Book Review: The Printing and Printers of the Book of Common Prayer 1549-1561

The Printing and Printers of the Book of Common Prayer 1549-1561

Peter Blayney

Cambridge University Press, 2022 (ISBN: 978-1-108-83741-5, 253pp, £29.99)

Before the present decade ends, the extant iteration of republican settlement in France is likely to become its longest-lasting. When inaugurated in 1958, it became the fifth such version in under two centuries. The English Prayer Book went through the same number of versions in a shorter span of time before settling on the present permanent authorised format of 1662. Like the constitutional instability of post-revolutionary France, the story of the early versions of the prayer book is tempestuous. That story has been told many times by various writers, notably in Dearmer’s Story of the Prayer Book and Bishop Drury’s How we got our Prayer Book. What Blayney adds to the fairly familiar politico-religious narrative is a forensic review of the process of commissioning, printing and binding the actual copies of the prayer books.

The book is outstandingly well-researched. Blayney notes the existence of around 250 Edwardian era prayer books (c.140 of the 1549 and c.110 of the 1552) and reproduces pages from many of them as both colour and grayscale plates throughout. Together with a reconstruction of the identities, movements, and motivations of the main printers, this book achieves an unprecedented picture of the logistical exercise which reformation era English governments undertook in promulgating the new liturgies. The period reviewed is brief but covers the first three prayer books, with the production process of Elizabeth’s 1559 the most complex and taking up almost three quarters of the volume. 

The minutiae of Blayney’s research, involving dense technical terminology and stings of characters which seem more like mathematical proofs than descriptions of printed work, is at points overwhelming. The author admits that the project, which began with the consideration of just one edition, experienced ‘mission creep’. The motivation does not seem to have been deep interest in the spirituality, doctrine, or history of the prayer book – theological assessments are rare and when made (e.g. in reference to the omission of biblical genealogies) are not deeply considered or contextualised. By contrasts, this is a book springing strictly from fascination with the mechanics of the early modern printing industry.

One small but profound contribution which the book does make to historical theology is its consideration of the famous ‘black rubric’ at the end of the prayer book communion service. Recognising that this item is distinct from his central concerns, Blayney has done well to silo it in its own short Appendix. Readers will be conscious that an author is attempting something truly audacious when he describes any aspect of the mature work of Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch as non-credible ‘myths’ and ‘significant inaccuracies’. Both MacCulloch and a host of other worthies including Bishop Buchanan have given judgement on the origin of the term ‘black rubric’, ascribing it variously to the literal colour of the original or nineteenth century printing or to the negative light in which it was viewed by the Tractarians and their successors. Blayney gives significant evidence for the incompatibility of these formulations with the facts, instead arguing very convincingly for a different typographic explanation. 

This book will mostly appeal to those with an interest, like the author, in early printing. It does however throw much useful light on the nuances of early prayer book publishing, beset by limits of printing volume, abrupt distribution deadlines, and mid-production editorial tinkering with the text. 

Edward Keene, Little Shelford