BALE, John


BALE, John Illustrum maioris Britanniae scriptorum

Wesel; Ipswich, Theodorus Platenus; John Overton, 1549; 1548


FIRST EDITION, 4to, ff (xii) 255 lacking final blank, Roman letter, some Italic, large woodcut on t-p showing Bale presenting this book to King Edward VI, woodcut portrait of John Wicliffe and another of him similarly presenting one of his works, three series of attractive initials, white on black criblé, naturalistic and cherubs. Contemp. Latin inscription, at head of t-p ‘William Murray is my master’, two line Latin epigram c1600 with some ink scribbles on verso of last, occasional early marginalia. T-p a bit dusty with fore-edge strengthened on blank verso, one blank corner torn away, a few minor ink splashes; light water staining to final gatherings, last leaf frayed at blank corners. Armorial bookplates of John, Earl Gower (1694-1754) on pastedown, and of Allan Heywood Bright 1912 on ffep. In C17 probably Scottish calf, spine gilt, small repair to head, arms of George, 1st Duke of Sutherland (1758-1833) blind stamped to covers.

A handsome, unusually well preserved copy of the first edition of the FIRST general catalogue of British authors and their works. Bale (1495-1563) a former monk and later Protestant bishop of Ossory was in the service of Thomas Cromwell. He began his bibliographical project to record in particular the manuscript holdings threatened by Cromwell’s dissolution of the monasteries. After his patron’s fall Bale fled to Germany, where he sent out bitter diatribes earning himself the nickname ‘bilious Bale’. On the accession of Edward VI he returned to England to share in the triumph of the reformers and publish the works composed in exile.

Bale was a very knowledgeable historian of vigorous literary skill and brilliantly expressive, but as a polemicist coarse, offensive and intemperate; this bibliography is by far his most important and enduring work. A ‘Survey of the Famous Writers of Great Britain, that is of England, Wales and Scotland’, contains British authors spanning five centuries, arranged chronologically, partly based on the De viris illustribus of John Leland. Each entry gives a short biography, then a list of the author’s works and the number of books each comprises and last a short description of their contents. It is a model which is still in common use.

Beale was an indefatigable collector and worker who personally examined the libraries of many British monasteries before their dispersal, consequently this bibliography contains much information otherwise hopelessly lost. His autograph notebook is preserved in the Selden collection of the Bodleian, Oxford. it contains the material collected for his published catalogues arranged alphabetically and includes the sources of his information.

The variant issue with two different dates on t-p and ascribed to different printers on t-p and colophon. For a good discussion of the questions surrounding the printing see W K Sessions, The First Printers at Ipswich, 1984. It is likely that work was published and distributed in England from Ipswich and in Europe from Wesel, but that does not determine its place of printing. The two final gatherings here, ’the Additio’, are not always present.

The William Murray of the t-p ex libris is doubtless Sir William Murray of Tullibardine (fl 1583), Comptroller of Scotland, sometime governor of the young King James and one of the major figures of Scottish C16 public life. He was also a zealous promoter of the reformation in his homeland.

STC 1296. Besterman I 904-5 “this book was reissued with the additional imprint Wesaliae 1549, both imprints are fictitious”. Lowndes I 102. “Supposed to be the first book printed at Ipswich. This work may be considered as the foundation of English bibliography and as such, valuable”.
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