The Economic History of the Book in the Early Modern Period

International Conference, Antwerp, 4–5 October 2018

With a pre-conference evening lecture on Wednesday 3 October 2018 and a social programme on Saturday 6 October 2018


This conference focuses on economic aspects of the book trade in the early modern period, mainly in the west, and also, to some extent, in the New World.

For this conference, the book trade includes:

  • the production of handpress books (from about 1455 to 1800) and of manuscripts at the beginning of printing with moveable type;
  • their distribution through wholesale and retail networks, on local, regional and transnational levels;
  • their circulation as first-hand, unbound books, and as second-hand commodities.

Scholars will analyse different economic aspects of the life cycle of books, survey production costs (materials, labour), transportation and storage costs, and special transaction conditions, such as discounts, sales on credit, purchases in cash or registered in account money.

Attention will be paid to the discussion of different models to compare prices of booksacross borders and over longer time-spans.

Papers will address this theme based on different kinds of sources:

  • archival papers,
  • inventories,
  • correspondence between merchants,
  • booksellers’ catalogues,
  • auction catalogues,
  • manuscript notes in books.

Late-medieval practices as well as 16th, 17th and 18th-century sources will be discussed from a suit of countries:

  • the Southern Netherlands,
  • the Dutch Republic,
  • the German empire,
  • Poland,
  • France,
  • Switzerland,
  • Italy,
  • Spain,
  • Mexico.

A number of papers will explicitly address those topics from a transnational point of view.

The proposals have been selected on the basis of their relevance and quality. Special care has been taken in selecting papers analysing large datasets over talks discussing isolated cases and anecdotal evidence.

Objective of the Conference

  • Put scholars from all over the world who are studying economic aspects of the book trade in touch with each other.
  • Encourage the exchange of information.
  • Promote the discussion of different methodologies.
  • Explore the potential of specific tools, such as databases and systematic (electronic) lists of serial data.

This conference also specifically aims at widening the study of the book trade beyond national borders, because the book trade was, to a great extent, transnational by nature. Until recently, book related studies were mostly interested in intra-national topics, which is reflected in many studies (e.g., national book histories) and the design of bibliographic tools which are often limited to national or even regional borders. Lately, book historians are becoming much more aware of the necessity of a transnational turn, and the economic history of the book can play a key role in this respect. That this part of our message has come across is apparent from the fact that the academic committee received some 35 proposals from scholars based in 13 different countries, proving the point that this initiative is in demand.

Books as commodities have usually been excluded from mere historical economic analysis. On the one hand, the cultural status of texts has discouraged economists to take into consideration the study object of philologists and humanists. On the other hand, it was believed that there was too little serial data at hand to put those to statistical, longitudinal analysis. The recent digital turn in the humanities has changed that idea because digitisation and the use of databases have enabled the creation of hitherto unseen datasets. Book historians, economic historians, cultural historians, and other historians should reconsider their traditional position and collaborate to address the challenges posed by the history of the book trade.

Scholarly Importance

The most recent, large and international conference devoted to this theme dates from 1991, when the Fondazione Datini organised a conference in Italy about the production and trade of paper and books (Produzione e commercio della carta e del libro. Secc. XIII-XVIII. Prato, 15–20 aprile 1991). In comparison to the Datini conference, the Antwerp conference will be much more specific and focus for the first time on a big scale on pure economic analysis based on large datasets of well-defined facts in order to better understand the dynamics of the book trade.

The book was a pre-eminent carrier of information and knowledge. The impact of the production, distribution and consumption of books on profound changes in society cannot be overestimated. If the book was a crucial factor in the emergence of more democratic societies, then it is inevitable to address the question which factors promoted or curbed their production, distribution and consumption. It goes without saying that the price of books, on wholesale and retail markets, is a cornerstone in our knowledge about those processes.

Therefore it is of great importance to understand the nature of the commodity book, how it was sold, to whom, under which conditions, at what price, at which potential discount levels, in what kinds of transactions. At present, we still do not know very much about the impact on the price of, for instance, of the different sorts of paper used for books, specific type faces (e.g., Greek, Hebrew, exotic types), languages (Latin versus vernacular), the use of different inks, of different text genres (e.g., scientific works, religious works, text for broader audiences, etc.), the live cycle of books, and so on.

The call for paper explicitly solicited papers which should address these questions with the appropriate methodology, i.e., fact-based and on larger corpora. The great international response proves that the time is right to break this new ground.

Academic committee

  • Dr. Renaud Adam, Université de Liège, Belgium
  • Prof. dr. Pierre Delsaerdt, History Department, University of Antwerp, Belgium
  • Prof. dr. Kees Schepers, Ruusbroec Institute, University of Antwerp, Belgium
  • Prof. dr. Johan van Heesch, History Department, KU Leuven/Brussels, Royal Library, Belgium
  • Prof. Angela Nuovo, Università di Milano, Italy
  • Prof. dr. Jeroen Puttevils, Department of History, University of Antwerp, Belgium
  • Prof. dr. Violet Soen, History Department, KU Leuven, Belgium
  • Prof. dr. Bert De Munck, Department of History, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Organising committee

  • Dr. Tom Deneire, Curator Special Collections, University of Antwerp Library, Belgium
  • Dr. Goran Proot, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Unversità di Udine, Italy
  • Prof. dr. Jeroen Puttevils, Department of History, University of Antwerp, Belgium
  • Kristof Selleslach, archiivist, Museum Plantin-Moretus, Belgium
  • Prof. dr. Violet Soen, History Department, KU Leuven, Belgium