Eric Marshall White's Census of Print Runs for Fifteenth-Century Books


In March 2013 A Census of Print Runs for Fifteenth-Century Books by Eric Marshall White, then Curator of Special Collections at the Bridwell Library, Southern Methodist University, and now Curator of Rare Books at Princeton, came to my attention. White's research, published in the form of a database, and prefaced by a scholarly introduction which documented prior work on the topic, was published on the website of the Consortium of European Research Libraries, From White's introduction I quote a few representative selections. White's footnotes, not included here, will be found in the PDF downloadable from the website:

"Many historians seeking to measure the impact of the ‘printing revolution’ in fifteenth century Europe have taken a quantitiative approach, multiplying the total of all editions by the number of copies in a typical edition. However, whereas the Incunable Short Title Catalog (ISTC) lists more than 28,000 fifteenth-century editions that are represented by surviving specimens, the number of lost editions will always remain indeterminate. The second factor in the equation – the typical or ‘average’ fifteenth-century print run – is just as indeterminate as the first, if not more so. Inevitably, the ‘editions × copies’ formula has produced estimates of fifteenth-century press production that range anywhere from eight million to more than twenty million pieces of reading material. Such irreconcilable results (in which the margin for error may be larger than the answer itself) only serve to demonstrate that any effort to arrive at a meaningful quantification of fifteenth-century press production will require a much more systematic analysis of the available data on print runs. The present study, a census of print runs for fifteenth-century books, takes a step in that direction by asking a much more basic question: what is the available data?"

"Historically, as several scholars have conceded, our knowledge of early print runs has been lamentably poor. However, this is not because data does not exist – the print runs of fifteenth-century books currently number more than 250 editions – but because the data has remained so unavailingly scattered throughout a vast literature dedicated to other questions. Consequently, even well-informed specialists have been able to call forth only a few familiar examples, such as the 37 fairly uniform print runs publicized in 1472 by Conradus Sweynheym and Arnoldus Pannartz at Rome,6 the seventeen print runs (including a spurious Breviarium) canonized in Konrad Haebler’s essential Handbuch der Inkunabelkunde, 7 or the 33 print runs recorded in the Diario of the Florentine press at San Jacopo di Ripoli (1476-1484). In 1998, however, the first truly extensive catalogue of fifteenth-century print runs, moving beyond the usual suspects, was compiled by Uwe Neddermeyer. Unfortunately, his table of “bekannte Auflagenhöhen” (known print runs) for the fifteenth century actually includes an undifferentiated mix of about 130 true print runs as well asseveral dozen inconclusive, speculative, or spurious entries. Therefore, because Neddermeyer’s list is not accompanied by the original documentation, one has to perform considerable research simply to verify which fraction of his data is truly useful. In contrast, each of the 250+ print runs listed in the present CERL-based census has been included on the basis of contemporary documentation. It is hoped that in the near future we will be able to provide transcriptions of these primary sources and citations of secondary literature for virtually all of the census entries."

Timeline Themes