Transmission and Dissemination of Texts in Print in the 15th Century

The title-page of a complex anthology of contemporary and classical texts (ISTC ia00011000).

Historians have long recognised the introduction of printing with movable types as one of the agents of progress which accompanied the transition into the early modern period. Yet many questions are still unanswered, which affect our understanding of the impact of the invention of printing on the transmission of the European written heritage.

ia00011000_Dedication letter
The contemporary author’s dedication letter.

Incunabula contain multiple texts by multiple authors, partly pertaining to the paratext, that is editorial matter such as dedicatory letters, verses in praise of the author, the editor, the printer, the work etc., partly authorial works properly different from the main author and title as indicated in catalogues; for example, the work De venenis by Petrus de Abano, (Padua 1487, ISTC: ip00442000) does not only contain his work on poison, but also contains works by three other authors on the Bezoar stone, on knowledge of poison and on epidemics. Such knowledge is so far hidden to the scholar because there are, as of yet, no complete catalogues or databases that include the varied content of 15th-century books.

We still cannot answer fundamental questions such as how many times, when and where were Cicero or Petrarch printed in the 15th century, because some of their works were often added as secondary texts in editions which appeared under the heading of other authors and are so catalogued today. We cannot place in the appropriate socio-historical context the preparation of medical or legal or classical editions, whose publication was the collaborative work of printers and scholars, and often their students, but whose intervention is only documented in secondary textual material, such as letters and verses, normally not recorded in catalogues. Nor can we fully document the link with the political and ecclesiastical establishment, as again, this information is often enclosed in dedications and letters.

ia.00011000_Valla's preface
The translation from Greek into Latin by a famous humanist.

Moreover, the complete analysis of the contents of editions is essential to the study of the transmission of texts in print (stemma editionum) and of their dissemination, as masterly shown by the publication of the works of Thomas Aquinas by the Leonine commission or by the transmission in print of the Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini studied by Lotte Hellinga. However, the transmission of texts in print is still too seldomly studied, mostly because of the lack of adequate resources.

The 15cBOOKTRADE Project offers a solution by acting on two fronts: a systematic description of the contents of 15th-century editions, and a manner to improve their quantitative analysis.

In 2005 were published the six volumes of A Catalogue of Books Printed in the Fifteenth Century now in the Bodleian Library (= Bod-inc) which provided ground-breaking textual descriptions and identifications for over 5,500 editions.

The colophon.

The catalogue was converted into electronic form by the Bodleian Library. The 15cBOOKTRADE Project has converted Bod-inc into a database which is adding the content of editions not in the Bodleian and therefore not yet described to the same high standard. This new database, TEXT-inc, offers a corpus of texts printed in the 15th century and provides one platform for the storage of and access to this highly valuable data, linked to ISTC, GW, and MEI.

TEXT-INC: the Corpus of Texts Printed in the 15th Century

Text-inc (Texts-in-incunabula) is a database conceived to host the description of all the texts published in the 15th Century.

In Text-inc we approach the content of printed editions in terms of textual units.

The core of Text-inc is made of the descriptions of 15th century editions in the Bodleian Library as prepared in Bod-inc, now being augmented daily by the 15cBOOKTRADE Project team with editions outside Oxford, that is in the British Library, Venice libraries, and available in digital form. A project member will also coordinate outside contributions, from partner projects and libraries. The common goal is to provide by 2019 a full corpus of texts available in print in the 15th century, for the use of scholars working on any kind of work composed from the Classical period to 1500 and set in print in the 15th century.

For each text, tituli, incipit, and explicit are provided, and where they occur within the edition (leaf signature). The colophon is fully transcribed, the secundo folio is provided; see a full description of the database fields in ‘Guidelines to Text-inc’, which are privided in English and in Italian.

The Index of authors is conceived so as to provide not only biographical information, but also statistical, such as the role played within an edition (besides authorship: dedicatee, editor, translator etc.), gender, status, profession, area and time of activity. These are the same descriptors that the Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI) database applies to former owners of books.

Any record in Text-inc starts with a short-title description provided from ISTC. It is followed by a systematic description of its content, and by other information pertaining to the edition: bibliographical elements (collation, illustration, the secundo folio), and reference to the source of the data (the library on whose copy the record has been created).
During the first phase of Text-inc we are concentrating on the description of the texts contained in 15th-century printed editions, not on their identification and collation with reference to modern critical editions. This analytical phase, which was systematically pursued in Bod-inc, but which requires specific skills and considerable time, is planned for a second phase, beyond the scope of the 15cBOOKTRADE Project.

Tracking the Dissemination and Reception of Printed Works

Because all the texts described in TEXT-inc are linked to ISTC (that is, to the edition they belong), and ISTC is linked to MEI (which describes the ownership and use of the copies of editions), it will then become possible to track the dissemination and reception of printed works using MEI, by examining by whom, where, when, and how were the copies of the edition used. The MEI database will allow any scholar to produce a type of research at present highly appreaciated but equally almost unattainable but by few: assessing the reception of works in print, an intellectual exercise which requires the method of copy census.

Historical Questions which Text-inc will allow to investigate:

• What was the transmission in print of a certain work, for example, Plinius’ Historia naturalis?
• Who selected, edited and contributed to the production of the editions of texts that were available in manuscript form?
• How many secondary works were published that are still unrecorded?
• How many works have been published in the 15c century for the first time?
• Which is the proportion between classical, medieval and contemporary authors in print?
• Which is the relation between religious and lay works?
• How many editions of the same work appeared in the 15th century?
• What was the relation between the publication of textbooks and the location of universities? Did printing reshape the geography of the production of textbooks or were university towns still the main site for their production and distribution?
• How many printers or publishers did specialise in the production of a given field or genre? Where were they located?
• How many editions were printed by simply reproducing an exemplar, line by line?