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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.

Book auctions were held in public spaces, such as this coffee and tea house (German engraving, second half of 17th century). Bridgeman Images

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:

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