The Lyell Lectures, 2008: Collecting Incunabula: Enlightenment, revolution and the market

Dr Kristian Jensen (British Library)

During the eighteenth century the past was radically reassessed in order to understand and to influence changing political and social structures. The consequences of the invention of printing, long celebrated as a crucial event in European history, were rethought in the light of contemporary concerns: as a result opinions were polarised.

As books from the earliest years of printing were increasingly investigated as physical evidence of the invention, categories of books previously neglected became very expensive indeed. This changed the relationship between scholars, craftsmen, traders, collectors and institutions, who all now had a claim to be taken seriously when speaking about books. This new multipolarity was a challenge to the authority of those institutions or groups which felt that it was their privilege to assess books, to judge them good or bad.

Bodleian Library, Auct. M 1.10,11 

Biblia latina. Rome: Conradus Sweynheym and Arnoldus Pannartz, [not before 15 Mar.] 1471. Folio.
Bodleian Library, Auct. M 1.10,11.  [detail of binding]

The lectures explore and compare reactions in the two leading centres of the market for early books, Paris and London. Although the market for a new-found luxury was remarkably unified, different mechanisms for social control in each centre meant that tensions were addressed differently.

Considering the political and commercial impact of the French Revolution on these two centres, the lectures underline the complex interplay between politics, the marketplace, and cultural values. It was in this period that books from the fifteenth century emerged as a coherent, marketable commodity, as incunabula. This depended on a new, systematic discipline, created outside universities and academies, which saw books as physical, not textual, evidence of the past.

In these lectures, Dr Jensen investigated parallels with the development of art history and the art market. As fifteenth-century books became incunabula, they were required to fulfil the expectations of their new owners, not only as texts, but especially as objects whose fate was to be physically transformed.

The lectures rely on unpublished evidence from archives in Britain and France, correspondence between dealers, collectors, librarians, and scholars, on extensive information about prices and price developments, and on a wide range of eighteenth-century published works, from political, philosophical and historical studies, to novels and drinking songs.

Visual information provided by the books themselves is located in the broader context of eighteenth-century aesthetics. Needless to say, the lectures engage with modern historiographical debates, and benefit from the work of many distinguished predecessors.

During the latter part of the eighteenth century, in addition to a lively debate among specialists, in France the invention of printing was discussed by men who were not interested in the history of books, but in the nature of society as a whole, by philosophers and politicians.

In Britain, to a lesser extent, political activists used the theme in polemical works. This is a rare occasion when the history of the invention of printing was politically important. This lecture explores how it was used to explain significant changes in eighteenth-century society, whether applauded or deplored. Subsequent talks will show how these thoughts about the invention were intimately linked with the work of scholars, collectors and dealers.


'May the god of Gold be with you’

The second lecture explores the practicalities of the book collecting world of the 1790s, with Earl Spencer and the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris as two contrasting focal points. An aristocrat and a revolutionary national institution competed for the same books.

The lecture investigates to what extent their motives and actions were perceived to be different or in fact were different. The institutions which supplied the books, through confiscations or sales, emerge as playing a more complex role in the market place than passive victims of spoliation.

Old books and new luxury - identifying incunabula in the market

The third lecture explores the emergence of a new category of collectables – incunabula -- as an intellectual construct. It investigates the shift in commercial and cultural values by examining ways of understanding and of appropriating the past. It outlines a process where different intellectual and economic currents gradually came together, simultaneously forming a new type of commodity and a new discipline, which, largely created outside established institutions, was able to engage with objects as historical evidence. The financial and intellectual values of the markets for luxury in Paris and London are central, but they are here again set in a wider European context.

‘The superiority which books give better than horses’ : Incunabula and authority

The fourth lecture examines the often fierce polemic between the various social groups who met around the same merchandise, about who had the right to make judgements about books. This discussion often centred on incunabula.

The shared space led to a confrontation between the behaviour required by the market place and the behaviour appropriate to different social classes. The opposition between revolutionary and aristocratic collections is reconsidered in terms of social decorum and the difference between private and public.

'Old books, very displeasing to the eye’. Re-creation and oblivion

The fifth lecture examines how eighteenth-century collectors’ perceptions of the texts from the past were expressed through the historical objects which they collected. It seeks to understand how they made them conform with expectations of the past which were formed by eighteenth-century political, intellectual and aesthetic concerns, as part of a process commemoration of the past and of suppression of the past. The themes of the first lecture recur but now firmly rooted in the examination of books, reflecting an often contradictory but a shared approach to fifteenth-century books as one single type of merchandise.

Back to top