Conference Report: Books in Motion in Early Modern Europe. Beyond Production, Circulation and Consumption, Gotha Research Centre, University of Erfurt, Germany, 28–31 May 2014

Guest post by André Bochynski, M.A.

In May 2014, specialists in book history met for the international conference “Books in Motion in Early Modern Europe. Beyond Production, Circulation and Consumption”. The three-day seminar was held in a location directly adjacent to the historical seventeenth-century repository of the ducal library at Friedenstein Palace in Gotha (Thuringia), which contains one of the most significant German collections of early modern prints and manuscripts. The conference was chaired by Dr. Daniel Bellingradt (University of Erfurt) and by Prof. Dr. Jeroen Salman (University of Utrecht). Its aims were to take a closer look at the European history of books in the early modern age and to survey extant research. Key aspects of local and material-related research designs took their bearings from Robert Darnton’s model of the circulation of books. Daniel Bellingradt proposed a more flexible and practical model for perspectives of local cycles of books by characterising their production networks, delivery and circulation as well as the styles of consumption. He thereby sketched the main research fields of book history and their interrelation. To navigate between these confines, the speakers focused their remarks on the motives and actions in these networks (sociality), the characteristics of the used as well as constructed spaces (spatiality) and the appearance and plurality of the generated publications (materiality).

Session I: Production

The first session was focused on book production as a social aspect, discussing issues of gender, national characteristics and the social ramifications of the printed page. Kristi Viiding (Tartu) opened the panel with remarks on missing studies about the participation of women in the book market. To widen the perspective of women’s activities in book production, she presented a study on the first female publishers in the Baltic region. She exemplified this conception by showing how and why collaboration occurred at the editorial level at the beginning of the seventeeth century. In a colourful venture, Esther van Gelder (Utrecht) presented the opus magnum on Nederlandsche Vogelen published in installments by Christiaan Sepp, starting in 1770. This first encyclopedic book of the birds of the Netherlands, with numerous accurate and aesthetically pleasing illustrations, became more than an early scientific compilation. In cooperation with the naturalist Cornelius Nozeman, who emphasised the lack of knowledge in his country, the volumes became one of the first descriptions of the Dutch ‘fatherland’ using the link of field research of the nation’s nature. Malcolm Walsby (Rennes) investigated Nicolas Psaume, bishop of Verdun, who realised the need for printed texts and triggered the acquisition of the first printing press to be brought to Verdun. He chose his own diocese as the starting point for publishing canons and decrees of the Provincial Council of Trient, thereby making Verdun a signifier of orthodoxy.

The social relationship of the printed page was discussed by Paul Nelles’ (Ottawa) study of the compilation of a universal library based on the bibliotheca universalis by Conrad Gessner (Zurich, 1545). This record of all texts and achives of thousands of bibliographic entries could easily be used as a map of the availability of early modern books. In his attempts to restore the historic legacy of texts, Gessner made good use of his knowledge of material circulation, such as the fairs of Frankfurt, Leipzig and Venice; this opened the material resources of the print and library worlds of the sixteenth century. Giles Bergel (Oxford) presented the printing technology of genealogical diagrams and stemmas as a shift from script to print culture in early modern Europe. This allowed for the creation of logical figures as tools of reproducing hierarchies. The analysis revealed the frictions of this intention and the struggles of the printers to produce such schemes, who did not entirely master the task of an emblematic genealogy. In his additional remarks, Daniel Bellingradt (Erfurt) extended the benefits of his three consolidating concepts of book history: materiality, sociality and spatiality, by emphasising the importance of paper trade and subsequent networks as an unnoticed part of early modern book history. He discussed the interconnections of paper dealers with the production and selling of books and showed the circuits between these levels i.e. in the acquisition of used paper by the printers acting as traders. Instead of doing more than just one job, paper sellers roamed a whole business landscape by using their connections to the paper mills, publishers and booksellers as agents in between production and distribution.

The session was closed by Orlin Sabev (Sofia) and his remarks on the Ottoman book market. The late introduction of the printing press in the first half of the eighteenth century was closely linked to the socio-cultural developments during the Tulip Age. The Ottoman elite, being inclined to make use of selected western achievements, supported the establishment of a printing house aimed at printing books for the Turkish-speaking reading public. The western influence neither immediately nor completely replaced the traditional Ottoman culture. It was adapted rather than merely adopted.

Session II: Circulation

Benito Rial Costas (Madrid) concentrated on the circulation of the first printed compilations of fifteenth-century Castilian laws as keystones between the printing business and the Spanish kingdom. This emerging mercantile network used strategies to promote and sell the first printed versions of royal dispatches as a new publishing venture. The focus of the talk of Johannes Frimmel (Munich) was on the Habsburg book trade. He described the avalanche of pamphlets and reform conceptions in correlation with the German-Austrian migration under emperor Joseph II. Due to unauthorised prints and re-prints the market was flooded with low-price copies. Also, the quantity of print shops increased enormously. Andreas Golob (Graz) investigated Austrian publishers of early modern newspapers and the way they benefitted from their connections with book publishers and sellers. Using this promotional network, they obtained recent news on the latest publications but also received texts to be converted into articles and series. Andreas Golob pointed out that the publishers became known for their production as they benefitted from the connection with such newspapers. Thanks to these connections, the advertising paper of Michael Hermann Ambros developed into the most important and unique multiplier of news and further publications in Inner Austria; after all, newspapers were the most widely spread vehicles in geographical and social terms.

Also examining jounals, Joop W. Koopmans (Groningen) presented the increasing benefits between printed texts and illustrations in Dutch seventeenth- and eighteenth-century periodicals (Europische Mercurius). He showed the social and informal contacts in the world of publishing houses in order to stimulate their editions. The art and accuracy of presenting the main information of the following articles in depictions of the frontispiece increased their commercial value. Consequently, the publishers needed artists with the creative powers and designing skills to produce the etchings. On the other hand, the artists obviously needed the publishers. Koopmanns stressed the importance of trust between the artists and authors, and their need to cooperate in local business partnerships – according to the conference’s guiding dimensions of sociality, spatiality and materiality. Jeroen Salman (Utrecht) considered the development of medical knowledge in the Dutch Republic concomitant with the rise of commerce, the formation of a readership and broader audience and the canonisation of knowledge, which brought medical publications to the early modern book market. Domestic recipe collections in the form of small booklets were distributed into many households by booksellers, pedlars and through advertisements. Social and special links created a huge distribution network of selling remedies and also descriptions and reports about medical treatments. Print culture was inextricably joined to the medical market and used its potentials to defend its position.

Andrew Pettegree (St Andrews) rounded off the second session. He observed the rise of smaller towns, such as Wittenberg, which became centres of book circulation and commerce. The achievement of Protestantism was a major driver of Wittenberg’s economy and boosted humanist printings. In comparison to the number of single editions, Wittenberg ranks highest in book production through the shift from printing indulgences to Luther’s theses and their advocacy.

Session III: Consumption

Arjan van Dixhoorn (Ghent) suggested that possession of books is no indicator for the actual reading habits and varieties of consumption. He recently discovered another compiled version of the late medieval Dutch text of Mariken van Nieumeghen. He used this compilation to emphasise a particular perusal of the text as a social exercise. “Books as objects of socialability” was Stephen Colclough‘s (Bangor) topic. The pocket book as a useful format was an answer to customers’ demand to store information and to aid in personal development. Advertisements and the increased competition among publishers suggest that pocket books were some of the most commonly consulted and read printed objects in the late eighteenth century. In addition, Colclough pointed out that readers adopted the given framework of such notebooks rather than applying variations to it. Jürgen Beyer (Tartu) presented Lutheran manuals edited in Estonia and reconsidered the bilingual character of songbooks for the German minority. Due to the small amount of readers, the number of bilingual church services and consequently the small market for these publications, the same books were passed on and were used by readers in the same church for several generations.

The circulation of religious printings in the new world was the key aspect in the talk by  Michiel van Groesen (Amsterdam), who traced the practices of book export to the settlers in Dutch-Brazil and New Netherland between 1620 and 1640. He showed the development of the expansion of Dutch church books into the local book market in the first half of the seventeenth  century. Here, the organisation of the shipments, which was in the hands of the Reformed Church, depended on the conquest of Recife, which made the supply of books as a steady entity of proselytization autonomous from the actual demand. Many books transported across the ocean never reached their intended readers and it was only with the third generation of settlers that a more varied collection of printed books was assembled. Nelleke Moser (Amsterdam) exemplified how different ways of referencing can be helpful for analysing miscellanies. The collection and combination of quotations not only helps reconstruct the libraries which the reader must have used, they also show different approaches of giving credit where due. The different appreciations of readership and ownership can thus be exposed. Finally, Geoffrey Roper (London) discussed cases of the export and reception of European books in Arabic translation in the Ottoman Empire. The production aimed at an audience in the East to present errors of the Islam in expanded editions in a constant stream in the books produced for the Arabian world. There was not just one-way traffic, though; Arabic books were also imported into the West. Roper pointed out that Arabic manuscripts were the first foreign records to be printed in Europe (i.e. in Venice).

The entire conference program can be viewed and downloaded here.

Recommended further reading: our associated scholar Jan Hillgärtner’s report on the same conference, recently published on H/Soz/Kult.


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