With more than 120,000 books being published each year in the UK alone note 1, it is hard for us to appreciate the challenges that must have faced 16th and 17th century scholars in getting their manuscripts into print - of all the major works written about the county of Devon during this period only John Prince's Worthies of Devon appeared in book form during the author's lifetime, and even that was a truncated version.
The earliest topographical account of Devon was the Synopsis Chorographical of Devonshire by John Hooker(1525-1601) which he wrote around 1599. It was never published, even though a copy of the manuscript was readied for publication and submitted to a printer shortly after his death note 2. The View of Devonshire in 1630 wasn't published until 1845, more than 200 years after the death of its author Thomas Westcote, while Tristram Risdon's Chorographical Description or Survey of the County of Devon was started in 1605 and completed about 1632, but didn't appear in print in its entirety until 1811.
The revered antiquarian Sir William Pole (1561-1635) gathered together a large collection of manuscripts on the history and antiquities of Devon, many of which were lost during the Civil War. Those that survived were published in 1791 by his lineal descendent Sir John-William De la Pole as Collections towards a Description of the County of Devon.
We can only speculate, and a different explanation may apply in each case, but here are some factors mitigating against the publication of works of a secular nature in Devon during the Stuart Period:
Let us leave Devon behind for a moment and take a short detour westwards into Cornwall via the Torpoint Ferry. Continue inland for a mile or so beyond the border, and you pass Antony House to the north. This is the grand ancestral home of the Carew Poles built for Sir William Carew between 1711 and 1721. More than a century earlier Sir William's forefather, Richard Carew of Antony, a contemporary of John Hooker, had completed his widely admired Survey of Cornwall, a work of exceptional quality for this genre. As with Hooker's Synopsis Chorographical of Devonshire, Carew's survey wasn't overburdened with the litany of genealogy and estate inventories of the county's gentry to be found in the treatises by Westcote and Risdon. Unsurprisingly a London publisher was readily found for a manuscript of this quality, and it appeared in print in 1602.
Mark Brayshay offers this generous assessment of Carew's volume in his introduction to Topographical Writers in South-West England:
Many copies of the manuscript of Risdon's Survey of Devon were in circulation after his death, and some 70 years later one fell into the hands of the reviled London bookseller Edmund Curll who in 1714 published by subscription a much-altered and abridged version bearing little resemblance to the original. John Prince, on discovering that Curll intended to produce this mangled edition, urged him to publish the whole work. In response he printed a second volume containing the omitted parts under the title The Continuation of the Survey of Devonshire.
To anyone familiar with the original manuscript, the shortcomings of Curll's effort were all too plain. If fell to William Chapple to redress the situation and to go some way to restoring the reputation of Risdon that had been tarnished by Curll's misrepresentation of his work. In 1772 he decided to issue a "correct" version of the Survey of Devon but died before it was complete. Nevertheless, his effort wasn't in vain; in 1785 a book entitled A Review of Part of Risdon's Survey of Devon; with corrections, annotations, and additions appeared in Chapple's name. The introduction contains this diatribe aimed at Curll:
Plagiarism was widespread among the Devon topographers of the Stuart period, a practice that had surfaced in the Tudor age when the writings of the father of English topography John Leland were copied by others.
Hooker's Synopsis Chorographical was the template for Risdon and Westcote. Risdon even purloined that unusual 'C' word in the singularly verbose title he chose for his manuscript:
The chorographical description or survey of the county of Devon, with city and county of Exeter; containing matter of history, antiquity, chronology, the nature of the country, commodities and government thereof with sundry other things worthy of observation. Collected by the travail of Tristram Risdon of Winscot, gent, for the love of his country and countrymen in that province.
The first chapter he copied almost verbatim from Hooker's manuscript without attribution, though he did acknowledge Sir William Pole as being the inspiration 'from whose lamp I have received light in these my labours'.
Risdon imposed his stamp of originality by choosing a different sequence from his rivals in the remaining chapters of his Survey:
Westcote was piqued that he was denied access to Hooker's manuscript; at least he said he was. In many instances his descriptions bear an uncanny resemblance to Hooker's. For example, Hooker said of Barnstaple 'It is a very clene and sweete towne, well paved.', which Westcote redrafts as 'The streets are somewhat low, yet well paved and thereby clean and sweet in all weathers.'.
As the first turnpike roads weren't laid in Devon until 1753, the temptation for 'sharing' the words of others to avoid the hard slog of visiting all the parishes of Devon must have been considerable. What passed for roads were little more than farm tracks by the standards of today. On the good authority of Hooker, they were:
As a postscript, here is a quick look at the laws of copyright obtaining in England in the Tudor and Stuart periods.
When the notion of copyright first emerged in 16th century England, it was not to protect the intellectual output of authors; it was for the benefit of publishers who wished to protect their exclusive right to print a particular title. The Stationers' Company of London was given responsibility by Royal Charter in 1557 for regulating the publishing industry in England. They maintained a record for each printed work in the Stationers' Register which established the publisher's right to reproduce that book in perpetuity on payment of a modest fee. The charter gave the Stationers' Company the exclusive power to seize pirated editions and bar the publication of unregistered books, though enforcement was erratic. Authors were denied membership of the Stationers' Company, making it unlawful for them to publish their own works other than through a member publisher, bookseller, or printer.
This state of affairs lasted until 1710 with the introduction of the Copyright Act, or Statute of Anne, which was the first law to enshrine the exclusive rights of the author to his own work. It created a 21 year author's copyright for works already in print at the time, and a 14 year term for all works published subsequently.