Richard Bankes

1525: The most pirated book of the 16th Century (and no, it’s not the bible).

Lviv Book Market - Lynden Swift-2
Book pirating really began in earnest in the 1400’s, once the invention of the printing press made the tedium of hand copying manuscripts unnecessary. What a great boon to unscrupulous book publishers that was.

In every field of literature the relative ease of printing meant that existing manuscripts along with bright-new works could suddenly be mass produced, expanding the accessibility to knowledge to more and more people. The new masters of the art: the printmakers, were quick to realise its potential.

The First Printed Herbals.

The first herbals produced with this new technology were often simply printed reproductions of works which had already been in existence in manuscript form for hundreds of years. They are known collectively as the ‘Incunabula Herbals’, incunabula meaning ‘wrapped in swaddling clothes’, and so rather lovingly referring to works produced in the first 50 years of the printing press: the newborn books.

The sudden ability to reproduce these ancient manuscripts, effectively en masse, was to turn the status quo of the previous two thousand years on its head. For the first time people were able to produce a copy of say, Dioscorides’ great work, effectively on demand, in as many copies as desired, in relatively no time at all (compared with how long it would take a scribe to copy out the entire manuscript afresh) and without having to pay a scribe for his time either. It must have seemed incredible, dangerous and exciting all at once. These were heady times for the printers and they lost no time in letting it go to their heads.

New writers were also quick to get in on the act, though all was not rosy for such early authors. Just as early manuscripts were copied by hand from manuscript to manuscript, the printing press only amplified this time-honoured means of reproduction. Within months of a popular work being printed, copies were produced by other print houses and they seldom gave any credit for their original sources. Many writers and publishers would produce so-called ‘new’ works which were predominantly reworkings of existing publications or even just translations of works in other languages, producing a rolling tumbleweed of copying, mis-translations, half-truths, garbled medicinal information and, with few exceptions, illustrations of a steadily deteriorating quality. Plagiarism was the name of the day and the copying of others’ work clearly has a very long precedent indeed.

Bankes’ Herbal, the first herbal to be printed in England.

One particularly unfortunate victim of this was the Richard Bankes, author of his very popular and high-quality eponymous herbal published in London in 1525. Seemingly an original work – or at least based on an otherwise medieval source manuscript – it ends with the words ‘Imprynted by me Rycharde Banckes, dwellynge in London, a lytel fro ye Stockes in ye Pultry’. It was the first herbal published in England and contained useful botanical information on the plants and their medicinal properties and often gave a greater amount of factual information than many other existing and more famous herbals. It also must rank as one of the most pirated books of the 16th century.

Over the next 25 years an impressive number of different editions of Richard Bankes’ work were produced. Unfortunately not one of them was by Richard Bankes. These copies were issued by other print houses and, to disguise their provenance, they were given different titles and ascribed to different authors. Sometimes they even claimed to be works by classical writers from Ancient Greece or the personal practice notes of eminent doctors. Once inside the covers however, they were simply copies of poor old Richard Bankes’ herbal.

Read more on the iPad book here:

(above image: Lviv book market. The statue is of Ivan Fedorov; the bringer of printing technology to Lviv.)