The Boston Globe Ideas section today had a wonderful interview with author Andrew Pettegree, about his book The Book in the Renaissance. Written by Tom Scocca, the Q&A style article discusses with Professor Pettegree his research about the birth of publishing, and what it reveals about our misperceptions of the earliest days of printing. When we think of early print, we always think of the Gutenberg Bible. This is the iconic representation of the early movable print product. But it is a huge misperception. Most printers were pouring out disposable little tracts, announcements from the town council, schoolbooks, sermons and, if they were lucky, reams of indulgences. The church at that time sold indulgences, and what they handed over to the layperson was a sheet of paper, printed, that stated what sins were forgiven. The lucky printer who got an order, could print multiple copies of the same single sheet, composed once, and get paid for it multiple times by an official institution.
According to Pettegree, the problem that printers faced was that the public was not used to being offered items to buy that they had not ordered. They had never had bookstores or catalogs. Up to that time, if a person wanted a book, they ordered it made. So when books became easier to make, printers struggled over how and what to offer to the public. They consulted with the leading scholars of the day, and offered the suggested classics. And had a resounding dud. They tried offering the leading medical texts. And again, had very little interest. They did better with sermons. These were smaller books, and did not cost so much. The items that were widely produced and that kept the successful printers in business turned out to be ephemeral, small print jobs like the announcements from town councils, school books that children did not want to keep, and indulgences. Most often, they were ordered by government or the church or another institution, so the printer got paid for a large run. These things are not beautiful, and were also not saved very often. So they are not what scholars today see in museums and libraries. We see and think of the rare and exotic Gutenberg Bible, which Pettegree tells us cost half as much as a house to buy when it was printed, and nearly bankrupted Gutenberg to produce. But this was the rare exception to the rule. Most printing was small, ephemeral and much more pedestrian work.
So, the article was interesting, not just for the history of printing, but because it parallels our own period, where we are watching a new technology and the struggles of society and commerce to make sense of it. We are trying to see how e-books and the platforms for them will fit into our lives, and what their future will be. We are trying to see what the economic sense of them will be and should be. And this turns out to be how printing had to shake out, as well. Who knew?
The decoration is courtesy of St. Catherine of Siena Virtual College, and is a print showing Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press.