Thursday, July 15, 2010

Andrew Pettegree's "The Book in the Renaissance"

Andrew Pettegree is Head of the School of History at the University of St. Andrews and founding director of the St. Andrews Reformation Studies Institute.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Book in the Renaissance, and reported the following:
Page 99 takes us to Wittenberg and to the extraordinary upsurge of print activity that followed the Reformation. Martin Luther was lucky to have a friend and supporter in the artist Lucas Cranach, whose busy workshop also produced woodcut prints in support of the Reformation. Page 99 discusses (with illustrations) the wonderful artistic borders Cranach fabricated for the title-pages of Luther’s books.

Why did people buy books, and how did they know what books to buy? This question is all the more important in societies where only a small proportion read. This was certainly true of 16th century Europe, despite the large number of people who bought books for the first time. So were all those who bought books readers? Not necessarily. The Reformation was a huge public event. People who wanted to share their enthusiasms, or make a pledge of allegiance, could buy a pamphlet: a totem, as much as a text. Lucas Cranach's masterful title-page borders offered a swift form of identification, a uniform or livery, marking these pamphlets out as pro-Luther. It was an exquisite form of early brand identity, and it showed how quickly the book had developed in the seventy years since the invention of printing.

Luther always regarded the Bible as his masterwork. But there were plenty of Bibles in circulation before the Reformation: so many were produced in the 12th century, mass produced in monastic copy-shops, that the market was glutted. It was pamphlets, published in Wittenberg and elsewhere, that really changed the terms of debate. The Reformation controversies were only one part of a new market for cheap print that made book ownership possible for whole new classes of society. And such works – almanacs, news books, schoolbooks, edicts and official publications – underpinned a market where publishers who dealt only in serious scholarship risked piling up thousands of copies, unsold, to gather dust in their warehouses. It seems to be an infallible rule of technological change that confident predictions about the consequence of innovation are always wrong. The Humanist scholars who welcomed print expected it to generate more, and more accurate texts – for them. What actually happened was very different.
Learn more about The Book in the Renaissance at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue