Yesterday, I was looking once again at Andrew Pettegree’s important article on ’Centre and Periphery in the European Book World’ in last year’s Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. He closes by providing a brief appendix, estimating the total number of books printed in each country up to 1601. A real hostage to fortune, as nothing is more likely to be shown to be inaccurate than an ambitious listing like this, but whatever its deficiencies, it really does highlight a significant point: how unusual England was in its failure to have a strong printing tradition in the lingua franca of Europe, Latin.
Pettegree provides columns for vernacular printings, those in Latin and totals. He gives raw figures, which I reproduce here, adding a final column, with a simple percentage (with figures rounded up or down as appropriate) of total printed in Latin. I have kept his distinction between ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ but reordered each section to give countries in descending order of Latin percentage:
As I said, what is so marked here is how out of step with other countries England was in the production of Latin books — a point which, even with significant revision of these figures, would remain true. It provides in simple, pungent fashion corroboration of a point made often but worth repeating: that, for learned works, England relied on imports, and, indeed, a learned Englishman would often go abroad to have his Latin works printed. Yet, before we English hang our heads in shame at the unlettered nature of our earlier presses, let us consider this positively. England’s book culture was, of necessity, cosmopolitan, thriving on allowing in ’foreigners’; in that sense, the English had reason to be more European than their colleagues on the mainland.