Andrew Pettegree, Professor of History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, was recently interviewed by The Boston Globe, and his interview landed on the front page. The lead-in is very interesting in terms of book history:

In the beginning, before there was such a thing as a Gutenberg Bible, Johannes Gutenberg laid out his rows of metal type and brushed them with ink and, using the mechanism that would change the world, produced an ordinary little schoolbook. It was probably an edition of a fourth-century grammar text by Aelius Donatus, some 28 pages long. Only a few fragments of the printed sheets survive, because no one thought the book was worth keeping.

“Now had he kept to that, doing grammars…it probably would all have been well,” said Andrew Pettegree, a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews and author of “The Book in the Renaissance,” the story of the birth of print. Instead, Gutenberg was bent on making a grand statement, an edition of Scripture that would cost half as much as a house and would live through the ages. “And it was a towering success, as a cultural artifact, but it was horribly expensive,” Pettegree said. In the end, struggling for capital to support the Bible project, Gutenberg was forced out of his own print shop by his business partner, Johann Fust.

Inventing the printing press was not the same thing as inventing the publishing business. Technologically, craftsmen were ready to follow Gutenberg’s example, opening presses across Europe. But they could only guess at what to print, and the public saw no particular need to buy books. The books they knew, manuscript texts, were valuable items and were copied to order. The habit of spending money to read something a printer had decided to publish was an alien one.

Nor was print clearly destined to replace manuscript, from the point of view of the book owners of the day. A few fussy color-printing experiments aside, the new books were monochrome, dull in comparison to illuminated manuscripts. Many books left blank spaces for adding hand decoration, and collectors frequently bound printed pages together with manuscript ones.

“It’s a great mistake to think of an absolute disjunction between a manuscript world of the Middle Ages and a print world of the 16th century,” Pettegree said.

And then, of course, the article goes on to make a link between early printers and the early years of the internets. To be fair, it’s a link explored by Pettegree in his comments. Gotta make things relevant, always, I guess.

Here’s where Pettegree gets into the nitty-gritty of what we actually know about early publishing:

Most narratives of print have relied on looking at the most eye-catching products — whether it’s Gutenberg’s Bible or Copernicus or the polyglot Bible of Plantin — these are the ones which seem to push civilization forward. In fact, these are very untypical productions of the 16th-century press.

I’ve done a specific study of the Low Countries, and there, something like 40 percent of all the books published before 1600 would have taken less than two days to print. That’s a phenomenal market, and it’s a very productive one for the printers. These are the sort of books they want to produce, tiny books. Very often they’re not even trying to sell them retail. They’re a commissioned book for a particular customer, who might be the town council or a local church, and they get paid for the whole edition. And those are the people who tended to stay in business in the first age of print.

Lots of interesting new twists on the famous narrative of the Gutenberg Bible and the Nuremburg Chronicle (which I recently saw three copies of, back in May when I was up at Penn reviewing their Reading Pictures exhibition, which just closed a couple of weeks ago). Worth reading in full, I think, though I did try to excerpt the best bits above. I’m going to poach a few ideas from this article in a few weeks, when I deliver my introductory lecture to the Renaissance in British Literature I.

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