The Evolution of the Book Trade: Extract from ‘The Book in the Renaissance’ by Andrew Pettegree

The Book in the Renaissance

The Book in the Renaissance

The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree is a groundbreaking study of the fascinating, yet largely unknown world of books in the first great age of print, 1450–1600. In this exclusive extract, the author introduces us to post-Gutenberg Europe, an age when the printed book presented a myriad of opportunities — as well as challenges — to readers and the nascent book industry.

Extract from the Prelude of The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree…

In 1490 two friends went for a stroll through the streets of Venice. One, Sararisius, was a native of the city, his friend Juliarius a visitor. Sararisius had a meeting with other Venetian patricians at San Marco; as they made their way there the two men amused themselves by sampling the riches of Europe’s greatest trading city. As they walked along the Merceria even so urbane a figure as Juliarius was amazed by the stalls of the booksellers: great mounds of printed texts heaped up and displayed for sale. He stopped to look and was soon engrossed; Sararisius was forced to leave him while he conducted necessary business. When he returned, several hours later, he found Juliarius still browsing the books, and surrounded by piles of his purchases. It was only with difficulty that he was persuaded to move on to their engagement.

This scene, imaginatively described by another urbane Italian, Marcantonio Sabellico, in the preface to his treatise on the Latin language, encapsulates all that humanist intellectuals sought in the new world of printed books. Fifty years previously, before a cranky German businessman had concluded his experiments with techniques of making ‘mechanical books’, it would have taken a lifetime to assemble the collection that Juliarius could purchase in one good morning’s hunting on the Merceria of Venice. Printing did not invent the book: medieval Europe was full of books. But before the fifteenth century all books had to be meticulously hand-copied, with quill and ink, from other precious texts. Now, suddenly, in the second half of the fifteenth century, books were available in a wild profusion. It was no wonder that men like Marcantonio Sabellico believed that the world of knowledge – their world – was transformed for ever.

Step forward eighty years and we enter a very different world. In 1570 Lucas Cop stood before the Geneva Consistory, the body of men charged with defending the morals and religious observance of Calvin’s city. Lucas was the bad boy of the family of one of the city’s pastors, Michel Cop. Respect and embarrassment for the boy’s late father may have delayed the denouement, but the boy’s reckless and defiant behaviour eventually made confrontation inevitable. For Lucas had been reading books. Not the books of which the city’s fathers approved, and which the city’s presses turned out in large numbers, such as bibles, church orders and improving moral tracts. Lucas was addicted to literature.

Early wooden printing press, depicted in 1568. Such presses could produce up to 240 impressions per hour

Early wooden printing press, depicted in 1568. Such presses could produce up to 240 impressions per hour

Between 7 and 10 December 1570 Lucas Cop was interrogated at the city’s prison. Without hesitation or embarrassment he confessed his preferences: the lascivious love poetry of Catullus, the romantic verse of Pierre de Ronsard and Jean-Antoine de Baïf, Castiglione’s cynical handbook of court life, The Courtier. Most provocative of all was his love of Rabelais. This was not a book on sale in Geneva; Lucas had obtained a copy from a bookseller of Lausanne, and he read it in the company of other young friends. According to one of them Lucas even carried it with him to church, in place of his copy of the Psalms (this caused trouble for the bookseller who had bound it up for him, presumably in a style likely to facilitate this deception). Lucas had showed a degree of interest in the official literature favoured by the Geneva Church, such as copies of Calvin’s sermons and commentaries: but only because he stole copies from a bookseller to exchange for profane literature.

Lucas Cop was ordered to be whipped in the presence of all his fellow scholars at the city school and forbidden to travel outside the city. His accomplices escaped with lighter punishments. The affair sheds a vivid light on a new book demi-monde, with texts furtively exchanged outside the city gates, read and hand-copied in private circles. Both Cop and Pierre Enoch, another member of his secret reading circle, offered the defence that some of the disapproved texts had come from the libraries of their distinguished fathers: works of Ovid, for example, and the Latin poet Martial. Such libraries also undoubtedly contained the modern French poets. But what the fathers collected their sons should not necessarily read. The relaxed, engaging humanism of the first age of print was confronting the sterner climate of the age of confessional orthodoxy. Those who would not bend, like Lucas Cop, must be broken.

These two vignettes, so different in tone and outcome, capture much of the paradoxical quality of the book world of Renaissance Europe. For forty years after Gutenberg displayed his new invention to an admiring public, the printed book was carried along on a tide of optimism. The new technology spread with amazing speed: from Mainz through the cities of the German Empire, across the Alps to Italy, the epicentre of the Renaissance; north and east to France, the Low Countries, England, Poland and Bohemia. By 1490 printing presses had spread the new art to over 200 cities in every part of the continent.

Yet even as this expansive geography of print was being plotted, book industry professionals received the first indications that blind faith in the new technology would be misplaced. There were simply not enough readers to absorb this new torrent of books. Not that this would have been readily apparent to a complaisant, triumphant humanist like Marcantonio Sabellico, who would, it must be said, also have had little sympathy for the plight of a rebellious boy like Lucas Cop. Men such as Sabellico welcomed a world full of books only because it provided a greater variety of texts for people like themselves. This was a more limited vision than they would have recognised. It was also an impossible dream, and potentially ruinous for the printers and booksellers who tried to make it a reality. The scholarly community was not yet large enough to absorb the many thousands of copies placed on the market by those eager to share the craze for the new technology. Publishers found themselves with unsold copies, and many of the first printers were quickly driven into bankruptcy.

Gutenberg Johannes, father of the printing press

Gutenberg Johannes, father of the printing press

Ultimately print would survive only by developing new types of book for new types of reader: texts of a type and variety unimaginable in Gutenberg’s day. The enormous diversification of this book market is the second part of the story of the Renaissance book world: a world shaped less by the idealism of scholars than by pragmatic businessmen for whom the only books that mattered were those that turned a profit. In the process print pushed into areas of society previously untouched by the medieval manuscript. New markets sprang up, for news, controversy, popular science and medicine, as well as the literature and poetry that led Lucas Cop into such difficulties. These new markets, mostly of books in the vernacular languages, flourished side by side with the still buoyant market for texts in Latin, the international language of scholarship. Gradually they brought book ownership within the compass of a whole new public. They also raised urgent concern about how access to this new more inclusive world of print should be regulated, both to protect the investment of the printers, and to protect readers from themselves.

Much of this new literature was worlds away from the expensive scholarly texts so lovingly crafted for sale in the markets of Italy, France and Germany in the fifteenth century. Many of the new genres were cheap, short and disposable. They were intended for everyday use, not to take their place in a humanist library. Many were used to destruction, to the extent that the whole edition is now completely lost. It is very common for just one copy of a sixteenth-century almanac, pamphlet or school-book to survive. Sometimes we know it only from a reference in a bookseller’s catalogue or publisher’s accounts: the book itself has disappeared altogether.

These scrappy little books are to historians among the most interesting productions of the sixteenth-century printing press. But they were not immediately thought of as worthy of a place in a respectable collection; often we owe their survival to the interest of collectors who in their own day would have been thought of as distinctly eccentric. Now these small books are very precious, but four centuries of hard living has dispersed them throughout thousands of libraries around the world. This fact – that much of the output of the first age of print was seen at the time as being of no consequence – has meant that it has until now been very difficult to write the whole history of the first age of print. The books we know best are those that were collected into libraries. On the whole these were the largest, most scholarly and most valuable, the sort cherished by scholars and rich collectors, then and now. Scholars who have written of the print revolution of the sixteenth century have likewise tended to concentrate on the most eye-catching achievements of the new art: the great multilingual bibles, notable achievements of scientific publishing, milestones of scholarship, the most richly and lavishly illustrated texts.

The more mundane productions of the press inevitably attracted less attention and admiration. But such books – almanacs and calendars, prayer books and pamphlets – were the bedrock of the new industry. They also offer the most eloquent window into the thought world of the sixteenth century’s new generations of readers.

How can one assess the full extent of this trade, when so many of these publications have been almost completely lost? Happily this is one respect in which the new technological revolution of the twenty-first century has come to our aid. Tracing the sole surviving copy of these little books had been an almost impossible task. Now though, the sudden proliferation of online resources, catalogues and search engines allows us to gather together a vast amount of data that will permit us to match and compare information on almost all the books known to have been published in the first age of print – wherever they may be. This book represents a first attempt to take advantage of these global searches. The results are profound. We can for the first time chart a coherent narrative of print, from the first experiments of the 1450s to the dawn of a mass information society. For all the twists and turns, reverses, disappointments and misunderstandings, it is an arresting story.

By the year 1600, 150 years after Gutenberg’s Bible was first exhibited at the Frankfurt Fair, Europe’s presses had cranked out something in the region of 350,000 separate titles: a cumulative total of some one hundred million individual copies. The impact of this torrent of print was enormous, but it was possible only because of the development of a multifaceted and sophisticated international industry that totally reshaped both the medieval book world and the reading public. The Book in the Renaissance is the story of that transformation.

Andrew Pettegree is Head of the School of History at the University of St Andrews, and founding director of the St Andrews Reformation Studies Institute. One of the pre-eminent Reformation scholars in Europe, he is the editor of The Reformation World and The Early Reformation in Europe, and author of Europe in the Sixteenth Century, among others.

The Book in the Renaissance is available now form Yale University Press.

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