The enthusiasm that greeted the invention of printing was in many respects deceiving. In the first generation it proved far easier to find patrons, drawn by technological fascination, than reliable markets. So while knowledge of printing spread very quickly â€“ over 200 places around the European landmass had experienced a working press by 1500 â€“ many of these first ventures failed. A large proportion of the first printers went bankrupt. It took time to develop a robust commercial model to underpin a book world in which the production of books had expanded far more rapidly than the number of potential readers.
The first printed books were published around 1454, when Gutenberg exhibited pages of his Bible at the Frankfurt Fair. After the initial age of experimentation, by 1490-1520 the industry had consolidated around a core of major centres of production. These were generally large commercial cities in the three largest markets, Germany, Italy and France. These would remain the motors of the industry throughout the first age of printing.
For a brief moment in the fifteenth century it seemed as if Italy might usurp Germany as the centre of the European printing industry. But the difficulties that engulfed the Italian peninsula in the wake of the French invasions of 1494 redressed the balance. The surge of activity that followed the Reformation ensured that the Germanic lands of the Holy Roman Empire would remain Europe’s largest centre of production. The German print industry was remarkably diverse. Over one hundred different places at some point boasted a printing press. Most served a purely local market, but the largest cities (Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Augsburg and Cologne) were important centres of the European trade. In the 1520s the Reformation created a new printing metropolis in Wittenberg. Frankfurt was the centre of both the international trade in Latin books, and a vibrant vernacular trade. Germany played a particularly important role in the trade in scientific books, and, at the other end of the spectrum, was also a precocious centre of the news industry.
The data on German printing has been carefully assembled by the VD 16 project, a survey of German books in German libraries. This lists around 100,000 editions, to which the USTC has added a further 4,000 through investigation of other collections and bibliographical resources. The VD 16 also omits single-sheet items: addressing this lacuna will be an important task of the next phase of the USTC. A representative sample of 3,500 broadsheet items has been incorporated into the database at the time of launch.
In France the organisation of printing was very different. Although forty towns had some experience of printing, 80% of French publishing was concentrated in Paris and Lyon. Paris, the capital, was one of Europe’s largest cities, and home to both a large legal establishment and one of Europe’s most distinguished universities. Lyon could trade on its strategic location and close connections to Italy. The Parisian press served both a large scholarly market and one of Europe’s largest vernacular reading communities. It made a distinguished contribution to the trade in scholarly and religious books, while Lyon dominated the market in legal texts; both developed a strong market in vernacular literature and music printing. The political convulsions of mid-century brought considerable turbulence to these established markets. While the scholarly export market was disrupted by transportation difficulties, both Paris and Lyon participated in an immense boom in religious controversy. New centres of Protestant printing sprang up in Geneva and provincial France. Many of these works were short pamphlets: in the years of the French Wars of Religion an increase in the number of titles disguised a significant contraction in the industry as the large scholarly works in which the French presses had previously excelled were replaced by more ephemeral prints. The reconstruction of this output (a total of around 80,000 editions) is largely the achievement of the USTC team, based on worldwide searches conducted between 1996 and 2009.
In Italy it was the commercial metropolis Venice that emerged as the dominant centre of book production. Whereas Rome remained the focus of political events, and Florence had enjoyed international renown for the production of luxury manuscripts, in the age of print it was Venice that established command of the market. The city was responsible for 13% of all books published in the incunabula age. In the sixteenth century Venetian houses published more books than all other places in the Italian Peninsula combined. In the first age of print Italian printers swiftly established a reputation for high quality editions of the standard works popular from the manuscript age: standard works of jurisprudence and canon law, medical and theological texts. For editions of the authors of antiquity the Venice firm of Aldus Manutius established a reputation (and brand identity) that has lasted to the present day. But northern printers were not slow to adopt the typographical innovations pioneered in Italy; in the sixteenth century the early market supremacy was seriously eroded. Italian printers branched out, creating a significant market for music and vernacular literature: here they could profit from the Europe-wide popularity of the great Tuscan authors. In the second half of the century the imposition of stricter controls, through the Roman Index of Forbidden books, introduced new complexity into the publishing world, particularly in the international exchange trade with the major northern markets. All of this helps explain why the early supremacy of Italian printing was not sustained: the USTC contains a total of 66,000 editions for Italy, well short of the totals for France and Germany. The canonical survey of Italian books is the Edit 16, a brilliantly-conceived venture that surveys more than 1,000 separate Italian libraries. In the next phase of the project the USTC will explore whether this total can be significantly enhanced through a search of non-Italian libraries.
Linking these three largest markets were two other centres of commerce and exchange: the Swiss Confederation and the Low Countries. The Swiss Confederation boasted one of the most important centres of printing in Basel, an urbane and cosmopolitan trading centre on the lower Rhine. A conscious attempt to minimise the impact of religious discord created a relatively stable climate for the publication of books, and ensured that the close links to the Italian peninsula were not entirely severed during the confessional age. The patronage of Erasmus provided further impetus for the development of a well-resourced and sophisticated publishing industry. In the French-speaking area Geneva provided an entirely contrasting model: here the magnetic power of John Calvin led to the planting of a print industry built initially around the exclusive publication of Protestant polemic. The production of the German-speaking cities (principally Basel, Bern and ZÃ¼rich) is incorporated, though not fully, into the VD 16, with important addenda from local Swiss projects. The Francophone output of Geneva, Lausanne and NeuchÃ¢tel is fully surveyed in Jean-FranÃ§ois Gilmont’s GLN database.
The sixteenth-century Low Countries was one of Europe’s most sophisticated and literate societies. The highly urbanised provinces of Brabant and Flanders were a lynchpin of the late mediaeval economy; the turbulent events of the later sixteenth century began the displacement of much of this economic energy towards Holland. This cultured multilingual society took easily to print. The 32,000 editions published here were a much greater than proportional share of European output, reflecting success in appropriating a large share in the Latin export market. The Netherlands also developed a lively market in ephemeral, vernacular printing, and, during the Dutch Revolt, political and religious polemic. Documenting this printing output has been complex, since existing national bibliographies tend to follow twentieth-century political jurisdictions. The USTC project group’s publication in 2010 of a new survey of Netherlandish print identified an additional 5,000 editions not previously registered in any of the established national bibliographies.
Together these five central print zones dominated the European output of printed books. They were responsible for over 87% of all printing, and a dominant 92% of publishing in the scholarly languages. Around this central core rotated a number of secondary markets. These played a much more modest role in supplying the international trade, and their production was largely confined to supplying their own local markets, normally in the local vernaculars.
By far the best documented of these local markets is England. The English Short Title Catalogue, the prototype of the national bibliography, was published as long ago as 1926; the intervening years have brought a much improved second edition, an online version, and the publication of full-text digital copies (EEBO). Because the STC was so far ahead of other national bibliographical projects, users will not necessarily have appreciated how untypical was the sixteenth-century English book market. The English book world was a genuine outlier in two respects: the extent to which its production was concentrated in one location, London, and the extent to which vernacular books dominated local production. Around 90% of books published in England were in English; around 85% were published by the compact, tightly regulated book community of the capital. In consequence English readers remained, throughout the sixteenth century, dependent on imports for their scholarly books. The continuation of the USTC into the seventeenth century in the next phase of the project will see the English and Scottish print world gradually emerge from these restrained beginnings.
In Spain and Portugal printing followed the diverse model of production that characterised Germany – over ninety locations had a functioning press at some stage before 1601. The most important concentrations of printers could be found in the cities of Salamanca, Seville, Valencia, AlcalÃ¡ de Henares, Madrid, Zaragoza, Barcelona and Lisbon. This structure, where a large number of producers were separated geographically, enabled the industry to respond rapidly to local and national demand. Broadly speaking, while the volume of publishing increased enormously, the balance between different types of literature consumed in this period remained stable. Yet, this was underpinned by tremendous transformations in the choices of local printers, with centres specialising in different genres of print at different times over the course of the period. While the German Reformation and French Wars of Religion reshaped the print cultures of those regions, the Iberian Peninsula remained largely untouched by major religious and political crises. Such political stability undoubtedly had a strong impact on the character of its print culture, not only in terms of what was printed but also in terms of its physical dimensions. While Spain produced fewer vernacular books per capita than France, they were on average twice as long. The information gathered on the output of the Spanish and Portuguese presses, and now available to search via the USTC, was assembled by our partners in University College Dublin. 20,000 editions have been logged in well over 100,000 copies worldwide.
One of the major priorities of the USTC has been to integrate into this survey the small outlier markets in Northern and Eastern Europe. Most have been the subject of national bibliographies, some now quite old, and none previously available online. The production of books in both Denmark and Sweden was carefully controlled by the state, in Sweden almost obsessively so. The comparatively small local vernacular reading communities made it difficult, in any case, to maintain a commercially viable press. Around 2,000 documented editions were published in Scandinavia before 1601. In the central European kingdoms of Hungary and Bohemia the book market was sustained by close trade connections with the nearby German cities, and by a strong local cultural tradition. The Czech national bibliography does not document Latin publication in Bohemia, an omission we have to some extent repaired; the Hungarian gives a fuller view of a smaller corpus (800 works, against the 3,000 of Bohemia). The Balkan lands and Russia made only a very modest contribution to early typography. The great enigma remains Poland, a significant area of early printing activity rendered especially challenging by shifting national boundaries and the absence of a recent national bibliography. Major Polish cities such as Wroclaw (Breslau) and Gdansk (Danzig) were in the sixteenth century essentially German, and KÃ¶nigsberg, the most easterly major production centre, wholly so. The cosmopolitan university city of Cracow offered more scope for Polish printing, but much remains to be documented in the next phase of the project.
In all, we offer data on around 350,000 editions. This will more than double as we extend the coverage of the USTC to 1650 in the next phase of the project, and address existing lacunae. No doubt contributions from users will also lead to improvements, corrections and the discovery of presently unknown editions.