Friday, May 30, 2014

What centuries did the sixteenth century read?

Suppose that for every book printed in Germany in the sixteenth century - every item in VD16, in other words - it were possible to identify when the author was born. With that information, we could get an impression of how the demand changed over time for ancient, medieval, or contemporary authors.

We can actually do this to a certain extent already thanks to VD16's hooks into the Personennormdatei, which includes birth years for most if not all authors published in VD16. For a periodization, we'll call everything up to 100 AD "classical antiquity," 101-400 will be "late antiquity," 401-800 are "early medieval," 801-1200 are "medieval," and 1200-1400 are "late medieval." For now, instead of strictly counting authors or editions, we'll count the number of editions to which an author makes some kind of contribution (so an edition of both Virgil and Cicero will be counted twice, once for each author).

And this is what we find.
Figure 1: Relative contributions of historical periods to sixteenth-century German printing per decade

The result may not be obvious at first, but it's consistent with what we expect. The largest segment, the light blue line at the top, represents classical antiquity, with a healthy contribution coming from late antiquity. The early and high Middle Ages both supply very modest contributions, while the most recent late medieval authors start strong but fade with the onset of the Reformation. Every segment declines notably in the 1520s except for late antiquity; did patristic literature enjoy a surge of interest thanks to the Reformation? But after the 1520s, every segment except classical antiquity goes into a sustained decline.

What about fifteenth- and sixteenth-century authors? I left them off the graph above because their numbers would swamp the earlier authors. Also, the definition of "recent author" changes each year; a contemporary in 1501 is long dead in 1599. To address the printing of recent authors, I posed a different question: what is the average year of birth for all authors published in a given year? The results are below.

Figure 2: Average difference between year of publication and year of author's births in sixteenth-century German printing per half-decade

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the average birth year lay over 250 years before the year the work appeared in print (which still implies a preponderance of recent authors, thanks to the popularity of authors from classical antiquity). The Reformation sent that figure plummeting to just over 100 years. Although the average recovered somewhat, it experienced a long and consistent decline for the rest of the century as the medium of print was used more frequently for matters of contemporary relevance and less often for the distant voices of classical authors. By the end of the sixteenth century, print was even more strongly oriented toward recent writers than it had been at the height of the Reformation.

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