Wynkyn de Worde’s “Remorse of Conscience”: a unique survivor

Wynkyn de Worde (died c. 1534) was a printer and publisher in London and is best known for his work with William Caxton. Although Caxton was the first printer to set up shop in England, it was arguably de Worde who proved instrumental in ensuring the success of the printing trade in this country. Through technical innovations and an insistence on high quality materials, he greatly improved the fledgling art of printing and has since been described as ‘England’s first typographer’ (Haley, 1992).

Device of William Caxton which subsequently passed to Wynkyn de Worde in 1492. From ‘Pilgrymage of perfecyon’, printed in 1531 by de Worde

Few details are known about de Worde’s early life. He was thought to have been born in Woerden in Holland (but possibly Woerth in Alsace). It is often assumed he accompanied William Caxton to England as a journeyman printer, working for him as apprentice or foreman until Caxton’s death in 1492, however there is little evidence to support this. We do know that de Worde took over Caxton’s printing house in Westminster around the time of Caxton’s death in 1492, and began by reprinting some of Caxton’s earlier titles. In 1496, following the settlement of a long dispute with Caxton’s family over the will, he was able legally to take control of the enterprise.

In 1500 de Worde transferred the business from Westminster to London and was the first printer to set up a press in Fleet Street, a location that would become synonymous with the printing trade. He published more than 400 books in 800 editions (Mueller, 2002), some of which are now known to exist in just a single copy. One of these unique survivors, The remorse of conscience (1515), is to be found here at Lambeth Palace Library, held within the Sion College Library Collection.

Title page: 'The remors of conscyence: Here begynneth certayne demonstracyons by our lorde to all synfull persones with the remors of mannes conscynce to the regarde of the bounte of our lorde'

‘The remors of conscyence. Here begynneth certayne demonstracyons by our lorde to all synfull persones with the remors of mannes conscynce to the regarde of the bounte of our lorde’

Wynkyn de Worde printed at least three editions of The remorse of conscience,  in 1510, in 1515 and again in 1534 (see Rhodes, 1958). The Sion copy is the only recorded example of the second edition. A fragment only, it was discovered within Sion College’s copy of Albertus Magnus, De officiis (Cologne, 1503) where it had been bound among the flyleaves. The fragment consists of folios 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, and 11 only (the first and second sheets of quire A and the second of quire B). The title (The remors of conscyence) is printed within a wooden scroll, and both the title page and its verso are illustrated with the same fine woodcut of a penitent kneeling before Christ.

De Worde often illustrated his books with woodcuts, not only re-using woodblocks from Caxton’s period but also commissioning new products from skilled craftsmen. These new blocks would be used again and again in different publications, eventually showing evidence of wear, as shown by our copy of the The remorse… The woodcut has a neat crack down the middle, also visible in the previous edition. By the time of the third recorded edition, thought to have been printed in 1534, the same woodblock has been badly broken.

Woodcut of the penitent kneeling before Christ

Woodcut of the penitent kneeling before Christ. Damage to the block is clearly visible.

The remorse of conscience takes the form of a dialogue between God and Man and is also known in earlier manuscript editions as The complaynt of God (Lambeth Palace Library holds two 15th century copies at MS306 and MS853). The author was the poet William Lichfield, whose gravestone at Christ’s College, Cambridge, reads: “William Lichfield, Doctor of Diuinitie, who deceased the yeare 1448, hee was a great student, and compiled many bookes both moral and diuine”.

Bibliography
Haley, Allan. Typographic milestones, London: John Wiley & Sons, 1992.
Meuller, Janel. Cambridge history of early modern English literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Rhodes, D. E. “The remorse of conscience”, The Library, pp. 199-200, 1958.

 

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