works.

CaxtonCaxton C







For the Caxton quatercentenary of 1877, Blades was heavily involved in the ‘Loan Collection of Antiquities, Curiosities, and Appliances Connected with the Art of Printing, South Kensington’, which was partly an educational exhibition and partly a fund-riser for the Printers’ Pension, Almshouse and Orphan Asylum Corporation. It was designed to show developments from the start of printing in Britain to the most recent technological innovations, including stereotyping, electrotyping and photography: we have reissued the catalogue, compiled by George Bullen.

However, Blades was most famous in his own day for The Enemies of Books, a jeu d’esprit first published in 1881 and going into several editions until the 1888 version we have reissued, illustrated, ‘revised and enlarged by the author’ and a part of ‘The Book-Lover’s Library’, a series edited by Henry B. Wheatley, the doyen of late nineteenth-century bibliophiles.

Some of Blades’ anecdotes clearly derive from his Caxton-hunting days: the frontispiece shows a maidservant using pages from a Caxton to kindle a fire. He does not mention the famous story of John Stuart Mill’s servant and the manuscript of Carlyle’s French Revolution, but perhaps this was too modern an incident (and a work) to disturb him.

The maidservant rips a few pages out of a Caxton to get the fire going

The maidservant rips a few pages out of a Caxton to get the fire going

Another fire-related incident is recorded by the herald and antiquary John Warburton (1682–1759). He had a collection of 58 Elizabethan plays, but wrote in the only surviving volume: ‘After I had been many years collecting these Manuscript Playes, through my own carelessness and the ignorance of my servant, they were unluckily burned or put under pye bottoms’. Imagine – works, perhaps in Shakespeare’s own hand, sacrificed for the avoidance of soggy-bottomed pies…

As so often, the temptation is just to quote. There is an extended and hair-raising account of the treatment meted out to manuscripts and incunabula in the library of ‘a certain wealthy College in one of our learned universities’: since the word ‘Quad’ is used, I prefer to think that this happened in Oxford rather than Cambridge.

A college servant uses piles of incunabula to stack the wet and middy coats and boots he is cleaning

A college servant uses piles of incunabula to stack the wet and muddy coats and boots he is cleaning

Another circumstance giving rise to water damage

Another circumstance giving rise to water damage











Sadly, those who one would think should know better are often fatal to books. Blades imagines a Dantean circle of Hell reserved for bookbinders, especially those who wield the ‘plough’, the cutter used to remove the book-block from the binding before refurbishing, thus destroying the proportions and quite possibly removing marginalia at the same time. We at CLC often have cause to curse incompetent rebinding, which reduces the gutter and causes the rebound book to be too tight to open far enough for scanning (never mind comfortable reading!).

Book collectors too can be bad for the book’s health: ‘it is a serious matter when Nature produces such a wicked old biblioclast as John Bagford, one of the founders of the Society of Antiquaries, who, in the beginning of the last century, went about the country from library to library, tearing away title pages from rare books of all sizes’. His purpose was to compile scrapbooks with other samples of printing such as handbills, and manuscript fragments, sorted geographically, as a kind of history of printing – this collection amounted to ‘over a hundred folio volumes, now preserved in the British Museum’.

That this problem had not gone away in the ensuing century is revealed by a trade catalogue offering ‘fifty different capital letters on vellum; all in rich Gold and Colours. … These beautiful letters have been cut from precious MSS., and as specimens of early art are extremely valuable…’

The bibliophile returns home for a quiet evening in his library

The bibliophile returns home for a quiet evening in his library

And that modern scourge of libraries, the thief with the scalpel to razor out plates or maps, was known to Blades as well: though he believed that these malefactors mostly sliced information out of books or magazines to save themselves the trouble of copying, and that such works could be easily replaced. But he does not dignify them with the name of ‘collector’, even ironically.

His investigation into bookworms involves his keeping various species as pets (or lab specimens), feeding them paper of different antiquity and observing their habits. One lived for eighteen months in captivity. Other dangerous vermin include rats and mice, and – less predictably – codfish, though Blades concedes that the ravages of this dread predator are not frequent.

Vermin (1)

Vermin (1)

Vermin (2)

Vermin (2)

Some of the most interesting stories are those of ancient books, thrown out of the ‘big house’ by a modernising squire, and often ending up in the gardener’s cottage, where, if they were saved from use as kindling, pye bottoms, or spills for lighting pipes (to say nothing of the even more undignified fate of ending up in what Blades refers to as the w.c. or cloaca), they cluttered the place up until sold (often by weight) for a few pence, rising up the retail food chain until they reached the level of an astute bookseller who made a fortune in subsequent transactions with avid bibliomaniacs.










Vermin (3)

Vermin (3)






The ODNB describes this book as ‘light-hearted in a heavy Victorian way’, and some of the stories, especially those involving children, lay on the pseudo-melodramatic style a bit cloyingly. But it is a very good read, though it may sometimes cause the bibliophile to groan aloud in horror … if you need therapy after reading, try John Willis Clark’s The Care of Books.


This entry was posted in Education, History, Literary Studies, Printing and Publishing History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Enemies of Books

  1. Faisel K says:

    Thanks Caroline for this intriguing yet worrisome piece. Have added this volume to my wish list. Please do carry on forthwith with publishing such a wonderful collection.

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