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Off to the Bar Chart Race(s): The Largest Print Centres Through Time (1450-1650)

By Graeme Kemp |

Watch the race to be the largest European print centre, from the fifteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century. Graeme Kemp looks at how the centres for the production of books has shifted over time and how.

Animated Bar Charts

Some of the most viral visualisations of the last twelve months have involved animated bar charts. If you have been connected to anyone engaged in some sort of data visualisation on social media, you will probably recognise one of these so-called ‘bar chart races’. They have been used for a wide variety of purposes, to illustrate the growth of cities, development of global brands and of course assessing which Game of Thrones character received the most screen time.

What is particularly useful about charts like these is that they allow us to easily illustrate how a certain characteristic has developed. When combined with animation they can be particularly impactful, as growth over time can be illustrated to the audience. So for this post, I wanted to try them out with data about early modern printing. Specifically, which European cities had printed the most books between 1450 and 1650.

The Data

The data for this post was drawn from the Universal Short Title Catalogue project. Ran by an international team of historians and bibliographers    – including myself – based at the University of St Andrews, its mission is to gather details on all editions printed with movable type before 1650. As a bibliography it attempts to be as inclusive as possible, listing everything from single-sheet indulgences and pamphlets, through to large folio volumes. Even items no longer documented by surviving copies are listed, if there is supporting documentation for adding them to the catalogue. It is very much still a work in progress, but certainly offers us the best overview of European printing in the early modern period currently available.

For most books, we know the place of publication from the imprint or colophon of the work – a short statement which was added at either the foot of the title-page, or in the last few pages of the book.

As you might notice, these place names can look a little different from what we are used to today. For example, if the book was printed in Latin it would use a Latin form of the city name, such as Lutetiae for Paris, Argentorati for Strasbourg, or Cantabrigae for Cambridge and so on. Add in abbreviations, numerous different variants forms, and one of the most challenging aspects of charting early modern printing can be normalising the place names. Thankfully, one of the best features of the USTC is that it includes a standard version of the place where a book was printed.

With any visualisation, it is responsible to acknowledge some caveats. Given the turbulent historical period this dataset covers, there were tens of thousands of pamphlets and books which simply did not say where they were printed. They were not included in the dataset. Similarly, fictitious places of printing have been excluded, such as those books claiming to be printed at Bengodi – Boccacio’s imaginary land of plenty in The Decameron.

USTC 4040728
Imprint from “Bengodi”. USTC 4040728.

Other bibliographic issues should be considered when viewing the chart – what should be classed as a unique edition? What about re-issues? How do survival factors affect the picture? And so on. However, let us treat this chart as a broad impressionistic view, a starting point in illustrating the rise and fall of print centres across Europe.

And We Are Off

Below you can watch the race to become the city producing the most printed books from the fifteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century.

Made with Flourish

In the fifteenth century, most of the production was centred in the city-states of Italy or in the Holy Roman Empire. The rapidly shifting situation of the early decades serves as a testament to the experimentation of this age – as printers set up in their business in towns and cities across Europe, looking for new opportunities. In the 1490s, the French cities of Paris and Lyon would rise from the middle of the pack to join Venice as the preeminent print cities at the turn of the sixteenth century.

As the century went on, Paris, Venice and Lyon would continue to establish an unrivalled dominance. It is interesting to view the different print cultures in operation here – France dominated by two huge cities had relatively few other towns printing a large volume of books. In the Holy Roman Empire, we have no single city to match Venice or Paris in terms of output, but looked at as a whole, we can observe that the German output was far more de-centralised.

Another thing to watch out for is the effects of the Reformation from 1517 onwards. Wittenberg, unknown in our top 20 before the 1520s, slowly ascends the rankings, underpinned by the formidable output of Martin Luther. After mid-century, Geneva too will join the ranks of the major cities with a prodigious output of Calvinist texts. The story for Lyon will be the reverse. Suffering the effects of the devastating Wars of Religion and pillaged in the 1560s, output stagnates, and although still high on our ranking, it will slowly lose ground to the new northern centres of printing such as London and Antwerp.

The rise of the northern centres is particularly fascinating. Antwerp will move from being at the bottom of our ranking, to the top five by the turn of the seventeenth century. Other Dutch and Belgian cities will also appear – as Amsterdam and Leiden will slowly start ascending the chart.

Some of you may have spotted the extraordinary growth of the London press – especially during the 1640s. The civil war did much to stimulate the printing of pamphlets and other short works. Indeed, one must be careful to consider that this chart would look quite different if we used the total number of printed sheets, rather than editions, as our unit of measurement. Perhaps that is something to look at in the next post…

I’m Graeme Kemp and I am a historian who likes to visualise historical data – especially if it has something to do with printing. I made the chart here with Flourish. If you like this, I run a project entitled Visualising History which has set out to do many more of these sort of charts. So please check it out. Get in touch @gj_kemp if you have any questions or comments.


Graeme Kemp is the Project Manager of the Universal Short Title Catalogue. He received his PhD from the University of St Andrews for a study of religious controversy in the sixteenth century. His current research focuses on the buying and selling of early modern editions in contemporary booklists and auction catalogues. You can follow him on Twitter at @gj_kemp.


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