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The Spread of European Printing Activity (1450-1650). Mapped!
by Graeme Kemp

In the first in a series of posts looking at the Geography of the Book, Graeme Kemp discusses mapping the output of places of printing in Europe before 1650.

One of the first books on infographics and data visualisation I ever read was Information is Beautiful by David McCandless. This was one of a wave of bestselling texts that appeared in the early 2010s which aimed to show how data could both be presented in an appealing fashion and communicate a core idea. These texts made the case for visualisations being used to give a clearer picture of a dense set of information - one that would be impossible to see from the dull perspective of the spreadsheet alone.

Maps and spacial diagrams have always had a special power in this regard. They allow us to see information from a different perspective, showing us connections and relations that would likely escape us, to visualise data in its spacial context. As Franco Moretti put it in his Atlas of the European Novel - “A good map is worth a thousand words, cartographers say, and they are right: because it produces a thousand words: it raises doubts, ideas. It poses new questions, and forces you to look for new answers.”

One of my personal favourite maps of historical data was produced by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin. In their seminal work on the history of print, L’Apparition du Livre, they produced a series of simple hand drawn maps. With these they hoped to communicate to the reader the extraordinary fast paced growth of Gutenberg’s invention.

Example of one of the Maps from my well thumbed copy of L’Apparition du Livre

Febvre and Martin drew on bibliographic and archival data and mapped all the places where evidence of a printing press could be found. In order to give some sense to their reader of the spread of the new technology, differently sized circles were utilised in the legend: Before 1481; 1481-1490; 1491-1500. It was simple, but effective, and it managed to capture what was an extremely fluid period of commercial experimentation.

The Spread of Print (Revisited)

Examples from this era of early experimentation abound. The nomadic printer Johann Neumeister, who went from Germany to Italy, then to Mainz, onwards to Basel, then to Lyon, Toulouse and Albi. The Florentine Giunta family, whose members established presses at Venice and Lyon, as well as bookshops and warehouses in Antwerp, Burgos, Frankfurt, Lisbon, Medina del Campo, Paris, Salamanca and Zaragoza. Or Jan Hallar, a wine merchant and cattle dealer, who turned publisher in Kraków at the turn of the sixteenth century.

Translation by Nicolas Copernicus of Simocattas Letters. Published by Jan Hallar in Kraków in 1509.

While Febvre and Martin could laud these early pioneers in their text, they could only provide basic visual snapshots to their audience of these changes. For the extraordinary growth of printing in the sixteenth and seventeenth century no map was provided. At the end of the 1950s, with computer systems in their infancy and library holdings described only in card catalogues, gathering quantitive data on printing activity for such a map would appear to be impossible.

The Setup of the 'Coding Room' at Roberto Busa’s Centro per L'Automazione dell'Analisi Letteraria (ca. 1960). IBM punched-card data processing machines utilised to produce a concordance of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. See: ReCAAL

With the dual developments in personal computing and analytical bibliography over the last fifty years it is possible to revisit these early experiments in mapping print. We can take things further and show the emergence and disappearance of printing activity before the mid-seventeenth century. By combining the yearly output of presses we can also add the volume of printed activity into the mix. This enables us to see printed production as a fluid entity, one that can expand and contract, or even disappear off the map altogether.

Over 1,300 European locations can be ascribed some sort of printing or publishing activity before 1650. Some like Paris, Venice, Basel, Frankfurt, Lyon, Antwerp and London come as no surprise and produce a hum of activity. In contrast, some towns are so small, that it seems unimaginable that they ever had a press for any time at all. Other popup presses were briefly active in monasteries and castles, while some towns no longer exist today.

The Church of St George in Sopotnica, near Goražde. Đurađ and Teodor Ljubavić established a press here in 1519-1521. Image by Martin Brož - Martin Brož's camera, CC BY 3.0, WikiMedia

Of course factors like survival and coverage affect any picture we try to draw. No dataset is perfect and scholars are constantly discovering new items or archival evidence accounting for lost ones. Further refinements to such charts are always necessary. Such imperfect maps should - to paraphrase Moretti - raise doubts, ideas and pose new questions. I doubt that any further developments will serve to undermine the overall idea that this map of printing and publishing communicates: The incredible expansion of a new technology that would change the world.

This is the first in a series of posts looking at the Geography of the Book. Over the next few weeks I will be exploring different aspects of this visualisation and the many stories and historical events that shaped this data.

The data that made this mapping possible is derived from the Universal Short Title Catalogue. This project has been gathering data for twenty years on printing in Europe before 1650. You can check out the project here: USTC It is worth noting that in the data I used any edition that had a date expressed as a range of years i.e. 1620-1622, or without a date was discounted. As too were items from fictitious places of printing and some scattered places that could not be identified. Due to the difficulty in rendering the entire globe at one time - and in a usable fashion - areas like Goa or Mexico were not included. A future post will address this and look at printing beyond Europe.

My name is 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.