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Press for profit

Book>> The book in the renaissance • by Andrew Pettegree • Yale university press • US $40

By Akhil Ramdas
Published: Wednesday 15 September 2010

The book in the renaissanceIn an 1895 lecture at England’s Royal Society, historian John Dalberg Dalton lauded the democratic impact of the printing press.

According to Dalton, print “gave assurance that what was written would be accessible to all, suppression of knowledge and ideas would never recur”. Most historians concur with Dalton: print has been regarded a lofty medium that made knowledge accessible to a broader range of readers.

In The Book in the Renaissance, historian Andrew Pettegree suggests that the pioneers of the press were scarcely guided by the idealism attributed to them by modern day historians. Most were pragmatic businessmen for whom the only books that mattered were the ones that turned a profit. Such books were not tomes of classical literature but disposable pieces of news, popular science and medicine— often alchemy. Classical literature constituted only five per cent of all printed material in the first century of print. According to Pettegree, printers, sellers and even writers saw the potential of the medium to create sensation.

imageThe British historians’ account did have place for idealists like Gutenberg; but only to highlight their tragedy. The Gutenberg Bible required large amounts of capital that needed replenishing over time. Long before there was any hope of profit, Gutenberg “died bankrupt and disappointed”.

Scandal, excitement and controversy were the stocksin- trade of those who made money from the printing press. Personal and family documents also sold well. In the days of immense religious hold over most aspects of life, people liked a certificate— that could be framed—to display their freedom from sin. Two years before the end of the 15th century, one monastery commissioned 200,000 such certificates with an empty space for the sin-free name.

It is not surprising that very little of such literature has remained for historians to research. Pettegree has ferreted out the ephemeral bedrocks of early publishing from scattered libraries, which have somehow kept scarce books and pamphlets absent from earlier surveys of printed books. Only with online catalogues, knowledge of repositories storing such near-fugitive works has become apparent.

Pettegree concludes by acknowledging his debt to Internet for allowing research on the less hallowed aspect of print.

Akhil Ramdas has written a doctoral thesis on print culture in colonial Punjab

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