1.4.7: 1460 - 1585 - The survival chance of books

There are good estimates of the extent of European incunabula production and of the numbers of editions and copies which have been lost over the centuries. The number of editions before 1501 is estimated at between 28,000 and 29,000. A maximum of 5% of these can be said to have been lost: no single copy has survived nor is there a reliable description. If we look at the number of copies extant, the figures are less favourable. Of the 17 million printed copies there are currently 520,000 left; 97% has been lost.

The loss of printed incunabula from the Netherlands and Belgium is comparable. Of the 900,000 copies which came from the presses (more than 2200 editions, as described in Incunabula printed in the Low Countries (ILC) by Van Thienen and Goldfinch, supposing an average of 400 copies), 14,300 copies have survived to this day (less than 2%). ILC describes 48 editions from literature of which no copy is known to have survived; one-third of all editions are represented by only one copy. Estimates of the number of editions which have been lost without trace have not been given.

We may assume that the picture is the same for the sixteenth century: a small part of the editions are no longer traceable while many of the copies have been lost. An indication is given by the Typographia Batava, 1541-1600 (TB) by Valkema Blouw, which lists 7500 editions from the Northern Netherlands. No copy is known for 6% of these (there is, however, a reliable reference) while a single copy remains for 37%.

Which books from this period were lost first? Apart from physical threats (fires, floods), the chances of survival were particularly dependent on the role which given genres fulfilled in the social-cultural context. Permanently threatened genres were, in particular, schoolbooks and practical works such as cookery books, almanacs and medical, technical and commercial manuals. The same applies to works in the vernacular and books for private devotion. Books in these categories were worn out by intensive use or were no longer up-to-date and discarded. They were often kept in other places than the books which had a higher survival rate because the latter were brought together to form a 'library'. During the Reformation (from about 1520) repressive measures (such as the burning of books) resulted in the loss of many books belonging to the persecuted Protestants as well as works directed against the worldly authorities. Also threatened were cheap books and publications in small formats including ordinances and placards and also books which also fell into the categories mentioned above and which are now the most difficult publications to trace.

The larger proportion of the texts printed in this period is still available but questions relating to the transmission of texts via different editions can often not be answered completely. Impediments due to the loss of editions or copies occur particularly in research in the field of the production, distribution or consumption of printed matter from this period.

Of course, the survival of books is partly dependent on bibliophile trends and institutional purchasing policies over the centuries.

author: W. Heijting

The survival chance of books