Books and Education – The Christian church was the sole source of books and education. The monks used to copy out works by hand. Some – such as the gospels penned between 698 and 721 by the monks of Lindisfarne under the guidance of the bishop – were beautifully produced and illustrated. A jaroow monk named Bede completed the History of the English Church and People in 731. It was the first account of the country’s story since its carliest days.
So far as education was concerned, the Church was interested only in training youngsters for the priesthood. King Alfred took a more generous view. He wished that every free-born boy should be able to read. Since all the books were in Latin, he ordered them to be translated into English. He did some of the work himself – often putting in stories that were not in the originals.
As time went by, the monasteries agreed to tutor the sons of noblemen as well as future monks. Schools were built. In the 14th century, there were between three and four hundred rammar schools in Britain, and their pupils came from a much wider section of the community.
Education for the mass of the population did not arrive until the 20th century. But the upper classes – and, gradually, the middle classes, too – were learning to read.
When every book had to be copied out by hand, there were few of them and they were expensive. Most of the works were in unrhyming verse – though Chauser introduced rhyming couplets when he wrote the Canterbury Tales in 1388. This book was full of humour – a jovial, sometimes bawday, bit of story-telling that romped along from beginning to end.
Normally stories were told in ballads, few of which were written down. People recited them – or, sometimes, chanted them. Some attempt was made to produce books by carving letters and illustrations on blocks of wood.
In 1451 – 56, however, a citizen of Mainz in Germany named Johannes Gutenberg produced what is known as moveable type. You could assemble the letters for a book; and, when it was printed, break them up and use them again.
Gutenberg’s invention came to the notice of William Caxton, an English silk merchant living in the Flanders town of Bruges. From this beginning Caxton produced the first English printing press.
In 1476, he set up in business at Westminter. Between 1477 and 1491, he published nearly eighty books. Among them were romantic stories from France, translated into English.