The economic revolution in book design that went unnoticed. The case of the Southern Netherlands, 1473–c. 1550

Joran Proot, Cultura Fonds, Dilbeek, Belgium

  1. Radical changes in book production

The introduction in the West by Joannes Gutenberg (c. 1400? †1468; Bechtel 1992, 16) of printing with moveable type prompted a radical change in the production, distribution, and consumption of printed objects, not least of books. Once the “black art” had been made perfect and had been ran in, one press could print one sheet on both sides (inner and outer forme) in one colour (black) per day on extensive printruns. Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible was probably printed on a run of about 158 to 180 copies (White 2017). In general, scholars maintain the number 500 for a typical fifteenth-century printrun (Schweitzer-Martin 2022, 152). As far as this is documented, printruns in the Southern Netherlands in the fifteenth century ranged between 100 and 300 copies (Adam 2018, I, 110–111). In the sixteenth century printruns increased to 1,250 copies and more (Imhof 2014, I, LXXXII). It goes without saying that those production times are incomparable with those of manuscripts. By way of example, one could cite one of the copies of the Elsässissche Legenda aurea, a large folio written in cursive script (which was probably not as slow as the most formal scripts), kept in the Bibliothek des Priesterseminars, Rottenburg (Cod. 11).1 The production of the second part only of this extensive text took seven months, from Advent 1463 until 24 July 1464, which comes down to four pages in three days (Williams-Krapp 2019, 65). In that time, a press would produce four times as many pages (12 pages in folio, or three printing sheets recto and verso). Moreover, this would not result in a single copy, but in several hundreds of them — a multiplication in speed by a factor 1,000 and over. Gutenberg tried to keep the tools and techniques he had developed secret for his competitors, hoping to capitalize on his investments first, and to reimburse his backers. After a court case, Gutenbergs fincancial backer and business partner Johann Fust started his own printing shop (Füssel 2019, 43), and the «art of writing artificially» started to spread, first in Mainz, then in the wider region, subsequently travelling to some 300 different cities and towns all over Europe (Sordet 2021, 199). By the end of the fifteenth century several hundreds of printing shops had produced more than 32,000 editions of books, not to speak of a vast number — and for the major part unrecorded — ephemera.2 Now that the problem of printing books in series was solved, a new one was waiting for a solution. As a rule, in the ‘manuscript era’ books were ordered first and copied out for clients subsequently. That way, production and distribution were covered from the outset. But in the ‘handpress era’, the new logic required that printers and publishers produced large numbers of copies for yet unknown customers. This required the development of networks and methods to inform potential buyers of the existence of books they actually had never really asked for. In the beginning, printers and publishers sometimes had to leave their workshops in search for customers (Conway 1999, 55, 57). Soon they began to advertise for their products and started to use the existing trade infrastructure and went to fairs (Coppens 2014).

DOI: 10.36253/979–12–215–0092–9.17

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