Seminar on the history of the book: Howard Hotson, “Encyclopaedic overstretch? The crisis of German Reformed printing on the eve of the Thirty Years War”, 4 March 2011

from Martha Repp

The seventh in the 2011 series of the Oxford Seminar on the History of the Book was given on 4 March, 2011, by Professor Howard Hotson of the University of Oxford, on the subject of “Encyclopaedic overstretch? The crisis of German Reformed printing on the eve of the Thirty Years War”.

The session brought together statistical evidence from a variety of sources to demonstrate the crisis in Reformed (Calvinist) intellectual life in Germany in the early 17th century. These sources included evidence on university matriculations from Eulenburg’s Die Frequenz der deutschen Universitäten and evidence on titles offered for sale at the Frankfurt book fair from Schwetchke’s Codex Nundinarius, as well as evidence taken from bibliographies of specific towns or printers. Professor Hotson focused primarily on the Reformed intellectual centres in the Palatinate, Hesse and Herborn, both comparing them with each other, and setting them in the context of what was happening in the rest of Germany.

The first factor considered was the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618/1619, and the Imperial occupation of the Palatinate in 1622. This certainly led to a dramatic fall in matriculations at Reformed Universities in Heidelberg, Marburg and Herborn, were much more immediately and gravely affected by the outbreak of war than Lutheran and Catholic universities. This drop in university matriculations coincided with a similarly sharp decline in German printing in general, with fewer imprints – foreign and domestic, Latin and vernacular – offered for sale at the Frankfurt book fair from 1620 onward. It would be natural to suppose that it was the outbreak of war which also precipitated the demise of the Reformed printers in western Germany, especially in the light of anecdotal evidence of Imperial troops in the Palatinate burning heretical books in stoves to keep warm, and using them as wadding for muskets, and in stables and latrines. Certainly, after the sack of Heidelberg, printing in the Palatinate ceased for a generation.

Closer examination reveals, however, that the decline in Reformed printing is not entirely to be ascribed to the outbreak of war. In fact, the statistical evidence shows that the output of the Reformed presses was already declining sharply from 1612/1613 onward, a slump which predates both the outbreak of war, the collapse of matriculations at Reformed universities, and the contraction of the Frankfurt book fair generally by at least half a decade. Juxtaposing the data from Schwetchke’s Codex Nundinarius with the best available data for most of the individual Reformed printers in this region demonstrated the dramatic nature of the pre-war crisis in book production, while also serving to establish the general reliability of Schwetchke’s much maligned data.
Having demonstrated the existence of this crisis, the third section of Professor Hotson’s paper set out to explain it. His explanation operated on two separate levels. At the most general level, an explanation was suggested by the intersection of the graphs of matriculations and book production. While matriculations had been growing steadily since the mid-sixteenth century, these were overtaken between 1600 to 1605 by a massive surge in the production of textbooks, which doubled the number of academic books being produced per university student. When, after 1610, university matriculations leveled off for the first time since the 1530s, the market appears to have been saturated, with the supply of textbooks suddenly outstripping demand. The effect of this saturation was evidently delayed for a few years by the practice of ‘Tauschhandel’, in which printers exchanged their wares for those of other printers, in the hope of selling them to their home market at a profit. This apparently staved off the inevitable correction in the market for a year or two, but by 1613 the breaking point had been reached. Not only did the production of those firms specialising in academic textbooks fall off rapidly after that date, but many of the leading authors of these works – such as Clemens Timpler in Steinfurt and Johann Heinrich Alsted in Herborn – suddenly stopped publishing philosophical textbooks altogether.

In the final section of his paper, Professor Hotson attempted to identify the turning point of this crisis still more precisely by considered more closely the printer at the centre of post-Ramist textbook production in this period: the firm of Wilhelm and Peter Antonius in Hanau. By far the largest work published by the Antonius firm in the crucial year of 1613 was a huge collection the complete philosophical works of the leading post-Ramist philosopher, Bartholomäus Keckermann’s Systema systematum. From 1599 onward, Antonius had published all of Keckermann’s numerous textbooks under an imperial privilege; and immediately after the philosopher’s untimely death in 1609, he recruited the young Alsted to edit his scripta philosophica into an integrated encyclopaedia. As a philosophical and pedagogical system, the resulting work was elegant and sophisticated; but as a commercial product, the two fat and unwieldy quarto volumes – printed without Antonius’s oversight after his death in 1611 – were far less attractive than the unauthorised edition of Keckermann’s complete Opera Omnia published on less expensive paper in two more user-friendly folio volumes the following year in Geneva, which was not subject to the imperial privilege. Any discriminating buyer offered a choice would have rejected the Hanau quarto scripta philosophica of 1613 in favour of the Geneva folio opera omnia of 1614, and today the latter is preserved in a much larger number of more widely dispersed copies that the former. Ironically, Keckermann, Alsted and Antonius – precisely the figures most responsible for inflating the bubble of post-Ramist textbook printing in previous years – were also jointly responsible, it appears, for bursting it in 1613. When war broke out in 1618, it struck at the heart of a Calvinst academic publishing industry in Germany already weakened financially by a serious crisis of overproduction five years earlier.

The ensuing discussion considered issues such as the shelf-life of university textbooks at this time, and whether there was a second-hand market, and if so, how significant it may have been.