During Skelton’s lifetime, many changes took place which had implications for his role as a poet. Most of his poems listed below are known to us through collected editions by early printers such as Marshe, Pynson, De Worde, and Faques. But before the printing presses were installed, Skelton seems to have had a connection to printer William Caxton, who mentions that a John Skelton from Oxford worked as a corrector on one of his books (Renchler 91). Skelton was an established poet before the age of print, and there are a couple of manuscripts left that attest this. Skelton’s works survive in 7 manuscript witnesses: Manerly Margery Mylk and Ale, Collyn Clout, Agenst Garnesche, and a suspected holograph copy A Lawde and Prayse appear in miscellanies of varying contents. It also occurred that printed editions were transcribed into manuscript again, which happened with fragments of Elynour Rummynge and Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell. Why Come Ye Nat to Courte? knows an interesting development, as it was simultaneously printed and copied into a manuscript, which shows that the poem had a certain urgency and both copyists and printers had to keep up to date. Because Skelton wrote in the transition period between manuscript and print, the effects of this change are visible in Skelton’s writings, his readership, public persona, and literary afterlife.
The interest in Skelton’s relation to the advent of print culture is fairly recent. Two notable contributors to the debate are Jane Griffiths and Alexandra Gillespie. Even though the subtitle of Gillespie’s Print Culture and the Medieval Author (2006) suggests the book is about Lydgate ad Chaucer, Gillespie often refers to Skelton. The first instance is the manuscript BL Royal 18 D II, or Lydgate’s Troy Book, in which Upon the Dolorus Dethe appears. Next to the main texts by Lydgate, the book contains texts compiled especially for the royal house of Northumberland; Skelton seems to have composed his poem as a variation on Lydgate’s theme of English royal identity (157). Griffiths also pays attention to this particular manuscript in her analysis of significance of the title “Skelton Laureate” in manuscript and print witnesses of Skelton’s poetry. As most manuscript compilers chose their texts based on subject matter, such as anti-Wolseyan satire or lyrics, they were not interested in Skelton’s authority; hence Skelton’s name alone would suffice (Griffiths 218). Printers, on the other hand, would seem to be fixed on advertising their ware by means of a recognisable author-figure, which we also see later in the various woodcuts that were added to prints of Skelton. However, this is not the case with the Laureate tag, which as Griffiths has noted is rather due to “the printer’s concern for speed than with his strategies for publicity” (221). Most later editions of Skelton are hasty copies from earlier prints, which is how the title Laureate multiplied so quickly. It was easier for printers to slavishly stick to their copy-text than investing their efforts into clever marketing. According to Griffiths, the main difference between manuscript and print versions of Skelton’s poetry is thus: “in manuscript versions of Skelton’s works the text is reproduced with thought, even if selectively; in print the reproduction, while more comprehensive, is metaphorically as well as literally mechanical” (221). An exception forms the Northumberland book of royal lineage. As can be seen on the facsimile, the compiler emphasises the status of Skelton as poet laureate by adorning his title with colours and curls. It would seem that the royal readership of the book would prefer to read poetry from a poet with royal connections, and the Laureate title had the royal seal of approval. (219).
David R. Carlson also pays attention to the introduction and assimilation of printing during Skelton’s life. He too acknowledges that manuscripts were still the preferred means for the circulation of writing during the early age of print, especially for an aristocratic audience (13). “As products of a venerable tradition, the work of artists and capable of rich adornment, manuscripts were always unique; they lent to the reading of work transmitted by them a value of exclusivity which machine-made, relatively mass-produced books printed by businessmen could not have.” (13). A second benefit of the exclusivity of manuscripts is that there was an opportunity for self-publishing. Carston deems it likely that Skelton’s more particular poetry, such as the anti-Wolseyan poems, “would have reached such destinations by means of quasi-private publication of the works, in manuscript copies posted or circulated hand to hand at Skelton’s instigation.”
Yet there are more important changes that came with the arrival of the printing press. Whereas before, a poet was merely the distributor of poetry for a selected audience, poetry became much more accessible, and a way for a poet to address matters publicly. Skelton obviously utilised the possibility to openly satirise Wolsey, fellow clergymen, the Scots and students. Another development which Skelton set to his own hand were marginal glosses. Printers adopted the use of marginalia from manuscripts, where they served as explanatory information or a quick way of finding the required passage in a larger text. During Skelton’s lifetime, an important new tradition developed: from annotating contemporary vernacular authors, writers began to gloss their own texts (Griffiths Print 102).
The significance of print with regard to Skelton is interestingly touched upon in an edition of Elynour Rummynge from 1624. Skelton’s work is preceded by a text called Skelton’s Ghost in which the writer speaks from beyond the grave about the time of Henry VIII. It is unknown who wrote the text but it is likely that the printer, Bernard Alsop, arranged someone “to have Skelton make a posthumous appearance in the form of some verses” (Renchler 175). The fact that Alsop uses Skelton’s voice for a print – the last printed edition of Skelton’s work in the seventeenth century – seems to emphasise “that Skelton the writer could not exist apart from his printed works” (175). That is to say, the development of print was not only important for Skelton’s reputation as a poet, it also developed his literary persona within his works. This heritage of Skelton’s literary personality is emphasised in Alsop’s print (174).
The single extant version of A Ballade of the Scottysshe Kynge underlines another attitude towards literature that coincided with the flourishing of the printing press in the sixteenth century. The poem was discovered in the cover of a printed book containing two French romances; a lucky find considering the poem is insightful in the production of Agaynst the Scottes. Whilst printing gave rise to multiple copies of Elynour Rummynge, occasional and specific poems such as A Ballade ended up in book bindings when they were no longer relevant.