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The Early Modern Book Trade: An Evidence-based Reconstruction of the Economic and Juridical Framework of the European Book Market

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - EMoBookTrade (The Early Modern Book Trade: An Evidence-based Reconstruction of the Economic and Juridical Framework of the European Book Market)

Reporting period: 2020-04-01 to 2021-08-31

The problem addressed by this project is the formation of a market for early modern imprints. To fulfill this goal, the project has chosen to focus on a reconstruction of the economic history of publishing and especially bookselling. By using unexplored evidence, this project is therefore addressing some crucial questions pertaining the field of economic history by investigating the issue of book prices and the field of States’ political economy, addressing the issue of the early modern granting of book privileges (which in turn influenced the process of book pricing). Moreover, to consolidate the knowledge on early modern management of the bookselling business, a set of case studies were narrowed down by focusing on two major cities in the European book trade, Venice and Antwerp. For the former the activity of publisher and bookseller Bernardino Giunti was singled out and for the later the printing firm of Christopher Plantin and Jan Moretus was chosen. Lastly, to expand our knowledge on the technique of building and managing a transnational network for book distribution and sale, attention is being given to some groundbreaking evidence represented by an entire year (1522) of correspondence from a Venetian bookseller, Giovanni Bartolomeo Gabiano.
The corpus of data investigated by the EMoBookTrade project fit in two main categories. The first one is represented by empirical data voicing the economic value of books, namely book prices derived from different commercial sources of the period 1540-1630; mainly sales lists and similar documents carrying book prices. The EMoBookTrade project has been gathering a large set of data (more than 22,000 book prices to date) that have been processed and made available through a new open access database. Said data represent the foundation of most of the team’s analysis meant to produce original scholarship, but it is also the infrastructure and the dataset that the project offers to scholars interested in endeavoring in future targeted researches on the economic implications pertaining book history.
The second set of data is of legal interest and accounts for early modern Venice’s system of book privileges. This was the main system of legal protection of publishing until the introduction of copyright laws, and surely one of the factors which led to Venice’s prominent position in the European publishing sector.
Thanks to a systematic use of price data, the team (and eventually, future users) will for instance measure book price trends over time, analyze the pricing policy of different publishers in different social, economic and religious contexts, and understand the demand curve of texts, authors and genres. All the above-mentioned data will be of utmost interest not only for cultural historians but also for economic historians and scholars of consumption history.
The project, helped by an IT specialist, has designed and built the EMoBookTrade Database. The database includes controlled vocabulary from state-of-the-art digital sources. To answer different kinds of research questions, two different front ends (Early Modern Book Privileges in Venice and Early Modern Book Prices) give access to all information available about privileges and the editions involved on the one hand, and to all information about prices of editions on the other. Each front end includes an encompassing search engine allowing numerous combinations of search terms and the use of a variety of filters. At present, this relational database has no equal, especially in terms of number of entries and in their coherent mutual systematization.
The Early Modern Book Privileges in Venice database has been launched in February 2018. It has already been impactful. A group of French scholars based at the Université Lumière Lyon 2 is designing and building a similar database of French book privileges, inspired by ours. It currently contains 1,907 privileges.
The Early Modern Book Prices database, also a work in progress, will be launched at an international conference in May 2019. It has been built on a number of sources from different European areas with the goal of supporting scholars’ interpretation and analysis in the field of book prices. Some typical queries may include: searching for the most common criteria in setting book prices; investigating average prices at a given span of time, or within a certain geographic area, or for specific kind of editions or literary genres; isolating price fluctuations over time.
One of the biggest innovations of this database is the availability of an automated currency converter which has been built to allow prices comparison across Europe. In this respect having hired an economic historian to support a multi-disciplinary team has been fundamental to avoid fatal mistakes while devising an advanced and sensitive tool for quantitative analysis. Early modern currencies like Carolus Gulders, Livres Tournois, Neapolitan Ducats, Lire Ferraresi are converted in Lire Veneziane, the most commonly recurring currency within our sources, and with the correspondent value in grams of silver. This database currently contains 22,750 entries.
The HI will take care of the EMoBookTrade Database maintenance and availability in the future years.
Research on book prices is a new field. Team researchers could not limit their work to DB building and data processing, but they had to communicate as soon as possible the meaning, the goals and the first results of their work on book prices and book privileges to a large scholarly public. Through five international conferences organized by the EMoBookTrade team (held in Italy, Belgium and the US), the research has been largely communicated together with the first results of the project. A collection of papers has formed an open access edited volume entitled Selling & Collecting: Printed Book Sale Catalogues and Private Libraries in Early Modern Europe (Macerata: EUM, 2018). Papers on the price policy of specific publishers have been published.
The EMoBookTrade project is working at a reconstruction of the formation and development of a market for early modern imprints in Europe, using unexplored evidence. The Early Modern Book Privileges in Venice database, work in progress, is the first database that enlists printing privileges created so far. It currently contains 1,907 privileges granted by the Republic of Venice. The Early Modern Book Prices database, work in progress, will be launched in May 2019. It has been built on different commercial sources from different European areas of the period 1540-1630 with the goal of supporting scholars’ interpretation and analysis in the field of book prices. This resource currently contains more than 22,000 book prices. One of the biggest innovations of this database is the availability of an automated currency converter which has been built to allow prices comparison across Europe.
The expected results at the end of the project refers first of all to the growing of the database’s dataset. Entries on Venetian book privileges will be covered until the year 1603. Book prices will continue to be entered using all sources available and are expected to reach the amount of about 30-35.000 entries. More workshops, lectures, international conferences and publications will allow all team members to communicate the result of their research.
Early Modern Book Privileges in Venice (http://emobooktrade.unimi.it/db/public/frontend/index); Early Modern Book Prices database (http://emobooktrade.unimi.it/db/public/prices). The website of the project (http://emobooktrade.unimi.it/) is rich in illustrative material.
A detail from the stock book of Bernardino Giunti, Venice, 1600-1630ca.
A letter from Lucimburgo to his uncle Giovanni Bartolomeo Gabiano
Two printed catalogues enlisting books with prices which are processed in the DB
A privilege registration at the State Archives in Venice
A page from the General Business Ledger of the Plantin Press, 1563–67