Romance readers, take heart: you have a history

September 18, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

Anyone who knows anything about book publishing knows that the genre of the romance novel is one of the most lucrative in the industry.

Thousands of titles are published each year, and these books sell in the millions of copies.

The reputation of these books is not, well, high-minded or intellectual, to say the least. I doubt that we will see the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to a romance novelist in our lifetimes.

Still, the romance novel has a long and honored history that goes all the way back to the earliest days of printing. William Caxton was the first printer in English history, setting up shop in London in 1476, barely 20 years after Gutenberg put together the first moveable-type printing press in Germany in the 1450s.

Caxton printed hundreds of books of all sorts: religious tracts and texts, histories, poetry, and the like. Many of these had ready and eager markets that Caxton was willing to exploit. Like any good businessman, Caxton wanted to expand, according to an article by A.S.G. Edwards on the British Library website:

. . . Caxton was not content to simply draw on pre-existing markets for manuscripts for his readership. He also used print to create new markets for novel and different kinds of writing. His most sustained effort of this kind was the publication of a series of prose romances, essentially a new literary form in England in the later 15th century. The most famous work of this kind was his edition of Thomas Malory’s prose Arthurian romance, Le Morte Darthur (1485), one of the biggest books his press produced.

He printed a number of other romances of this kind, all in his own translations, including Godfrey of Boulogne (1481), The Knight of the Tower (1484), Charles the Great and Paris and Vienne (both in 1485) and Blanchardin and Eglantine and The Four Sons of Aymon (both in 1490). Source: William Caxton and the introduction of printing to England – The British Library

So, romance readers, note to your more high-falutin’ friends that there were popular bodice-rippers as far back as the 15th century. Above all, keep reading.


Caxton wasn’t a man who was content to print a book and let the public show up to buy it. He took an active part in getting the word out. Here’s an is the first printed advertisement in English. It’s for one of Caxton’s books, and it was produced the year that Caxton set up shop in London, 1476. It was printed on a playing card-sized sheet for easy distribution. It advertises a book title Sarum Pie (a manual for priests) and says that it

. . . “is printed in the same letter type as the advertisement (‘enpryntid after the forme of this present lettre,’ line 3). Even without having seen the new book, its key feature, the type, can thus already be assessed.” This pioneering advertisement also “reassures potential clients that the text of the handbook is ‘truly correct’ (line 4) and that it can be acquired cheaply (‘he shal have them good chepe,’ lines 5-6). Both features will have been welcomed by priests, the target audience, who needed their textual tools to be flawless and did not have much money to spend on them.” Source: See the Oldest Printed Advertisement in English: An Ad for a Book from 1476 | Open Culture

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