Books about the book

Most readers are probably aware that I live not very far away from the Renaissance city of Nürnberg in Southern Germany. It is a city rich in the history of science particularly during the Renaissance and so it was only a mater of time, after I moved here, that I would get sucked into becoming a local historian. In the end it was the fact that Copernicus’ magnum opus was printed and published there that proved to be the bait. This, however, also took me down another path, the early history of scientific printing in which the city is particularly rich. Not only was it the home of Johannes Petreius, who printed and published the De revolutionibus, as well as many other important early scientific titles, but it was also where Johannes Müller, aka Regiomontanus, chose to set up the world’s first-ever scientific publishing house. Researching Regiomontanus as a printer publisher leads automatically to Erhard Ratdolt, who, whilst not a Nürnberger printer publisher, published several of those titles that Regiomontanus intended to publish but was unable to due to his untimely demise. Around 1500 CE, the world’s biggest printed publisher was the Nürnberger Anton Koberger, who printed, amongst many other volumes, the Liber Chronicarum. Better know as the Nuremberg Chronicle in English and Die Schedel’sche Weltchronik in German, the world’s first-ever printed encyclopaedia. As always when I develop an interest for a historical topic I try to view it not as isolated incidents but to develop knowledge of and a feeling for the complete historical context, as far as this is possible. This inevitably leads to the acquisition of books on the topic, preferably general, wide ranging, good quality reference books to which I can return as the situation demands. I now have a small, but I think, high-quality collection of books about the book. Last week saw a new addition to this collection Erik Kwakkel’s Books Before Print[1].


Having followed Erik on Twitter for a small eternity, at the same time reading his blog and also having had the pleasure of meeting him in person and hearing him lecture on the subject of the medieval book, I knew his book wouldn’t disappoint and it doesn’t. This is an introduction to the medieval book for people, who like me, have little or no knowledge of them. Basically a modified version of his blog on the subject it consists of short, clear simple chapters on each individual aspect of medieval manuscripts, divided into five sections: 1. Filling the Page: Script, Writing, and Page Design 2. Enhancing the Manuscript: Binding and Decoration 3. Reading in Context: Annotations, Bookmarks, and Libraries 4. The Margins of Manuscript Culture 5. Contextualizing the Medieval Manuscript.

Excellently structured, well written and beautifully illustrated this volume fulfils its intended purpose admirably; it really is everything you wanted to know about the medieval manuscript book and were too afraid to ask.


As I often get asked to recommend books on a given topic and so having started this post I decided to give a small overview of the books that I have and use on the history of the book. As a historian of science my main interest is in the invention of moving type printing, which according to conventional wisdom was one of the major driving forces of the so-called scientific revolution, thus most of the books I have deal primarily with the emergence of the printed book.


The Renaissance Mathematicus book-history-books bookshelf

However, the first book I would recommend is one for the general reader covering the entire history of the book from clay tablets to the modern printed book, Keith Houston’s The Book:A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, which I reviewed here, so I won’t say anything more now. As a small bonus I also recommend Houston’s Shady Characters:The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbol & Other Typographical Marks[2]. It’s eccentric, unique and a delight.

In his essay in TheCambridge Companion to the History of the Book(of which more later) Adrian Johns writes: “The introduction of Printing into western Europe has counted as the signature event of the history of the book ever since Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s l’Apparition du Livre launched the modern discipline in 1958. The purpose of l’Apparitionwas to demonstrate that Johann Gutenberg’ innovation was the most important turning point in human history, separating modernity from everything before”[3]The Febvre/Martin, The Coming of the Book[4]in English translation is a classic and was the book that introduced me to book history. Although now dated both in its historical facts and its historiography I still think it can be read with profit, although if wishing to quote anything from it one should check against more up to date works.

Next up is another absolute classic Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The printing press as an agent of change[5] probably the most famous and most influential volume on book history. Originally published in two volumes it is now available as a single volume paperback weighing in at just under 800 pages. Eisenstein introduced the concept of print culture, which she contrasts with the preceding age of the manuscript and to which she attributes massive influence (change) not only in the scientific revolution but also in the Reformation, claiming it as an unacknowledged revolution. It is a cornucopia of information, thoughts, ideas and theories that repays careful reading.


However Eisenstein’s central thesis does not go unchallenged. Our next book is Adrian Johns’ equally massive The Nature of the Book.[6] Johns’ sets out his stall thus, “The unifying concept of Eisenstein’s argument is that of “print culture.” This “culture” is characterized primarily in terms of certain traits that print is said to endow on texts. Specifically, those produced in such an environment are subject to conditions of standardization, dissemination, and fixity. The last of these is perhaps the most important.”[7] Johns’ then devotes his 700 plus pages to supposedly proving that Eisenstein’s “print culture” and above her fixity did not exist. Like Eisenstein’s tome it is also a cornucopia of information, thoughts, ideas and theories that repays careful reading. However, I personally don’t think he actually succeeds in proving his central thesis.


The American Historical Review staged a forum[8], introduced by Anthony Grafton, with a defence of her thesis by Eisenstein followed by a response from Johns and then a reply from Eisenstein in which the adversaries mostly argued past each other rather than with each other. However you can read both volumes and the forum and decide for yourself who is right! Happy reading.

If you wanted something shorter than the Eisenstein/Johns debate then you can turn to Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance.[9] Pettegree starts with the book before printing and follows with the invention of printing. He then introduces what he defines as the crisis in printing. This is the fact that there was not a large enough market for the Latin academic and theological texts that was the original fare of the earliest printing houses leading to an economic crisis. Out of this crisis emerged new forms of literature generated by the publishing houses to create new markets to finance their presses. This ‘creation of a European book market’, as he terms it is the central theme of Pettegree’s interesting and stimulating book.


Already mention above, The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book (see footnote 3) is a collection of papers covering a wide-ranging series of book history topics from a very modern standpoint and is more than worth reading as a supplement to the volumes sketched above.

Another slightly dated but still useful volume is Colin Clair’s A History of European Printing.[10] This is basically an annotated chronology of the spread of the book printing business throughout Europe from its beginnings down to the end of the nineteenth century.

I close with a beautiful volume issued by the Gutenberg-Gesellschaft and Gutenberg-Museum, which is, unfortunately for those who don’t read the language, only available in German, Blockbücher des Mittelalters: Bilderfolgen als Lektüre.[11] Which is a collection of detailed essays on the books printed in Europe in the second half of the fifteenth century with woodblocks, issued as a guide to an exhibition of these books in the Gutenberg-Museum from 22 June to 1 September 1991. The book forms a complete history of this interesting anomaly in the European history of the printed book.


There has been, of course, since Levbre/Martin established the modern book history discipline with their tome in 1958 a vast flood of academic literature on the history of the book in Europe and indeed the world much of which the interested reader can find listed in the very extensive bibliographies of the volumes described above. As I also said above, happy reading!



[1]Erik Kwakkel, Books Before Print, ARC Humanities Press, Leeds, 2018

[2]Keith Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbol & Other Typographical Marks, W. W. Norton, New York & London, 2013.

[3]Adrian Johns, The coming of print to Europe, in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, ed. Leslie Howsam, CUP, Cambridge, 2015

[4]Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book, Verso, London & New York, ppb. 1997

[5]Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The printing press as an agent of change: Communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe, CUP, Cambridge et al., ppb. 1980

[6]Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, Chicago University Press, Chicago and London, ppb. 1998

[7]Johns, The Nature of the Book p. 10

[8]American Historical Review: Volume 107, Issue 1, 2002, pp. 84-128

[9]Andrew Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, ppb. 2011

[10]Colin Clair, A History of European Printing, Academic Press, London, New York, San Francisco, 1976

[11]Blockbücher des Mittelalters: Bilderfolgen als Lektüre, Herausgegeben von Gutenberg-Gesellschaft und Gutenberg-Museum, 1991.



Filed under Book Reviews, Early Scientific Publishing, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Books about the book

  1. Jakob W

    Having looked at my shelves, I appear to have mainly history of print and typography, so mostly from the design side as opposed to history of the book proper – I will have to rectify this! I’m sure it’s rather dated now, but I have a soft spot for Steinberg’s _Five hundred years of printing_; the BL reissued this a couple of years ago in an illustrated version (not sure if the text was revised at all), but it was published as a Pelican, which means cheap second-hand copies are plentiful. I can also recommend the _Oxford Companion to the Book_, though it is very much not cheap (or portable, and I think it’s out of print these days, though second-hand copies are available).

  2. John Kane

    Most readers are probably aware that I live not very far away from the Renaissance city of Nürnberg in Southern Germany

    I must admit I did not. My German geography is terrible and I thought you lived in the North. No idea why.

    I can, more or less, find Berlin and Munchen on a map but that is about it. I have also been left on a Munchen street corner with a pickaxe, gift- wrapped in baby-blue paper, over my shoulder.

  3. Jim Harrison

    Mass printing developed in Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate, though it was baed on woodblock instead of moveable type. Eiko Ikegami’s book Bonds of Civility has a couple of chapters on the development of the printing industry in the 17th and 18th Centuries. In Europe, religious printing subsidized the whole industry. That didn’t happen in Muslim countries where the imams insisted that the Koran be written out rather than printed. In Japan, printing seems to have been largely at the service of popular culture from the get go.

  4. DCA

    Just to offer some takes on three of these:

    Eisenstein has a lot of good things to say, but on both times I’d read through her book I felt somehow unsatisfied. It fell into place, for me, reading Cohen’s book on the historiography of the Scientific Revolution, where he characterizes the book as being too much built around negative reactions to oher’s claims, and not enough in putting forth her thesis. This doesn’t make her wrong, just harder to read.

    Johns: I agree. He tends to argue that since printed books were not perfect copies of each other, printing didn’t matter. I’d say there were levels of imperfection, and if the question is, how well could books transmit ideas,
    the answer is, quite well as long as the error rate is small enough. A good example is that the tables of Rheticus, Pitiscus, Briggs, and Gellibrand remained the foundation for all trig tables until the 20th century. (See for reconstructions and much more).

    Printing errors are sort of like literacy (however defined): 90% is much different from (say) 50% but once you get above 90%, that society counts as fully literate even if not everyone in it is.

    I came upon Pettegrew’s book by accident and was delighted with it: to me, he gives the best picture of the world of the early modern printer. I learned a lot.

    You have lengthened the pile of books I want to read: thanks (really).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s