The earliest book-shops were the monasteries. There, a person desirous of procuring any work might be pretty sure of a correct text, owing to the cares and precautions usually exercised. In time books came to be sold by laymen in shops through the city, but the direct vendors were only sellers on commission, 1-6d. to the shilling, the rector of college or university was the proprietor. By an oath did the rector secure the agent’s good faith and loyalty in all transactions of buying and selling:
“You swear that the books received by you shall be safely kept, exhibited and sold in good faith. You swear that you will not deny them nor conceal them, but that you will expose them at proper time and place. You swear that if you are consulted on the selling price of one or more books, you will give in good faith, reserving your proper commission, an estimation, i. e. , such a sum as you would voluntarily give on occasion. You swear that the price of the copy, and the name of the vendor (the person sworn), if required, shall be placed in some part of the book exposed for sale.”
The bookseller, after giving proofs of possessing sufficient learning, and procuring bail, was appointed to his office by a letter of the rector. One of these letters, dated in 1354, and still extant, gave the holder a a privilege to buy and sell books Parisius et albi . Even after the invention of printing the booksellers continued for a period to be bound to the universities.
The bail of a bookseller was about 50 livres Parisiis. Each of the four chief booksellers had to find bail for 200 livres. Many of the book-agents who flourished in the early part of the fourteenth century were found to be the reverse of good men and true, and new and more stringent regulations were made touching the good life and good fame and sufficient learning of these librarians, and insisting on the oaths to be taken and the bail to be perfected. Yet it seems not to have been easy for the men of commission to play the rogue. They gave notice at once to the rector when a MS. was sold, and it was to him or his treasurer the money was paid, deducting the agent’s fee.
One of the bookseller’s duties was to lend books to be transcribed, on receiving their value and the lending fee. If he considered the text not correct, he would send it to the university beforehand to have the needful emendation made.
Besides the sworn and bail-producing booksellers, there were some folk of little estimation who were allowed to keep stalls, but not to dispose of any work higher in value than ten sols. These folk of low degree were under the surveillance of four of the sworn men, and obliged to conduct their commerce in the open air nec sub tecto (nor under cover). These poor fellows must have been rather worse off than the stall-keepers of our day. MSS. works not exceeding five pence in value were not very remunerative, nor could the supply be very abundant. The sale of a work of any value was a ceremonious and imposing transaction; witness the following instrument, executed by Geoffri de Saint Leger, “librarian-clerk and qualified as such,” before solemn and public notaries in the year 1332, and still preserved in the College of Laon, in Paris:
“I, Geoffroi de Saint Leger, librarian-clerk, and qualified as such, acknowledged to have sold, ceded, quitted and transferred; sell, cede, quit and transfer, under forfeiture of all and each of my goods and imprisonment of my body, a book entitled ‘Speculum Historiale in Consuetudines Parisienses’ (Historical Picture of the Customs of the Parisians), divided and bound in four volumes, and covered with red leather, to the nobleman, Messire Gerard de Montagu, King’s Advocate in Parliament, in consideration of the sum of forty livres Parisis, wherewith said librarian remains content, and avows himself well paid.”
Some of the twenty-eight librarians of 1342 must have been slippery folk. Stringent laws, enforced more than a few times, were necessary to prevent them from over-charging their customers, or selling valuable works without giving notice to the rector. There was always a delay of four days in effecting a sale, in order to ascertain if the work were not needed by some members of the university.
In 1344, two years after the enacting of some stringent regulations on the librarians, the duty of marking the price on the fly-leaf, or some leaf, being particularly dwelt on, the “Philobiblion of Richard de Bury, Bishop of Durham,” appeared in England. We present the eulogium of this most worthy predecessor of the Dibdins, the Hebers, and Roxburgh-dukes of modern times, on the literary treasures of old Lutetia:
“Oh, what a torrent of joy inundated our heart every time it was in our power to visit Paris, the Paradise of the world ( paradisum mundi, Parisius)! Too short was the time passed there for our immense love! There are the libraries, sweeter than all the perfumes of the world—there the parterres where bloom innumerable books—there the meadows of the academia, the promenades of the peripatetics, the heights of Parnassus, the portico of the Stoics, the reign of Aristotle, the arbiter of art as of science, the unique oracle of the most excellent doctrine of this sublunary world! There Ptolomey and Genxacher (?) measure by figure and number the epicycle and the eccentricity of the planets. There Paul reveals mysteries, Dionysius sets in order and distinguishes the hierarchies. There everything pertaining to grammar, invented by Cadmus and the Phoenicians, is represented in Latin letters by the Virgin Carmente. There, opening our treasures, unstringing our purses, we scatter our money, and the priceless books seem to cost only a little sand and dust.”
The good bishop had scattered his money to some purpose in Germany and Italy. His mode of proceeding may be guessed at from his favorite maxim: “Never hesitate at a price unless you suspect deceit, or reserve your money for a greater occasion. When the object is truth, purchase, but sell not.”
Collection: Frank Leslies Weekly
Publication: Frank Leslie’s Weekly
Date: SEPTEMBER 14, 1867
Title: The Book Trade of the Middle Ages
Frank Leslie’s Weekly, founded in 1855 and continued until 1922, was an American illustrated news publication started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie. While only 30 copies of the first edition were printed, by 1897 its circulation had grown to an estimated 65,000 copies.