Friday, February 20, 2015

How atypical are the editions in Eric White's census of print runs?

In the introduction to his census of known fifteenth-century print runs, Eric White cautions against taking his results as representative for all incunables:
As the census will make immediately apparent, a large percentage of editions for which we know the print runs were produced to fulfill institutional functions.... Remunerative and relatively risk-free for printers, the original commissions for projects such as these tended to end up in surviving archives, and they tended to afford very large editions. It should be noted, therefore, that the print runs known from such institutional commissions do not represent a normative cross-section of fifteenth-century press production, but rather a selection of large scale projects carried out with institutional funding and pressure to produce. As a group they almost certainly reflect higher-than-average print runs.... Moreover, the majority of the recorded print runs reflect the output not of the ‘average’ printing shop, but rather that of a few exceptionally successful publishers who received commissions from well-funded institutions. It is worth remembering that a documented print run may not be a representative print run.
White's characterization of his sample is correct. Compared to all recorded incunables in the ISTC, folios are much more prevalent in the print run census, while quartos are underrepresented, and broadsides do not appear at all.
Comparison of format distribution 

For each format, the books are also substantially longer, with the average number of leaves 60-100% higher than for the ISTC as a whole. (NB: Averages can be a misleading way to describe the distribution of leaf counts, but they give a correct impression in this case.)

Comparison of average leaf count by format

White's suggestion that the sample of known print runs enjoyed a better survival rate than other incunables is also correct, with an average number of surviving copies 20-65% higher than what one finds for the ISTC as a whole. (NB: Averages can be even more misleading for describing survival rates.)
Comparison of average surviving copies by format

This doesn't mean that we should ignore White's census of print runs as an atypical sample, however. Rather, we can say that its sample differs from the body of known incunables in various ways, some of which have well-understood effects. For example, the size and format of editions in White's sample are larger on average than for the ISTC as a whole, and the included editions likely benefited from association with an institutional sponsor, all of which are associated with higher survival rates than other fifteenth-century printed books, so that we would expect the survival rate for White's sample to be higher than for the ISTC as a whole.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Paper and parchment manuscripts in the Handschriftencensus

The graph below shows in purple the number of parchment manuscripts recorded per half-century, while paper manuscripts are in red. The height of each bar represents the number of total manuscripts. Other people have done this graph before, and done it better.

What's interesting about this is the source of the underlying data: Its records are primarily concerned with German vernacular texts, so the graph is less interesting for general book history, but all the more interesting for German Studies. The Handschriftencensus makes no claims to completeness, but it does represent the result of many years of thorough effort by competent experts. As the Handschriftencensus records were never intended as data sources, I've needed to clean up and massage the records into a useable form. In this case, I've compelled vague or multiple datings into a single number, rather than relying only on precise dating. I've included the sixteenth century in the graph, but the small number of manuscripts there does not reflect a decline in manuscript production, but instead only a decline in the number of post-medieval manuscripts that are of interest for medieval German literature.

If nothing else, the graph nicely illustrates the extreme scarcity of manuscripts from the Old High German period, and the sudden rise of paper and decline in parchment at the turn of the fourteenth century. This is already well known, but for an initial attempt to treat a new information source as data,unsurprising results are welcome. provides electronic records for over 20,000 manuscripts, and there are undoubtedly more interesting results waiting to be found among them.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Notes on the bibliography of Johannes Rasch

The bibliography of Johannes Rasch's polemical prophetic compilations give us a view of canon formation for prophetic works in the late sixteenth century, a Catholic counterpart to the Egenolff collections of the 1540s. I know the primary sources used by Johannes Rasch for his polemical compilations fairly well, but taking a close look at them turned up a few surprises, including
  • the Onus ecclesie, ostensibly from a Catholic source, seems to have been passing into obscurity just over sixty years after its publication;
  • two editions, one of Birgitta of Sweden's revelations and another compilation of Wolfgang Lazius, that are not listed in VD16 but that can be found in Prague;
  • references to an unknown work of Joseph Grünpeck and three other unknown works; 
  • reference to a sixteenth-century edition of the Bildnuß eines nackenden Kaisers und Bapsts sixty years before the currently known editions; and
  • indications that several editions of Rasch's work currently dated to 1584 need to be re-dated to 1588.
In addition, it's interesting to see where Rasch drew his sources from. Although he was working in Vienna, his sources were most frequently printed in Nuremberg (10), Cologne (9), Strasbourg (5), and Munich (6), compared to five editions printed in Vienna. The number of international editions is low, with just one edition each from Antwerp (plus one lost edition), Bologna, Cracow, and Rome. No place of printing is known for seven editions, of which three are lost.

The dates of Rasch's sources are interesting. Only three are incunabula. One large group of his sources comprises those from recent decades, 1560-1588, with another large group around 50 years old, printed between 1520 and 1540.

Finally, it's interesting to note which editions apparently known to Rasch are lost to us today. The graph below marks the lost editions in red.
All of the editions he mentions up to 1520 can be identified today, and there are only two missing editions before 1550 (the lost work of Grünpeck, and an unknown Latin edition of Lichtenberger's Prognosticatio). The other seven lost editions are all from relatively recent years, with six printed after 1560. This is relevant to how we model the disappearance of printed editions, as it suggests that while there are processes that lead to the loss of editions over the space of several decades or centuries, the most common processes of destruction operate over the space of a few years or decades. It would be interesting to see if a close look at other sixteenth-century book lists would lead to similar results.