Print and Literary Culture: Introduction

From the beginning London presses dominated the English printing industry; indeed until very late in the seventeenth century the two university presses at Oxford and Cambridge and the much smaller printing industries of Scotland, Dublin and the American colonies offered the only legal competition. Although a provincial press developed in the eighteenth century it remained small and heavily dependent on London materials. The metropolis was also the kingdom's major center of literary culture, in part because the royal court, the inns of court and the theatres all provided sources of patronage for aspiring writers. From 1640 onward political partisanship and competition generated additional business for writers and printers, both by enlarging the market for their work and inducing politicians to subsidize writers who supported their positions. Print culture assumed an enormous variety of forms, which evolved considerably over the century covered by this website, ranging from expensive multi-volume publications to ephemeral squibs, printed on a single piece of paper.

But attention to print should not be allowed to eclipse other forms of written and oral communication. A flourishing culture of manuscripts and scribal publication persisted into the eighteenth century, while both manuscript and print drew upon but also influenced oral forms of communication. Many printed books originated as oral performances -- for example of sermons, speeches or plays -- but print also influenced oral culture, even among the illiterate, by facilitating the circulation of ballads, stories and other materials. This section is devoted to an overview of the world of London writing and print and its relationship to orality.

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