Learning from Early Printed Books

The first major text printed with movable type, the Gutenberg Bible (1454) symbolizes early print. Although this and other early printed books have long interested scholars, librarians, and collectors, many questions remain unanswered. For starters, how exactly did printing know-how spread from one town to the next? Who sold and transported the books from the workshops to the readers? Where did printers buy the vast amount of paper they needed to print their books? Who decided which content to print?

An astonishing number of printed texts have survived from the late Middle Ages. Or rather remarkably many books were printed in the second half of the fifteenth century as they developed into a crucial medium for the circulation of knowledge. Here I wish to explore what we can learn from these artifacts, after briefly introducing some online tools we can employ to begin such work. After that, I will present a case study about the factors that influenced which texts printers chose to reproduce.

Starting Points

By the end of the fifteenth century, about 250 towns in Europe had been home to a printing press, at least for a time.[1] The large number of surviving printed books from this period attests to how fast this new technology spread.

The Atlas of Early Printing, curated by the University of Iowa Libraries, shows the diffusion of printing and paper production with a timeline and Google Maps. In most cases, this tool only shows where printing presses and paper mills had either been active or documented for the first time, but it does not provide further details. The map is most helpful with respect to the question of knowledge proliferation. It illuminates how the skill of printing spread throughout Europe, with many German printers establishing workshops abroad. We know little about where the printers learned their craft, however.[2]

Research on early printing has shown much interest in the print shop but draws mostly on the product itself, the roughly 500,000 early print books held in today’s libraries. The Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke, a comprehensive catalog curated by the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, records the titles of all these works and provides essential information on each title: author, date of print, workshop, format, number of leaves,[3] language, and more. In addition, the catalog lists the copies of an edition that are in libraries, archives, and other institutions accessible to researchers. The British Library curates a similar resource, the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue.

Printers, Papers, and Typeface

Colophon with information about the printer (Peter Drach), place (Speyer), and year of printing (1482). Below the text is Drach’s printer mark, which is similar to that of the famous Schöffer and Fust workshop in Mainz. Source: Portius Azo, Summa super Codice et Institutis (Speyer: Peter Drach, 1482), Heidelberg University Library, J 1150 B Folio INC (GW no. 3144).

In a way, the first years of printing served as the cradle of a new kind of book production. In fact, that is the metaphor that gives these early printed books their common designation, incunabula, the plural for incunabulum or cradle in Latin. (The German Wiegendrucke above translates literally to “cradle printings.”) Many features of books as we know them today developed in this period. In some cases, printers added “colophons” that contained information similar to modern imprints. Some even had special stamps with an emblem, that is, a printer’s mark, not unlike the marks of other master craftsmen. By about 1490, a dedicated page for the book’s title, workshop, and place and date of production had become more common.[4] Earlier printed books tended to have title pages that often only provided a short title of the book and which functioned as a protective cover for the unbound sheets of paper.

Not all medieval books provide such information, but there are additional ways to date and localize the production of specific books. Watermarks in the paper are crucial in this regard. The go-to database for identifying when and where specific papers were used is Wasserzeichen Informationssystem, available in German, English, and French.

Ox head watermark in an incunable from Speyer, Germany. Source: Bernardus Claravallensis, Sermones de tempore et de sanctis et de diversis (Speyer: Peter Drach, 1481/1482), Heidelberg University Library, Q 1272-3-2 A Quart INC (GW no. 3942).

Finally, bindings and binding waste can help to identify workshops that sold bound copies, although the buyers, not the producers, bound most books at the time. More useful is the circumstance that early print shops almost always used their own unique sets of letters, meaning almost all printed material can be linked to a specific press through its type. In fact, the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke also contains a type repertory.

Case Study: Church–Printer Interactions

Given the importance of book production in monasteries well before the advent of moveable type printing, the impact that the new technology and craft had on clerical book production interests historians of the book. In fact, religious communities ran only about twenty workshops at this time, and Brethren of the Common Life, Benedictines, and Carthusians were their main, if not exclusive patrons.[5] These numbers indicate that print workshops in monasteries were a marginal phenomenon. The first was in Marienthal, near Mainz, in the Brethren of the Common Life’s monastery, active from 1474 to 1484. Its production consisted of liturgical prints and theological tracts, for instance, by Johannes Gerson and Nicolaus de Lyra. Overall only twenty-one editions were printed, mostly in the first years of the press. Other monastery presses had similar profiles.[6]

These modest numbers do not mean that religious book production remained in the hands of scribes or had collapsed. Instead, it had reorganized, shifting from clerical to lay groups in this period.[7] First, instead of copying religious texts in scriptoria, clerics and religious orders commissioned them to lay printers such as Peter Drach of Speyer or Johannes Sensenschmidt of Bamberg. The Church had quickly seen the advantage of circulating uniformly printed theological and liturgical texts, which helped to reduce the risk of deliberate or inadvertent copy errors from the handwriting process. This trend is visible in the large number of copies ordered by the Church. In 1481, the Abbot Ulrich ordered 500 copies of a missal from Sensenschmidt for Bamberg.[8] In a similar manor, Drach printed numerous liturgical texts for dioceses as far apart as Basel, Speyer, Prague, Wroclaw, and Utrecht—often in print runs of at least 400 copies. In one of these, the Abbot of Sponheim, Johannes Trithemius, thanked the printer Drach in a preface for his good service to the Bursfelde Congregation.[9] These print jobs were attractive because they were preorders and printers could sell large print runs of one title to a single buyer for a guaranteed price.

Printers also reproduced religious texts such as bibles and prayer books without preorders. Grammar and religious books were in high demand at the time, and printers tried to profit from this trend. The new situation represented a challenge to the Church and led to regulatory measures. Berthold of Henneberg, the archbishop-elector of Mainz, issued an edict in 1485 penalizing the printing of texts translated from Greek, Latin, or any other languages into the German vernacular without the prior approval of his scholars. As a Church leader who also had the powers of a secular ruler, he was able to establish a system of censorship in his territories.[10] Printers clearly took note of such edicts. In a book printed by Drach later that year, the dedicatory letter by Jakob Wimpfeling, a local humanist, stated that the workshop did not print translated texts from Latin or Greek.[11]

Religious texts were reproduced by lay printers on a large scale after the introduction of printing with movable type. Although this marked a significant shift in technology and work processes, the Church in this case maintained its influence on which texts were reproduced, in part through censorship, but also through its power as a major customer.

Preliminary Conclusions

The study of incunabula involves a relatively short period of time—less than fifty years—with extremely good accounting of the some 500,000 surviving units. This situation makes it possible to closely study which social actors influenced the production choices of the printers and how. The brief case study here reveals direct and indirect control factors by Church authorities, which determined what content was reproduced on a larger scale. In many cases, the financial resources of major buyers were crucial as reproducing texts by print stayed a costly business. Additionally, one could investigate the dissemination of knowledge manifest in printed books and the practical skill of printing.

In many cases, multiple workshops reprinted popular books. The Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke shows that some titles were printed in countless editions by different workshops as copyright was not an issue yet. The question of which workshop copied from where could be studied more thoroughly to find out more about how books circulated. The growing market also put pressure on the printing businesses, which increased the use of features like indexes to make their editions more attractive to buyers. At the same time, these measures also affected how books were used. Tables of content and indexes made knowledge in voluminous works easier and faster to access, changing the way readers could work with texts.

The possibilities of tracing knowledge do not end with localizing the production of books but can be deepened by looking at which incunabula where printed and how they circulated thereafter. For its part, the Material Evidence in Incunabula project is investigating how books circulated by researching the “biography” of each surviving copy. Where did books go after they were produced?

Paul Schweitzer-Martin is a research associate (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) at the CRC 933 Material Text Cultures, University of Heidelberg, Germany, where he is pursuing a dissertation.


  1. Ursula Rautenberg, “Von Mainz in die Welt: Buchdruck und Buchhandel in der Inkuanbelzeit,” in Gutenberg: Aventur und Kunst, ed. Stadt Mainz (Mainz: Verlag Hermann Schmidt, 2000), 236–39; Ferdinand Geldner, Die Deutschen Inkunabeldrucker: Ein Handbuch der deutschen Buchdrucker des XV. Jahrhunderts nach Druckorten (Stuttgart: Hiersemann, 1968), 1:44–45.
  2. Geldner, Die Deutschen Inkunabeldrucker, vol. 2.
  3. Medieval scribes and printers did not use page numbers. In modern times, librarians and curators usually number the front (recto) side of each leaf or folio. This process is called folio numbering or foliation. The back side of a leaf is the verso side.
  4. Wolfgang Schmitz, Grundriss der Inkunabelkunde: Das gedruckte Buch im Zeitalter des Medienwechsels(Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 2018), 224.
  5. Schmitz, Grundriss der Inkunabelkunde, 183–86.
  6. Mary Kay Duggan, “Bringing Reformed Liturgy to Print at the New Monastery at Marienthal,” Church History and Religious Culture 88, no. 3 (2008): 415–36. For more details on monastic printing, see Falk Eisermann, “A Golden Age? Monastic Printing Houses in the Fifteenth Century,” in Print Culture and Peripheries in Early Modern Europe: A Contribution to the History of Printing and the Book Trade in Small European and Spanish Cities, ed. Benito Rial Costas, (Leiden: Brill, 2013) 37–67; and Wolfgang Schmitz, “Klösterliche Buchkultur auf neuen Wegen? Die Entstehungsbedingungen von Klosterdruckereien im ersten Jahrhundert nach Gutenberg,” in Buch und Bibliothekswissenschaft im Informationszeitalter, (Munich: K.G. Saur, 1990) 345–62.
  7. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (1983; Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 82–83.
  8. Ferdinand Geldner, “Um das Psalterium Benedictinum von 1459,“ in Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 1954, 71–83. The bibliographical information for the Missale Benedictinum can be found in the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke (hereafter: GW), no. M24117.
  9. See Breviarium Benedictinum congregationis Bursfeldensis, Bibliothek Sankt Georgen (Frankfurt am Main) Fm I 5 (GW no. 05180).
  10. See edict quoted in Hans Widmann, Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Erfindung des Buchdrucks—aus Sicht der Zeitgenossen des Erfinders (Mainz: Verlag der Gutenberg-Gesellschaft, 1972), 44.
  11. Non enim imprimis e latino aut greco traductos in popularem et vernaculam linguam,” quoted in Conradus de Halberstadt, Concordatiae Bibliorum, Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Düsseldorf, BIBLTH–2A–2:INK, fol. 277r (GW no. 07421).
Suggested Citation: Paul Schweitzer-Martin, “Learning from Early Printed Books,” History of Knowledge, April 25, 2019, https://historyofknowledge.net/2019/04/25/learning-from-early-printed-books/.