Dr Alexandra da Costa, Faculty of English




Biographical Information

I'm a Senior University Lecturer at the Faculty of English. Before I came to Cambridge, I was at Oxford as a Fixed-Term Fellow at St Hilda’s College, and before that as a Research Fellow and Tutor at Keble College. I studied English Literature at Oxford as an undergraduate, specialising in medieval literature through their 'Course 2', before going on to complete my Masters and DPhil there. My doctoral thesis was on the printed books that Syon Abbey printed in the turbulent 1530s, when the Church in England was threatened by both the spread of Lutheran heresy and Henry VIII's desire for greater ecclesiastical control. This has since become a book, Reforming Printing: Syon Abbey's Defence of Orthodoxy 1524-1534 (OUP, 2012).

Research Interests

My most recent book is Marketing English Books, 1476-1550: How Printers Changed Reading (OUP, 2020) is about how the earliest printers moulded demand and created new markets. Until the advent of print, the sale of books had been primarily a bespoke trade, but printers faced a new sales challenge: how to sell hundreds of identical books to individuals, who had many other demands on their purses. This book contends that this forced printers to think carefully about marketing and potential demand, for even if they sold through a middleman—as most did—that wholesaler, bookseller, or chapman needed to be convinced the books would attract customers. Marketing English Books sets out, therefore, to show how markets for a wide range of texts were cultivated by English printers between 1476 and 1550 within a wider, European context: devotional tracts; forbidden evangelical books; romances, gests, and bawdy tales; news; pilgrimage guides, souvenirs and advertisements; and household advice. Through close analysis of paratexts—including title-pages, prefaces, tables of contents, envoys, colophons, and images—the book reveals the cultural impact of printers in this often overlooked period. It argues that while print and manuscript continued alongside each other, developments in the marketing of printed texts began to change what readers read and the place of reading in their lives on a larger scale and at a faster pace than had occurred before, shaping their expectations, tastes, and even their practices and beliefs.

More broadly my research frequently focuses on incunabula and early printed books meant for an English readership. I’m particularly interested in cheaper books and books which went through multiple editions and what they suggest about less learned and more “popular” reading practices and tastes. I have published articles on Mirk's Festial, and pilgrimage souvenirs and guides to English shrines. I also have a wider interest in religious literature in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, especially the ways in which these texts speak to political and pastoral concerns too. My current work focuses on controversial tracts and material, and the ways in which printers and writers might try to negotiate restrictions on their publication and circulation.

Areas of Graduate Supervision

Early printed books, medieval and early-sixteenth century religious literature (especially pastoral and/or heretical), political literature, popular literature

Selected Publications


---, Reforming Printing: Syon Abbey’s Defence of Orthodoxy 1524-1535 (Oxford: OUP, 2012)

---, Marketing English Books: How Printers Changed Reading 1476-1550 (Oxford: OUP, 2020)

Articles and Chapters

---, ‘“An hard bone for ye fleshly mynded to gnaw vppon”: Reading Habits in Contention’ in Medieval and Early Modern Religious Culture: Essays Honouring Vincent Gillespie on his 65th Birthday, eds. Ralph Hanna and Laura Ashe (Turnhout: Brepols, 2019), pp. 187-208.

---, ‘”That ye mowe redely fynde...what ye desyre”: Early Printed Tabulae and Constrained Reading’, The Huntingdon Quarterly 81 (2018), pp. 391-313.

---, ‘Negligence and Virtue: Errata Notices and their Evangelical Use’, The Library 19 (2018), pp. 159-173

---, ‘Passing, False Relics and Failed Speech Acts in the Pardoner’s Tale’, Critical Survey: Chaucer – Articles on Practice, Theory, Reading 29 (2018), pp. 27-47

---, ‘Selling Forbidden Books: Profit and Ideology in Thomas Godfray’s Evangelical Printing’, Journal of the Early Book Society 19 (2017), pp. 125-148

---, 'Worde, Wynkyn de', in Siân Echard and Robert Rouse (eds) The Encyclopedia of British Medieval Literature (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2017)

---, ‘Functional Ambiguity: Negotiating Censorship in the 1530s’, The Library 15 (2014), pp. 410-23

---, ‘Marketing the Shrine: Printed Pilgrimage Souvenirs, Guides and Advertising’, Journal of the Early Book Society 16 (2014), pp. 75-88

---, 'A Gift of Gratitude: Walter Hilton Scala perfectionis (Westminster) Wynkyn de Worde, 1494', in Emprynted in thys Manere: Early Printed Treasures from Cambridge University Library (Cambridge: Cambridge University Library, 2014), pp. 140-141

---, ‘Defending Orthodoxy: Ulrich Pinder’s Speculum Passionis and Fewterer’s Myrrour or Glasse of Christes Passion’, in I. Johnson and A. Westphall (eds.) Geographies of Orthodoxy: Opening the Pseudo-Bonaventuran Middle English Lives of Christ (2013), pp. 393-424.

---, ‘The King’s Great Matter: Negotiating Censorship at Syon Abbey 1532-34’, Review of English Studies 62 (2011), pp. 15-29.

---, ‘From Manuscript into Print: The Quattuor Sermones, the four sermons and the Nova Festa’, Medium Aevum 79 (2010), pp. 47-67.

--- & Ann M. Hutchison, ‘Pastoral Care at Syon Abbey’, in R. J. Stansbury (ed.) Pastoral Care in the Late Middle Ages, 1200-1500 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 235-262.

---, ‘John Fewterer’s Myrrour or Glasse of Christes Passion and Ulrich Pinder’s Speculum Passionis’, Notes & Queries 56 (2009), pp. 27-29.