bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Print lack-of-culture: Latin and the English

Posted in Print History by bonaelitterae on 20 November, 2009

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:

‘Core’ zone        
  Vernacular Latin Total % Latin
Swiss Confederation 4,757 9,270 14,027 66%
Germany 62,600 70,016 132,616 53%
Low Countries 14,161 13,452 27,613 49%
Italy 50,800 47,000 97,800 48%
France 45,344 34,000 79,344 43%
‘Peripheral’ regions        
Scandinavia 873 793 1,666 48%
Eastern Europe 6,000 5,000 11,000 45%
Spain 10,200 4,800 15,000 32%
England 11,616 1,816 13,432 14%

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.

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  1. […] to publish a text in the learned language of Latin would usually look to the continental presses, rather than to those in Westminster or London: it is axiomatic that, in terms of printing, England was a backwater, with texts using the new […]

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