“We don’t know” – a report from the beginning of the EMo Book Trade Project (ERC)

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A copy of the 1737 edition of George Ruggle’s Ignoramus. Comoedia (ESTC T130313)

My personal teaching collection of early modern books counts one book printed in England, more specifically an ordinary duodecimo from Westminster. It is a 18th-century, corrected edition of George Ruggle’s Ignoramus. Comoedia. “Ignoramus” in Latin litterally means “we don’t know”, and refers in the play to an ignorant lawyer, who is a real dummkopf. Ruggle (1575–1622) based the Neolatin college play on Giambattista della Porta’s La Trappolaria, which was in turn an adaptation of Plautus’ Pseudolus. The satire, which makes a vicious attack on judiciary, was for the first time staged in Clare College, Cambridge, on 8 March 1615. King Jacob I was amongst the spectators and supposedly he enjoyed it very much. Later that year, the text appeared for the first time in print and many editions would follow. The 1736 edition calls itself “septimus” (seventh), so according to that count my edition which dates from a year later is probably number eight.

The imprint mentions it was printed for the editor and that it was on sale by four different booksellers. At the foot of the black-and-red title page is mentioned “Price stitch’d 1. s. 6 d. Bound 2 s.” The abbreviations “s” and “d” stand for Latin solidus and denarius, respectively shilling and penny, so unbound this book cost 18 pennies, bound (in cheap leather) 24. This is the equivalent of the pay an English building laborer at the time earned for two days of hard work (See the datafile English prices and wages, 1209–1914, authored by the Global Price and Income History Group http://www.iisg.nl/hpw/data.php#united) But was this then an expensive book, or not?

There is no quick and easy answer to that question. For 18th-century English books it is probably fairly easy to make a comparison. About 33,828 entries in the English Short Title Catalogue have the word “price” in their notes, which may be analysed. But for other countries, and a fortiori, for earlier times, this is much more complicated. The Short Title Catalogue Netherlands, which describes to date about 200,000 pre–1801 editions published in the Netherlands, records only 3,735 books which mention a price (See www.stcn.nl, and search for “typographical info” = “4” [4 being the code for prices mentioned in books]). The Short Title Catalogue Flanders, which is still in process, to date has recorded only 589 indications of prices on a total of about 23,500 editions.(See www.stcv.be, and search for “Subject term” = “price quotation”). Both for the Netherlands and for Flanders, this is close to 2% of all titles, which can hardly be considered representative. Moreover, the bulk of entries dates from the 18th century; only a dozen of editions with printed price quotations dates from the 17th century, and 16th-century books with that feature are extremely rare. Christopher Plantin’s Ordinance on criminal law (Ordinancie […] vande criminele Iusticie) from 1570 certainly is the odd one out. An unbound copy of this publication in quarto cost at the time 2 stuivers, or about a third of a stuiver per printed sheet.

Whether or not that was an average rate for this kind of publication, is one of the main questions the EMo Book Trade–project will address in the next few years. This project, under the direction of professor Angela Nuovo, recently received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) to survey the 16th-century book trade in Europe. One of the major topics of this project in point of fact is the evaluation of book prices, in retail and in wholesale, in local and in distant markets, for different kinds of audiences. It is no coincidence that this question will be addressed through a thorough survey of the papers of Christopher Plantin (actif 1555–1589) and his successors, the Moretusses, fostered by the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp and because of its outstandingly value acknowledge as World Heritage by Unesco.

Ordinance printed by Christophe Plantin in 1570

Ordinance printed by Christophe Plantin in 1570

For the moment, we have to answer “ignoramus” to questions about the prices of 16th-century books, but that will certainly change in the years to come! The EMo Book Trade Project will kick off with a one-day conference in Udine on 30 November 2016, see here for more details.

Dr. Goran Proot, EMo Book Trade project (ERC), Università di Udine


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