The Book in the Renaissance


Our view of early books is biased by what survived. And these books that survived tend toward the largest, most scholarly, and most valuable. They’re an imperfect representation of printing as a whole. The more mundane types of books (e.g. almanacs and prayer books) were more vital to the industry.

The Book Before Print

It’s important to remember that books predated printing. Gutenberg’s technological innovation, in that sense, didn’t create the market for books.

print made its way into a world where demand for texts had already created an intricate, sophisticated market of production, exchange and sale.

The reliance upon parchment (instead of papyrus) and the codex (instead of scrolls) are the two major factors for why knowledge from ancient Greece and Rome made its way to us.

Of note about the codex:

  • It was popular because it was convenient (e.g. easily portable, more ergonomic to read).
  • It allowed for a different type of reading (e.g. paging back and forth was easier and thus more suited to reading and research).

Parchment was far more durable than papyrus and could even be reused. Texts were sometimes scraped off and new writing overlaid on top of it. The original text sometimes shows through today, though (known as a palimpsest).

The origin of the script or font that we use to this day ties to Charlemagne’s empire. The paperwork required to manage this sprawling empire necessitated uniform handwriting (Carolingian minuscule). When people in the Renaissance later discovered classical texts they were often in this script, which convinced the Renaissance scholars that this was the script of ancient Rome. The imitation of it ended up becoming the model for Roman text today.

The 12th to 13th centuries took book production from monasteries to universities. This in turn took scribes from clergy to tradesmen.

The production and sale of books was now the full-time occupation of a new breed of workman.

By the 15th century the book industry was already significant in size. Printing may not have arrived yet but the scale of book production for religious and scholarly purposes (in addition to some everyday ones) meant a lot of trade infrastructure was in place.

The Invention of Printing

Gutenberg may have invented book printing but he was not able to turn it into a financially viable endeavor. He died bankrupt. And while his Bible is what gained fame his first printing runs were likely more mundane schoolbooks, all lost to history as they would have been heavily used until falling apart.

The genius of print was to recognize that if the letters could be produced separately, then they could be arranged into an infinite number of new combinations, and constantly reused.

The components of the first printing press were all from existing technology. It was an innovation of assembly, really, borrowing techniques from many different trades.

The astonishingly high rate of survival – of an estimated print run of 180 copies a full fifty can be identified today – suggests that from the very beginning [Gutenberg’s Bible] was a book that was cherished and treated with awe.

Gutenberg didn’t pay great attention to which version of the Bible he printed. But he nonetheless had a great influence as the nature of print set done one version as The Version. It fixed one version as the “authorized” text and this ultimately influenced 16th century efforts at revising the Bible.

Printing came to dominate not in university towns but in the larger commercial centers that were more adept at fulfilling the various tasks required of printing. While print houses popped up in many towns and cities the survival rate of these businesses was poor.

Paper was too precious a commodity simply to be thrown away, so printers routinely sold bookbinders spoiled sheets or unwanted surplus from a print run for use in this way. The examination of original fifteenth- and sixteenth-century bindings during restoration and repair has revealed parts of many otherwise lost printed items, often fragments of school-books, or broadsheet edicts and announcements regarded at the time as too ephemeral to be worth collecting.

The inventory list of one bookseller gives us insight into three facts of the business at this time:

  • Books published in Germany during this time focused on religious themes.
  • They were mainly the works of earlier, and not current, authors.
  • Most of these works were by non-German authors.

The overall book market at the turn of the 16th century depended, in large part, on reprints of a limited set of texts. This made competition brutal as print shops were in direct competition with one another and the size of a reading audience was small.

Renaissance Encounters: The Crisis of Print

Not all welcomed printing when it arrived. Filippo de Strata (a Benedictine monk):

This is what the printing presses do: they corrupt susceptible hearts. The silly asses do not see this, and brutes rejoice in the fraudulent title of teachers, exalting themselves…

In both Italy and France it was often German immigrants who brought early knowledge of printing and kickstarted local industries. Italy, by the late-15th century, had become the center of printing in many ways. In 1472 and 1473, for example, printers in Italy produced almost double the number of editions as their equivalents in Germany. This prevalence was based more on enthusiasm, though, than logical economic strength.

The first printed books could not live up to the standard set by manuscript production in Italy. They were often dirty, smudged and inaccurate. They included too many mistakes. The inefficiency and carelessness of printers would be a repeated lament of authors throughout the era of hand-press printing, but in this first generation it had a philosophical edge: the charge that print had debased the book.

The shift from manuscripts to print led to many changes in the relationship of authors, printers, and readers. Printing made sales more impersonal, gone was the personal commissioning of a manuscript from a scribe. The print industry also required a printer to be one part tradesman and one part salesman. They had to not only figure out what to print but how, how many, and whom to sell the books to. In some smaller cities this led to early print shops quickly going out of business and, in some cases, there being long gaps of 90+ years before another printer opened.

The Creation of a European Book Market

Most printers worked as generalists, printing all manner of books. A few specialized, although this often required an existing level of success and acumen and often happened in forms of printing that had high upfront costs.

The history of book regulation is normally studied as an aspect of the history of censorship, and this casts a long shadow. So it is all the more important to emphasize that pressures for the regulation of print came overwhelmingly from within the industry itself.

This move toward regulation came without a social context in which Guilds were prevalent. Guilds existed to protect the quality of goods, protect local labor, and to encourage innovation. Early protection of books (this predated copyright law) came through privileges bestowed by rulers. But these were only valid within that ruler’s sphere of influence so they ended up being highly localized.

The late 15th and early 16th centuries was when the book market really matured. It relied upon seasonal fairs throughout the European continent, with one of the larger being in Frankfurt (which while a center of book trade was not a center of printing).

Book Town Wittenberg

Over the 15th century printing was highly consolidated into a few cities. Just 12 towns were responsible for two-thirds of printed books. And 9 of those 12 remained major centers of printing throughout the 16th century. Wittenberg, a town of around 2,000 people, was the outlier. It’s role in the printing industry was all tied to Martin Luther.

The success of Luther’s writings continued to draw printers to Wittenberg. His output and its popularity gave them a steady stream of profitable work.

Between 1520 and 1525 Wittenberg’s bookmen published 600 editions, an incredible achievement for such a young industry. The growth of the German printing industry as a whole was even more spectacular. In these six years German presses turned out 7,764 editions, an increase of 340 percent on the ten years previously, and more than four times as many books as were published in Italy during these same years.

When Leipzig banned Lutheranism printing activity cratered. It rebounded after the conversion of the Duchy.

Luther’s Legacy

Scandinavia was much lighter in its print activity. And, as was especially the case in the case of the Danish Reformation, people often relied on editions to be printed outside of the region.

This same reliance on imports was true in England. Here it also suppressed reform efforts:

Even if Luther’s followers had been more numerous, there was little incentive for any London printers to publish such works. The established firms were too dependent on official work to risk incurring the king’s displeasure; and the industry was too small for there to be much chance that a clandestine press would pass undetected.

First With The News

The religious pamphlets of the Reformation introduced many to a different kind of book. One that was in the vernacular, cheaper, and less traditional. As the Reformation receded printers looked for other ways to engage this new interest in cheap printing.

Initially almost all news pamphlets were official work (e.g. ordinances and proclamations from a town council). These works were commissioned to inform the public and also gave printers a reliable income stream. This also meant that innovation was largely done by the ruling powers. With printers working to commission it was the rulers who came up with imaginative ways to use print.

Throughout the century it was far easier to sell pamphlets that spoke of joyful victories than those that described defeat.

As the market for news developed three trends occurred:

  • News pamphlets came to more frequently record local events than sensational occurrences in distant lands.
  • A class of publisher emerged who specialized in this type of printing.
  • Pamphlets started to be bundled together as ad hoc collections.

With these larger volumes, as with news pamphlets and broadsheets, we see the emergence of a reading public increasingly prepared to invest in books beyond the functional tools of their trade or devotional lives.

Polite Recreations

As the sixteenth century wore on, more readers of books could contemplate laying out funds on books that had no immediate practical or professional purpose. A new market in recreational literature was gradually able to develop.

The poetic epic was one of the first formats to take advantage of this. It wasn’t necessarily meant for linear reading, instead being something that people would revisit at different places over time. And the setting for this reading was often communal as there was not yet a wide sense of private space for reading.

This was an age when the outside world was often experienced vicariously, through the reports of those who did brave Europe’s hazardous roads and waterways: adventures that often grew in the telling.

The big shift here was from printing in Latin to printing in the vernacular. The authors were all educated men but they were writing in English, Italian, Spanish, etc. Authors were also highly reliant upon patrons and rarely able to sustain themselves with profit from their own writing.

This vernacular printing combined with regional dominance to smooth some of the dialect differences within a language. Francis I made French the exclusive language of legal documentation in 1539. And the power that Lyon and Paris had in printing meant that printing in dialect was extremely limited.

At School

How readers at this time learned to actually read is difficult to grasp. We have evidence everywhere that shows the population of readers was growing quickly. But little remains of how they were instructed. Education overall (printing, lodging, accommodations) was one of the fastest-growing industries of the 16th century.

Universities in the medieval period were exclusively training for the priesthood. By the 16th century they focused more on humanism. Below the university level there were some civic school systems, like in Italy, but even then most students studied with independent teachers. In all cases, though, there was a heavy reliance upon Classical texts, especially Cicero. Local schools also had a large amount of value and prestige:

Citizens were happy that their children could be educated without being sent away, but they were keen that this education should be ‘in the Parisian style.’

The Literature of Conflict

It was only with the Reformation that the authorities grasped the new scale of the threat posed by the circulation of books.

Initial attempts at censorship tended to focus on individual texts and didn’t regulate much of how books came to market. But by the 1540s the Catholic Church started to shift toward publishing comprehensive lists of books that were banned even from printing. This made it risky for subversive printers to even bring an edition to print as it meant they might be identified as complicit in the act.

The Search For Order

A shared educational and reading background was all that united French elite in the mid-1500s.