William de Machlinia and the first title-page in English

Printer William de Machlinia was born in Malines (Mechelen) in the Low Countries. He moved to London where, since 1483, he worked as an independent printer. He had learned the trade form John Lettou (which is an old form of Lithuania, but whether the printer came from there is not known). In 1481, Lettou and Machlinia printed the very first book on English property law. Written by Sir Thomas Littleton, it was entitled Treatise on Tenures. The work was written in a peculiar dialect compounded of Norman French and phrases in English known as ‘law French’. Although Edward III had laid down by statute that viva voce proceedings in court should not take place in French, a language which ‘was much unknown in the realm’, the practice however lingered on for some considerable time. It became officially prohibited by a statute passed during the Commonwealth of 1650.

Between 1483 and 1490 Machlinia issued at least twenty-four books as a sole printer, none of those are dated, though some contain his name and place of printing, i.e. London (Fleet Bridge and Holborn). He was responsible for the printing of the bull of Pope Innocent III, granting dispensation for the marriage of Henry VIII and Elizabeth of York in March 1486. Nothing is known of the man himself, but he left his mark on the history of English printing.

The very first book with an attempt at a title-page is the Sermo ad populum predicabilis, by Arnold Therhoernen printed at Cologne in 1470, but a full title-page was not generally adopted till half a century later. The first English title-page is very brief, and reads as follows: A passing gode lityll boke necessarye & helpefull agenst the Pestilence, written by Canutus, Bishop of Aarhaus. The book was printed by Machlinia in about 1482. It is interesting to note how quickly the art of printing was used by the authorities to highlight urgent matters of social health and well-being. Printing almost immediately became a tool in the desperate fight against the plague.

Title-pages /titles / Defoe
The best-known pilgrim in Chaucer’s collection of Canterbury tales is Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, a bawdy woman who is the very antithesis of virtuous womanhood. In her delightful tale she challenges all contemporary wisdom about women and the female role in society. The Wife of Bath claims to be an expert on married life having had five husbands (her first at the age of twelve). She ridicules virginity and poses the question: what are genitals for if not for procreation? She insists that street knowledge and the authority of experience outweigh that of scripture and tradition. When she boasts her skill as a weaver, she lets her fellow pilgrims know that she surpassed the women of Ypres and Ghent. Flemish women of course were famous for their cloth-making skills, both in weaving fine linen and for producing highly prized lace. But they were also famed for another, less virtuous quality. In London, they had acquired a reputation as brothel-keepers (madams) and prostitutes.

Around 1390, the word frow was introduced in the English vocabulary, meaning a Dutch/Flemish woman. The word was directly derived ‘vrouw’. By the sixteenth century many of such ‘imported’ terms acquired a negative connotation, reflecting an increasing mistrust of immigrants. Flemish ‘frows’ referred to prostitutes. King Henry VIII infamously referred to his fourth wife Anne of Cleves as a foul ‘Flemish mare’ and told courtiers that he could not perform his husbandly duties because of her appearance. In his play The Dutch Courtesan (c.1604/5) John Marston introduces a prostitute from the Low Countries. She is the source of all evil in the story and is referred to as a ‘Flaunders mare’. Dryden wasn’t too complimentary either. In his Rival Ladies (1664) he describes a dame in terms of ‘Flanders shape’, that is a ‘lump of earth and phlegm together’. Why this association of Flanders with prostitution? From the Middle-Ages until late in the seventeenth century many of the brothels on the south bank of the Thames were operated by Flemish women. Daniel Defoe points to those bawdy houses (which was a contemporary term for brothel: a bawd was a woman who procures prostitutes) in The Voyage of Don Manoel Gonzalez, commenting that ‘the mistresses of them were generally Dutch (that is Flemish) women’. This quote seems to imply some confusion about the use of the terms Flemish and Dutch of which Defoe was very much aware. In A Plan of the English Commerce (1728, p.116 and 119) he noted that in England the word ‘Flanders’ was commonly used interchangeably with ‘Holland’ and ‘Dutch’.

In two single lines of the Wife’s prologue, Chaucer had summarized a theme that would form the basis for Defoe’s masterpiece Moll Flanders (1722). The Low Countries are present from the very outset of the novel. The fact that the beginning of this novel is set in Colchester is significant. The flourishing of the textile industry in Colchester, Norwich, and Sandwich can be directly traced to the presence of refugees from the Low Countries. In Norwich there were more than 4,000 foreign residents in 1582 and nearly 1,300 Flemish and Walloon workers had settled in Colchester in 1586. These were large groups of immigrants in relation to the towns’ native population. In London, Flemish women were since the Middle-Ages associated with prostitution. By about the middle of the eighteenth century the estimated number of some 50,000 whores in London included a considerable contingent of Flemings.

Moll Flanders is the story of the notorious life and ultimate repentance of a woman who lived much of her adult life as a whore and a thief. Moll Flanders is her nickname. Contemporary readers would have suspected the nature of Moll’s life simply from her name. A ‘Moll’ in the slang of the time is a woman of low repute, often the partner of a criminal. Moll was, moreover, the nickname of a notorious female thief, Moll Cut-Purse, immortalized in two plays of the early seventeenth century. Defoe’s choice of Flanders for his protagonist’s name is also deliberate. Before reading a single sentence of the novel, the author lets his readers know that Moll is a loose woman. It may be seen both as the author’s devise to warn off those readers who would take offence to the story on the one hand and, on the other, a taste-maker to the curious many who would be prepared to follow the author in a eventful journey through the shadier sides of society. The aptness of the title has been lost in translations of the novel. In the first Dutch rendering of the novel (published in 1752 by Steven van Esveldt in Amsterdam) the translator must have struggled with the title. He solved the problem thus: De levensgevallen en bedrijven van Vlaamsche Mie. The wealth of information that Defoe’s title contained has been obliterated in translation.