10.2006d FYI France Essay :


Review: Revue française d'histoire du livre...

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.com

(For Libraries & Culture : a journal of library history,
published in volume 41, number 2, Spring 2006, page 281, ISSN 0894-8631 --
table of contents : http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/journals/jlc.html#412)


A review of, Revue française d'histoire du livre, Nos. 118-121, "Le Berceau du livre: autour des incunables." Edited by Frédéric Barbier. (Genève: Librairie Droz S.A., 2004) 472 pp., euros 66.31 (paper). ISBN 2-600-00910-8.


An introduction to the fascinating world of "print culture" may be gained from the Revue, as well as great insight into "transitions in media", old and new.

This issue offers twenty-two illuminating articles, crafted with loving care by authoritative devotees of the history of the book. Wolfgang von Stromer, Lotte Hellinga and Frédéric Barbier each discuss Gutenberg: from questions of precedence -- did the Chinese come first, as Goodrich and Needham suggested? -- to the role at Mainz of Nicolas Jenson and the French court. Also, were the Mainz innovations a radical break in history, or part of a longer trend? -- was that Renaissance "short" or "long"? -- a Saint-Bertin 42-Line Bible provides clues.

Then comes "Histoires de L", by Denise Hillard: the saga of an initial capital letter "L", developed by early printers as they traveled the Continent, copying one another and building the techniques of their trade. And Annie Taurant-Boulicaut presents "Vacat nec vitio nec defectu: of blank space and excess in incunables": the problem, in early printing as now in website and interface design, of filling-in, fully-using the expensive pages.

Then the geographic growth of this industry, in maps: Philippe Nieto updates earlier efforts, of the British Museum Catalogue and of Febvre & Martin in L'Apparition du livre, to portray the immense energy of early printing, just as cartographers struggle to display the equally-explosive growth of the Internet.

The Revue not only introduces print culture, it also introduces France. Four national library school students offer an "état des lieux" of early printing history in Lyon, including a "Dictionary of printers and booksellers in 15th century Lyon", with wonderful illustrations of "printers' marks", and entries for Lyonnais printers from Buyer to de Vingle by way of Le Roy.

In what sense may all this specialized scholarship be considered an "introduction"? The passion, and humor, of early printing and rare book research come across clearly, in these short and easily-digested and often superbly-illustrated pieces. A student might begin with "Febvre & Martin" and other comprehensive sources. But at least supplementing those, with an excursion into this scholarship, provides a better idea of what the possibilities are: there is so much, here -- of history, art, the personal stories of these printers, their great bravery and extreme inventiveness -- many questions to be asked, not merely answered, by students who then might devote lifetimes to this study.

And the Revue reaches beyond France. This issue also offers "Two centuries of reading culture in the Carpathian Basin (1526-1730)", and "Incunables in Slovakia". And there is a fun piece on the Magliabechian Library: one old Italian librarian sniffs, "Certain people who love their siestas are not like me: I may be far away [in Milan] but at least I am wide awake -- I have the Proclus and the Callimachus which they need, in duplicates, but I am not going to tangle with those Magliabechians!" (p.330)

Albert Labarre, too, contributes "The Repression of heretical books in 16th century France": religion, censorship -- timeless themes, in the history of information. Labarre writes of the era of the "Affaire des placards", when the King awoke to find political protest tacked to the royal bedroom door... of edicts, and enforcement, and not always the results intended...

And the Revue offers shorter studies of specific works and questions. This issue features "Incunable editions in the national library of Hungary": works of Ratdolt, de Spira, Lucas Brandis, Sweynheym & Pannartz, all little-known for having been held "behind the Iron Curtain".

The immense effort, and the humanity, of early printing's "transition in media" come through clearly, in these articles, with their descriptions of the lives and achievements of these people. No less, then, is the current "digital" transition a matter of immense effort, and of human stories: of perennial facts of life which become lost, often and easily, amid the mechanical perfections too greatly emphasized by our current computer revolution. It is about people: Sweynheym & Pannartz, the "heretics" of the 16th century, Dolet, Le Rouge, Jenson, Gutenberg... The details offered in the Revue make this human story clear, as no more sweeping historical survey ever could.


Jack Kessler, kessler@well.com






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