Series: Book Printing in Europe

The first bestsellers in history were bibles, books about Latin grammar and texts from ancient writers like Cicero or Vergil.

Urs Leu

Urs Leu is historian and heads the departement of old prints at the Zentralbibliothek Zurich.

The books most often printed during the fifteenth century included liturgical works, Latin grammars (by Donat and Alexander de Villa Dei) as well as classic school texts (Cicero, Virgil, and Ovid) and the writings of the scholastics (Thomas of Aquinas and Albertus Magnus). A total of thirty-eight authors or texts were published more than one hundred times and account for nearly 8'000 (almost thirty percent) of the roughly 27'000 printed incunabula. These figures support the conclusion that the same titles were printed over and over again. The demand for works by the authors cited above remained stable during the age of incunabula, and they represented a reliable source of income for many printers. As there were no real copyright laws in the fifteenth century, titles that sold well could be reprinted as often as desired. By far the majority of the authors in question had lived before the invention of printing, which clearly indicates the extent to which literature was embedded in tradition — and most notably religious tradition — a situation that changed completely in the sixteenth century, following the emergence of Humanism and the early phase of the Reformation. Impressive evidence of this shift in the composition of the bestseller list and the reading habits engendered by Humanism north of the Alps is provided by the famous Dunkelmännerbriefe (Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum, or Letters of obscure men), which were first published in 1515. Either directly or indirectly, they questioned a number of medieval authorities. Thus it is no wonder that no medieval authors appear among the most-read writers in the sixteenth century. The bestseller list is headed by Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, editions of the Bible, and Erasmus of Rotterdam.

In the German Empire between 15'000 and 20'000 manuscripts were produced annually. The volume of books printed mechanically surpassed that of handwritten works from 1469 onward. The rise in the production of printed books in Europe that began in around 1470 is largely attributable to the more rapid availability of printed texts and the inability of manual production methods to meet the increasing demand. Between 1470 and 1490, manuscript production in the German Empire fell to less than thirty percent of the volume produced in the 1460s. Libraries stopped purchasing manuscripts for the most part after 1468, with the exception of the Carthusian collections, whose policies did not change appreciably until after 1476.

Text leaf from the first printed edition of the works of Aristotle, Venice 1495-1498. Photo: Zentralbibliothek Zurich

Numbers of dated incunabula per year. Graphic: Zentralbibliothek Zurich

Book Prices

While the prices of manuscripts and printed works were initially comparable, book prices began to fall with the advent of mass production around 1469 ‒70. The price for 500 folio sheets leveled out at an average of four guilders until 1480, after which it decreased over the course of the following decades to between two and three guilders, before eventually settling at two guilders during the Reformation. Greek texts were somewhat more expensive due to the more complicated typesetting process involved. The five-volume edition of the works of Aristotle printed in Venice in 1498, for example, was sold for roughly the same price as a good saddle horse (15 ‒ 20 guilders). The maximum salary for professors in Cologne, Ingolstadt, Löwen, and Tübingen was some 150 guilders per year, and most were paid no more than fifty to seventy guilders. Renowned members of university faculties who received substantial additional income presumably earned between 500 and 1000 guilders. The incomes of people in less prestigious occupations were much lower. A journeyman working in a manual trade had to make do with about one guilder per month. In view of the wage and salary levels outlined above, it becomes clear that printed books were a truly precious commodity and by no means affordable for everyone. Monks in training could hardly afford to buy their own breviaries or missals, not to mention personal copies of the Bible. An unbound missal cost between two and four guilders, a bound copy as much as five guilders. Both the four-volume Nuremberg Bible of 1485 and the version of the Holy Scriptures printed in Basel from 1498 to 1502 cost six guilders.

Even in affluent Venice, probably the wealthiest city in Europe during the age of incunabula, the earning power of common folks was not much better. In order to purchase the edition of Pliny’s works produced by the first Venetian printer, Johannes von Speyer, for eight ducats, for example, a foreman would have had to invest an entire month’s wages. An artist working as a painter in Venice’s Palazzo Ducale near the turn of the century earned between two and five ducats per month, and his assistant received only a half-ducat. In contrast, a palace situated along the Canal Grande was easily worth 20'000 ducats, and members of the nobility could afford to pay 100 to 120 ducats a year for an apartment.

A closer look at Michelangelo’s life reveals a very similar picture. His father earned 24.5 florins per year as a minor customs officer. The earliest works of his son cost between twelve and thirty ducats, and the Bacchus statue produced for Cardinal Raffaele Riario was priced at 160 florins. Michelangelo was paid 3200 ducats for his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, and Pope Leo X, a member of the Medici family, offered him the stately sum of 40'000 ducats to paint the façade of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, a project that was never realized. The few available recorded figures show that visual art and book culture were reserved primarily for the upper ecclesiastical and secular classes in the fifteenth century. Although book printing made texts available by the hundreds and prices continued to decline, it was not until the 1520s that a broader segment of the population could afford at least single-sheet prints, circulars, and even an occasional book.

Pamphlet of Georg Kreydlein, Nürnberg 1561. It describes the northern lights which appeared in December 1560 over Nürnberg. Kreydlein saw in them a sign of God. Photo: Zentralbibliothek Zurich

Average edition sizes rose from several hundred copies during the first two to three decades in the history of printing to over 1000 around the turn of the century, eventually settling at around 1300 during the course of the sixteenth century. Works printed during the age of incunabula were published primarily in folio or quarto size. Very few works, such as breviaries, were printed in the handy quarto size, which did not achieve a significant level of popularity until the sixteenth century. Like manuscripts, the first printed publications did not contain title pages. Information regarding a book’s contents was provided in the colophon at the end of a volume. As late as 1481, only 0.5 percent of all published works had title pages. That figure rose to eighty percent by 1489 and to over ninety percent by 1500. The use of decorative borders, title frames, printers’ hallmarks, and title-page woodcuts as eye-catching features increased by leaps and bounds after 1486, and more than one-third of all works printed in Germany between 1496 and 1500 exhibited such elements.

Sales and Marketing

Book printing as an early-capitalist trade was concentrated in the major commercial and trading centers with sales networks that could also be used for books. The early book trade was plied largely by traveling salespeople or booksellers. The original unity of printing, publishing, and sales eventually fell by the wayside. Book wholesalers arrived on the scene, most of whom also ran publishing houses but not necessarily printing shops. They established branch offices in important trade centers and staffed them with agents. Anton Koberger, who began printing books shortly after 1470 and became the owner of the largest printing firm in Germany in 1489, maintained branch offices in Venice, Milan, Paris, Lyon, Breslau, Vienna, Passau, Cracow, and Ofen. During the last years of his life, between 1505 and 1513, he worked only as a publisher and bookseller. Occasionally, groups of printers would merge their operations and hire agents in other countries, as in the case of the Venetian printers who posted a representative in Valencia. Cologne was the most important transshipment center for trade with the Netherlands and England. Trade with France (Lyon and Paris) was conducted through Basel and Strasbourg. Lyon was the hub of the book trade with the Iberian Peninsula; Augsburg and Nuremberg served the same function for trade with Italy and eastern Europe. Also of considerable importance were the book fairs in Venice, Lyon, Antwerp, and Frankfurt, which were visited regularly by booksellers. Printers posted advertisements designed to inform a broad public about their program offerings as early as the 1460s.

Books were transported via land or water routes in barrels that offered protection against moisture. A single horse could pull up to 280 kilograms, but as most Alpine routes were impassable for wagons, many shippers opted instead for pack horses or mules, which could carry burdens of up to 168 kilograms. A freight wagon could travel around thirty kilometers per day over level terrain, somewhat less in mountainous areas. The most important and most frequently traveled Alpine route crossed the Alps via the Brenner Pass, although the Gotthard route was the preferred choice for shipments from Basel to Italy. The many customs stations made goods more expensive and occasionally prompted shippers to choose the cheapest alternative route, rather than the shortest.

Growth in edition sizes from 1450 to 1600. Graphic: Zentralbibliothek Zürich

«Adagiorum chiliades tres, ac centuriae fere totidem» by Erasmus of Rotterdam, Basel 1513. This work was printed by Johannes Froben of Basel. Photo: Zentralbibliothek Zurich

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