The Birth of the Book Auction

The late 17th century saw the arrival of a new way of buying and selling books. Amy Bowles explores the impact of the book auction on those with a commercial and scholarly interest in the printed word.

In 1679, three years after the first recorded book auction was held in England, an Anglican preacher Edward Stillingfleet was embroiled in a series of printed refutations and counter-refutations with a Catholic priest Thomas Godden. The debate concerned Stillingfleet’s ‘charges against the Church of Rome’ and the year saw him respond with a volume entitled Several Conferences Between a Romish Priest, A Fanatick Chaplain, and a Divine of the Church of England. This series of four imagined conversations is set within an early book auction, a newly available social arena that encapsulated intrigue and uncertainty for its early attendees. The characters’ discussion begins when the Priest addresses the Chaplain:

Rom. P: You are well met at this Auction of Books. I have been present at many of them beyond Sea: but I never was at one in England before. How go the prices of Books here.
Fan. Ch: Very dear methinks, by the Books I have bought [...].
R.P: May I know what they are Sir?
F.C: Only some few choice pieces which I have picked out of this great Catalogue.
R.P: Whereabouts are they now in the Catalogue?
F.C: Among the Fathers; But I observe the Church of England men buy them up at any rate [...] yonder sits a Divine of the Church of England, who I suppose, is the person, who bought so many Fathers at the last Auction, as though he had a mind to write against the Papists. 

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The Birth of the Book Auction

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