Session 2: The French Book World in the Renaissance

23 October 2015
St Andrews: Buchanan Building (room 306), Union Street
Dr Shanti Graheli and Dr Graeme Kemp (Universal Short Title Catalogue)

The goal of our second session was to introduce the history, historiography and core issues in the study of the early modern book world in France. Shanti Graheli and Graeme Kemp from the School of History provided a detailed understanding of the development of French printing in the latter half of the fifteenth century through to the spreading of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century. Special attention was given to the bibliographic ‘instruments’ needed to study the book—and, hence, print—culture of early modern France.

Shanti explained that print culture in France only emerged from 1470 onwards. In that year, the kingdom witnessed the publication of its first printed book—in Latin and written by an Italian humanist (Epistolae, Gasparino Barzizza; see image 1). Until then, the so-called pecia system, which allowed users to rent and copy separate book sections or ‘peciae’, was the preferred practice of knowledge dissemination. The procedure was widely used at the University of Paris. Such an established, well-functioning system made sure that tradition was hard to leave behind.

Epistolae (Gasparino Barzizza, 1470)

Image 1: Epistolae printed by Michael Friburger, Ulrich Gering and Martin Krantz, Paris, 1470 (BnF, Réserve des livres précieux, cote Rés. Z. 1986).

The first printed books, in France as well as throughout Europe, were imitations of manuscripts. Ornaments, handwriting styles, even the size of individual letters resembled those of the manuscript book (cf. image 1). The current figure for the French printed output between 1450 and 1600 is of 81,665 printed books (as opposed to 76,622 in the Italian states and 102,920 in the Holy Roman Empire). But print culture in these different domains was very different from case to case. The Germanic system saw the emergence of many centres, producing between 6,000 and 8,000 editions in the first 150 years of printing. In the Italian States Venice was, by far, the most important centre with over 26,000 printed books, but it was followed by other significant cities such as Rome and Florence. France, on the other hand, concentrated its output in Paris with over 47,000 editions, followed by Lyon (22,000). The other printing centres produced a negligible output. Despite this fact, the book trade networks could reach even the most remote locations of the kingdom thanks to a highly developed system. The bookseller, more than the printer or the publisher, was the key figure to the circulation of books in early modern France.

The output of printed books in France during the (second half of the) fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was predominantly religious and political in nature, especially in the late sixteenth century when the French Wars of Religion reinforced differences between Catholics and Huguenots. Other popular book releases included scholarly and scientific treatises (arithmetics, medicine) as well as poetry and literary texts (chansons, novellas). Besides religion and politics, the printing industry of the seventeenth century developed a keen interest in drama texts and satirical pamphlets.

Session 2 04 (lower resolution)

Image 2: Graeme Kemp (l) and Shanti Graheli.

Graeme indicated that the French civil wars in the latter half of the sixteenth century affected the production of books to a large extent, almost bringing it to the verge of collapse. The production of political, polemical pamphlets, on the other hand, thrived, and this can be seen when we visualize the quantitative production of editions in relation to the deaths of royals during that period. The French Wars of Religion also brought on a significant need to alter the rules for the printing world. It became compulsory for the printer/publisher to acquire royal permission (privilège du Roi), as a means for the king to control the market. Nevertheless, pirate editions of copyrighted work still circulated widely. Only with Henri IV’s conversion to Catholicism in 1593 did the Parisian book industry start to recover.

Graeme went on to demonstrate the various ways in which you can search for French sources in multiples archives and libraries online. The St Andrews-based Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC) is a collective database of all books printed in early modern Europe until the late sixteenth century: The catalogues of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) cover a vast amount of French sources: The state of cataloguing is not yet complete, in particular for certain type of ephemeral items. See also Gallica, the BNF’s digital library, which provides high resolution photos of both books and bindings: Both of these catalogues have recently been renewed into a user-friendly look and are now very advanced research tools.

The Catalogue collectif de France (CCFr), a national Meta-OPAC which is joined by libraries on a voluntary basis, is the best resource to use in order to get a general overview of collections in the provinces: However, it is always recommended double-checking every search both in the CCFr and the individual library catalogues. Finally, Sudoc allows you to search for university collections: Graeme noted that through the years the archives municipales have kept control over their own collections, in contrast to the British situation where archives are mostly centralised (in or around London) and state-regulated. This probably has to do with the traditionally strong identity of the French provinces.

Session 2 05 (lower resolution)

Image 3.

The second part of our workshop session was devoted to a partly theoretical, partly hands-on demonstration of how to apply bibliographic ‘instruments’ in the study of early modern French books. To begin with, we did a collective brainstorming in order to gather our general perception of what features constitute ‘a book’. This allowed the participants to develop a stronger sensitivity between edition-related concepts (that is, features of a whole print-run, such as the title page, the number of pages, etc.) or copy-related, linked to the specific history of one copy (for instance any marks of ownership, the size of the individual book, the book binding, and so on).

Shanti explained that a comprehensive understanding of edition-related and copy-related information helps the early modern scholar to determine and understand the broader conditions in which books were printed, sold and used. The format of a book, for example, is often indicative of the type of audience who read it as well as the kind of environment in which it circulated. A folio was naturally expensive, as it contained more paper, and often wider margins. Smaller formats were more portable and usually much cheaper (although we must allow for exceptions, as in the case of the famous enchiridia printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice). The in-quarto was the usual format adopted by academic publications, and the octavo is particularly suited to literature and poetry.

The examination of the material aspects of the early modern book is a key aspect to our understanding of how a book was used and perceived, what audience if was intended for, what section of the market was presumably able and willing to purchase it. Such aspects, however, need to be combined with the context of the book production, and more generally a wider understanding of French history in the Renaissance in order to yield fruitful research outputs.

During our next session on November 6, Elsje van Kessel (School of Art History) will talk about the fascinating task of working with a variety of source materials, both written and visual. It takes Parisian art exhibitions as an example of the challenges that come with the reconstruction and analysis of fleeting historical events.

Written by Bram van Leuveren

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