Friday, April 25, 2014

Eric White, "A Census of Print Runs for Fifteenth-Century Books" (2012): the missing graphs

Recently I came across Eric White's census of all known incuncable print runs, similar to that of Uwe Neddermeyer but more cautious in the kinds of sources he accepts. In short, White includes only historically documented sources and excludes broadsides, and his introduction explains why even documented print runs must be interpreted carefully.

Instead of treating them carefully, I've plugged his numbers into a spreadsheet to generate some quick graphs in order to get a look at the distribution of print runs documented by White.

In his introduction, White is concerned about the distorting effect of one outsize print run on the average, but the easiest way to deal with that is to provide a median instead: Where the arithmetic mean is 593, the median is 500.

But the median may also not be the right figure. Here's the overall distribution, and it seems that we're still dealing with a bimodal distribution. (In all of the graphs - but not the calculations - I've exclude the one edition, ib01102000, with a print run of 5000, in order to keep the column widths sensible, and I've used a bin size of 135 in order to keep all those Sweynheym and Pannartz 275-copy editions together).

Fig. 1: Distribution of fifteenth-century print runs

Just as we saw when looking at Neddermeyer's list, most print runs fall into the range of 271-405 and several more between 406-540, while there's a secondary peak around 946-1080 (nearly all the recorded print runs in this group are right at 1000).

But how much of this is due only to Sweynheym and Pannartz? If we exclude their records, we still find a bimodal distribution, although the two peaks are more equal in size.
Fig. 2:  Distribution of fifteenth-century print runs, excluding Sweynheym and Pannartz

One interesting observation is that the bimodal nature of the distribution disappears nearly entirely if we look only at the folios. This doesn't mean there were no folio editions with large print runs, but that they were rather uncommon in comparison to the number of editions with print runs in the range of 271-540. For folios, the average print run is 535, while the median is 400.

 Fig. 3:  Distribution of fifteenth-century print runs, folios only

The majority of the bimodal character of the distribution instead comes from the smaller formats, the quartos and octavos. The mean for quartos and octavos is 715, while the median is 568. It would be more accurate, however, to say that the major mode is around 300, and the minor mode around 1000.
Fig. 4:  Distribution of fifteenth-century print runs, quartos and octavos only

While there were many quarto and octavo editions with print runs in the range of 271-540, attempting print runs of double that size was something that relatively more printers appeared willing to attempt in the smaller formats.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Strange and Terrible Visions of Wilhelm Friess, Chapter Three: From Avignon to Antwerp and from Antwerp to Nuremberg

Recognizing the German "Wilhelm Friess" pamphlets as descendants of Frans Fraet's edition of "Willem de Vriese" not only allows us to get a glimpse of Fraet's text - it also reveals his source. The prophecy of "Wilhelm Friess" turns out to be nothing but the Vademecum of Johannes de Rupescissa in disguise. The identity of the two isn't controversial; many passages are transparent translations of a redaction also known in a fifteenth-century French manuscript (BAV Reg. lat. 1728). We can therefore approach Fraet's edition in two directions, from its source and from its descendants.

What happens to the descendants of Fraet's edition in Germany is if anything even more interesting. The Vademecum includes a passage where Rupescissa listed the enemies of Christendom who would either be converted or perish: Jews, Saracens, Turks, Greeks, and Tatars. Some of the earliest German editions preserve but update this passage, putting in its place an enemies list: Papists, Calvinists, Adiaphorists, Majorists, Menianists, and Interimists. In other words, the enemies of uncompromising Gnesio-Lutherans like Matthias Flacius in the 1550s. While we can't attribute the translation of "Wilhelm Friess" into German to Flacius specifically, it's clear that someone who shared his religious perspective was behind it. Frans Fraet's covert critique of Habsburg rule in Antwerp found its first home in Germany among those who rejected the the religious compromises imposed by the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor in Germany.

Knowing the ultimate source in the Vademecum and the redaction from which "Wilhelm Friess" descends makes it possible to reconstruct the prophecy's textual history fairly accurately. In doing so, we get a sense for how rapidly the text could change at the time it was being so frequently printed and reprinted - I see at least ten generations separating the earliest and latest editions published just in 1558, and multiple contacts between different branches of the textual tradition. Some of the changes are accidental - a line lost from one edition to the next, with subsequent editions trying to restore sense in various ways. But the most interesting cases are ones where we can connect changes in the text to the specific circumstances of the people who were reading, revising, and reprinting "Wilhelm Friess."

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Strange and Terrible Visions of Wilhelm Friess, Chapter Two: A Seditious Prophecy

The Dutch printer Frans Fraet was executed in Antwerp in January 1558. What we know about Fraet's career as a printer is largely due to the careful scholarship of Paul Valkema Blouw, who established that Fraet was the most prolific (and necessarily anonymous) printer of Reformation literature in Antwerp in the 1550s, and Valkema Blouw suggested that Fraet's publication of Protestant works was the cause of his execution. (See Paul Valkema Blouw, “The Van Oldenborch and Vanden Merberghe Pseudonyms or Why Frans Fraet Had to Die,” Quaerendo 22 (1992): 165–90, 245–72.)

The documents concerning Fraet's trial do not say much about printing heretical works, however. What they do extensively document is that Fraet was accused of printing seditious works, and the only work the trial documents specifically identified was a "very evil rebellious prognostication under the name of a Master Willem de Vriese." This prophecy contained "many grievous things against the secular and also the clerical rulers" and intruded in the affairs of "all clerical and secular princes and potentates and also the common people, arousing the same to sedition or desperation." All copies of Fraet's edition have been lost, but by connecting the many German editions of the prophecies of Wilhelm Friess to Fraet's publication, we now have a clear indication of what Fraet had printed. I provide a complete English translation of the most widespread German edition.

There are a few remaining mysteries whose solutions I leave up to the reader. What might Hans van Liesvelt have thought about these events? He had printed two prognostications by Willem de Vriese whose Protestant subtext wasn't difficult to discern, and now Frans Fraet had brought the name of de Vriese into connection with seditious printing. At the same time, Fraet was at least a personal acquaintance, a fellow Antwerp printer who published his own writings with Maria Ancxt, Hans van Liesvelt's mother. If an anonymous tract printed by Fraet was receiving official scrutiny, Hans van Liesvelt would very likely have been able to identify Fraet as the printer. If suspicion was falling on Hans van Liesvelt as the printer of de Vriese's earlier works, he would have had strong motivation to implicate Fraet. But would Hans van Liesvelt have saved himself by sending Frans Fraet to the same fate that had befallen Hans van Liesvelt's father a decade earlier?

In the same way, there are arguments and evidence to support the view that "Willem de Vriese" was a historically tangible human being, a medical doctor and citizen of Maastricht who died around 1557, as well as the view that "Willem de Vriese" was always a fictive author persona, including the prognostications for 1555 and 1556, Fraet's edition of 1557, and the later calendars and practicas published under the name of Willem de Vriese in 1581 and 1596. I sense essay questions waiting to be assigned.