Before the Kindle, Another Reading Revolution


Yale University Press

Andrew Pettegree has dived into the history of the book just as its future seems most uncertain. His new work, The Book in the Renaissance, came out a mere month before Barnes & Noble would announce putting itself up for sale, reigniting debate about the end of print.

Pettegree, the head of the School of History at St Andrews University in Scotland, examines an earlier rocky transition in the history of the written word: not the transition from print to digital, but the transition from manuscript books to print. From his new survey made possible by libraries' online presence, he argues in The Book in the Renaissance that the early printed book market turns out not to have been at all like what scholars previously imagined. Printers, pressed by the tricky economics of the new technology, relied not on the famous new Bibles but rather on cheap pamphlets and light literature to stay afloat. News turned out to be a profitable area for these early publishers. Scholars, meanwhile, worried that the new technology would not so much advance civilization as degrade it, flooding the market with cheap, error-ridden classics and a prodigious quantity of non-scholarly rubbish.

Here, Professor Pettegree discusses the peculiarities of print in its infancy.

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What did you find most interesting of the trends that you uncovered in your study of the early book industry?

Two things. The first is the extent to which the new book market was underpinned by books that hadn't played any role in the conventional narrative of what's called the "print revolution." The earliest commentators welcomed print, celebrating it as an essential part of the civilizing process on the way to modernity.

But inevitably this view concentrates on the most eye-catching of the newly-printed books: the great Bibles of Gutenberg and Plantin, Copernicus and scientific books, atlases, maps. The fact is that these big books almost always lost money. The engine room of the new industry turned out to be small books and pamphlets, at most two days' work in the print shop, which could turn a quick profit. I think our project is the first thing that has really spelled this out in quantitative terms.

The second thing is our discovery of what you might call a two-speed Europe. The conventional geography of print always emphasizes how quickly it spread throughout Europe. Within 50 years of print's invention, over 200 places had a printing press. But most of those early presses only survived a few years—they quickly went out of business and print contracted. What we discovered is around 85 percent of print output was produced close to the geographical center of European trade—in France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. This was the heart of production. Outside this central zone, Spain, England, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe had essentially dependent markets.

You mention in your book that, contrary to what we might think today, there was actually concern in some quarters that the advent of print would be a bad thing for society, and would degrade civilization rather than advancing it. What exactly were these folks worried about?

Fifteenth-century scholars had a clear idea of what print could achieve but it was a narrow and essentially selfish one: they wanted more and cheaper books for people like themselves. They wanted cheap, accurate classics.

But most of the first printers were not educated men—they were craftsmen. Errors crept in, and the vision of a definitive accurate text proved extremely hard to achieve.

The scholarly community also hadn't reckoned with what you might call the democratizing impact of print. In the Renaissance world education was very hard-won. Only people with money could go to university and the texts they studied there were expensive to procure. Students had to pay to have copied texts made from master manuscripts. Print threatened to open education out to the self-taught and the socially ambitious. It was this that early critics of print latched upon when they spoke of, for example in the case of one Filippo de Strata, "brutes" turning themselves into doctors.

So it was not, in fact, when these first printers went out of business, that there weren't enough readers—it was simply that the printers were making the wrong thing?


The situation really is that the first generation of printers, encouraged by scholars, naturally produced the sort of books these people wanted. But it's hard to apply this sort of commercial model—this small, bespoke model used for manuscripts—to a new process that produces 300 or more identical items. The irony is that there were plenty of other readers out there. The first printers ignored the groups that we might call pragmatic readers. Literacy was already widely-disseminated in the fifteenth century. There were lots of people who could read but did not habitually buy books, so the trick was to discover how to reach them.

One of the ways to reach the masses and turn a profit wound up being news. That seems very odd today in light of the struggling news industry. How did news become a profitable line of work, and why were people suddenly interested in consuming it in print form rather than orally?

This is not always recognized, but there was a very healthy market for news before printing. Merchants in particular had to know about far away events before they dispatched their goods and they had a very well-organized commercial service to meet this need. News was gathered up in places like Venice and Rome because they were the keys to the Mediterranean trade. Then it was copied out in professional copy-shops and dispatched northwards to Germany and further afield to people who paid a subscription for the service. It was an extremely well-organized trade; manuscript newsletters continued into the 17th century because they provided confidential news and were was regarded as being high-quality.

It was the printers who realized there was a wider public for this commercially-printed news and that, furthermore, news print fit the economic needs of the trade. News books were always small, fewer than eight pages, and could be turned out in two days on the press.

Why is that so critical? If you finish a text in two days you're making money back from it in two days. A major scholarly text takes the best part of a year to produce, and you can't make money from it until the very last page is printed.

Now: why does news become printed rather than oral? Well, it doesn't replace oral news culture. Printed texts really were a natural extension of contemporary news culture, which included marketplace gossip and the official pronouncements made from the town hall steps or the pulpit. The two existed side by side, offering consumers a new layered market of rumor, official proclamation, and print. But of course people in this multimedia news world have exactly the same problems as we do today knowing what to believe: news was not necessarily more true just because it was printed.

You write, also, of news ballads, specifically: news in ballad form, sold in pamphlets. Clearly, we don't do that now. What was that like?

Remember this is an age in which everybody sang. Singing was ubiquitous, whether in the fields or in the medieval court in the form of epic verses. People were particularly used to the idea of song as a pedagogic medium—Protestant churches made use of this. The news ballad was a natural extension of this lyrical world. Those selling news pamphlets or broadsheets would often sing the song out in the marketplace, waving copies in their hands to try to get people interested. In fact, in Germany, sellers of news pamphlets were often known as "news singers" rather than "news sellers." So that's why so much news is in verse form.

I think it's also true that versal song was a very good way of cloaking sentiments skeptical of authority, as well as a way of internalizing bad news. If you're going to write about a defeat in battle it's easier do that through a verse lament—lamenting the brave king who went to his death—than it is in a news pamphlet, which sets these events out in bald prose. Verse can approach the subject more obliquely.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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