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Counting Sheets and Editions: Visualising Parisian Printing in the Sixteenth Century
by Graeme Kemp

Our first Visualising History post, Off to the Bar Chart Race(s): The Largest Print Centres Through Time (1450-1650), was warmly received. Social media engagement was high and it generated many questions and comments. In this post I thought it might be interesting to explore one that kept coming up again and again - the effect of sheet counting.

Printed Sheets

For many outside of the world of bibliography this may be an unfamiliar term. To understand what we mean by this, let's step back and think about the printed book. In its broadest sense, it is nothing more than a collection of one or more sheets of paper that have been (normally!) folded and gathered together. The image below illustrates an unfolded issue of a news-book, now held at the Folger Shakespeare Library at Washington D.C., that dates to the English Civil War:

Folger Shakespeare Library, M2324.5 (CC BY-SA)

When a sheet was folded, it would form a gathering, also known as a quire. Multiple gatherings could then be sown together and bound. To avoid any confusion when putting the book together (imagine printing a thousand copies of a long document without page numbers!), guides were added to the corners of selected printed pages. You can learn more about these guides, or signatures, here.

For our purposes it is important to grasp that all books are not uniform in size or length. Some needed many sheets, while others required only one. The process of calculating the total number of sheets any one book is relatively straightforward. The total number of leaves in a book should be divided by the total number of times the original sheet was folded, also know as its
format. So for example, the 1542 De re medica libri tres by Joannes Mesue Damascenus was a folio (2) of 360 leaves and would have taken 180 sheets to produce each copy.

De re medica libri tres (Paris, apud Chrestien Wechel, 1542), USTC 195201

By contrast, a copy of Machiavelli's Prince printed at Paris in 1571 needed only 9 sheets to produce each copy, as it was an octavo (8) of 72 leaves in length.

De re medica libri tres (Paris, apud Chrestien Wechel, 1542), USTC 1514

You can probably see that in material terms at least, not all books should be considered equal.

If the book is not a fixed unit, should we really be treating each one as essentially the same when we create charts or attempt to quantify them? Historians such as Jean-François Gilmont and Denis Pallier argued against this and encouraged us instead to apply the method of sheet counting to more accurately gauge the volume of printed matter being produced. By this method, they argued, we would be able to distinguish between times when printers published a large number of small books and others when their workshop was occupied with a smaller number of larger projects, which may have taken far more time to produce and required a far larger quantity of paper. This would reveal a more nuanced perspective on the early modern book world.

The Data

So let us move from the theory of sheet counting to seeing its effect in practice. For this we will use data derived from Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC), a bibliographic project that aims to record all printed editions before 1650. We will confine ourselves to only looking at the Parisian picture from the sixteenth century. In my previous post, we saw that the largest cumulative print centre of the early modern period was Paris.

From this perspective one could conclude that the story of print in the French capital was one of almost unrivalled dominance and unimpeded growth. But will sheet counting tell the same story?

Before we get into that, let us quickly mention some caveats we should be aware of with the dataset. In addition to the usual factors like survival, scope of coverage, and lack of print-run data, it is important to emphasise that the re-issue of books can greatly skew any sheet analysis. Publishers often shared the financial burden of printing large books. This could mean that the same impression could have two different title pages, each bearing the address of one of the partners, and therefore could appear to be two be separate editions.

A side-by-side comparison of two separate issues, but one edition.

Publishers were also not above dirty tricks to try to give their publications a new lease of life, occasionally adding a new title page to an old book to make it appear to be relatively new.

A side-by-side comparison of the edition proper (right) and the re-issue of an unsold copy with the addition of a newly typeset page (left)

In both these cases, this could lead to the number of sheets being double counted. We can mitigate this problem by utilising the bibliographic fingerprint, but it still presents a challenge for the reliability dataset.

And finally, we do not have the necessary information - pagination and format - to generate sheet counts for all items. However, we can certainly form a useful sample - of the corpus of close to 45,000 Parisian editions the USTC has identified for the period 1501-1601, we are able to calculate sheet counts for over 27,000 items of these.

On Your Lines

Below you can can see one of the traditional means of illustrating the productivity of the press - output of unique editions per year.

This graphic adds much to the perspective the cumulative bar chart offered us. The output of the Parisian press rises from the early sixteenth century to a period of success accompanied by a large output that fluctuates, but never falls into collapse. The only exception is the huge peak in production that occurs in the late 1580s, followed by an equally great collapse. This was the period of the Siege of Paris, when Henri IV was attempting to gain control of the capital from the Catholic League.

If we look at sheets we can further refine this perspective:

Instead of the mid-century growth of press output being the result of larger substantial books, what was essentially being produced was a vast number of short pamphlets. This was accompanied by a general decline across the board of all titles over 2 sheets in length. A book printed from one or two sheets of paper would have no more than 16 or 32 pages in length in the commonly used octavo format. The publishing industry was moving towards producing items for immediate sale to a broader market than ever before.

We can reinforce this from another angle on our data:

In this chart we can see that most of the other sheet lengths have similar patterns of distribution with one exception: those items of one or two sheets in length which grew substantially from mid-century.

Two of the many examples of ephemera produced by the Catholic League. See "Les Belles figures et drolleries de la Ligue"

Hopefully, this brief outline of the activity of the Parisian press has been revealing. Printing was far from independent of the turmoil of the period and could be deeply affected by events. Religious turmoil from the mid-sixteenth-century brought with it intermittent rounds of civil war. A substantial disruption of international trade networks coupled to a deep period of political uncertainty shifted the focus of the press. Rather than continue to publish larger texts, printers and publishers took the necessary steps to safeguard their livelihood at a time of uncertainty. They chose not to tie up capital and labour in substantial enterprises, but preferred to respond to the new political and religious landscape by publishing short pamphlets and books that could be sold quickly for immediate return.

Far from a period of dominance, as suggested by the cumulative bar chart we previously published, the Parisian press had to contend with recession and religious crisis. The use of sheets is an important reminder that any one chart of historical data can lead us to incorrect conclusions if we do not attempt to consider it from multiple perspectives.

Further Reading

Jean-François Gilmont, Le livre réformé au XVIe siècle, (Paris, 2005)

Denis Pallier, Recherches sur l'imprimerie \u00e0 Paris pendant la Ligue (1585-1594), (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1975)

Andrew Pettegree, The French book and the European book world (Leiden ; Boston, Mass. : Brill, 2007)

Andrew Pettegree, Paul Nelles, and Philip Conner (eds.), The Sixteenth-Century French Religious Book (Aldershot : Ashgate, 2001.)

Martin, Henri-Jean, The French book : religion, absolutism, and readership, 1585-1715 (Baltimore, MD : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996)

I'm Graeme Kemp and I am a historian who likes to visualise historical data - especially if it has something to do with printing. I made the charts here with Flourish. If you like this, I run a project entitled Visualising History which has set out to do many more of these sort of charts. So please check it out. Get in touch @gj_kemp if you have any questions or comments.