How Books circulate

Thomas Gale’s non-Britain printed titles in an English auction catalogue

Friday n° 32, May 24th, 2019

As good as new

The early modern learned book was, for most of its lifetime, a second-hand book. There are a number of reasons for this: Editions, especially first editions (and many of these books never made it into a second edition) were usually done in small print runs, so that there not so many exemplars per title around from the start. The public or institutional library landscape was underdeveloped, and even if an institutional library existed in reach of a given scholar, this did not mean that access was without problems. Often libraries would not loan, and something like today’s interlibrary loan systems was not even invented. And with the concept of scientific progress not as radically conceptualized as today, scholarly results kept their validity for a longer time, and with them the books which they were laid down in. So if a given title achieved a certain notoriety, and the generic 18th century scholar wanted to use it, the best option was to buy. And as there likely were no new copies around anymore, especially if some years had already passed since it had been printed, the best option to buy was to buy second-hand. This is important in discussing processes of fading from the memory of the scientific community because one might easily argue that as long as that community bought your books, it didn’t forget you. So to constantly be in the trade, that is, appearing on the lists of the auction catalogues, would equal being in circulation and constant demand, and thus rather not structurally forgotten.

The Used Book Market

There was a lively trade in used scholarly books which facilitated this kind of book circulation, which in turn was stabilized by the economic circumstances in which 18th century scholarship existed. Given the fact that social welfare systems and pension funds were underdeveloped, too, a well-stocked library represented a considerable stock of capital which could be liquidated if need be. In cases of death, poverty, exile, or persecution by authorities, scholarly libraries were sold off, voluntarily or involuntarily, in irregular intervals.

This usually happened in form of large-scale book auctions, which, depending on the size of the library involved, could take weeks and months until completed. For the purpose of these auctions catalogues of the items on sale were printed and distributed far and wide to attract potential customers which – as the overall density of scholars was low for most places in Europe – might also be scattered widely. Boring as they are to the reader, consisting of nothing than lists of titles, dates, sometimes prizes and small descriptions in case a volume sported some extras such as illustrations or manuscript annotations, these catalogues contain valuable information about which kind of information was available at a given time at a given place in early modern Europe.

Library auction catalogues have survived in great quantities but are only slowly beginning to be made available for research purposes, so the question always is how to build a instructive sample for a given research question. One possibility which I am making use of is to go via Eighteenth Century Collections Online (link) because these digitized materials are full-text searchable.

Used Books, Forgetting…

Now what do British auction catalogues reveal about the reference patterns connected to my four protagonists? There are a number of hypotheses which may be tested by such a sample.

Hypothesis I

First, the British market for used scholarly books vastly expanded coupled with the economic and politic rise of the country during the 18th century, and that meant that to meet demand literature had to be imported on a large scale from the continent. Already in 1702 sales catalogues advertised books “lately brought from France and Holland” stemming from prestigious former owners such as Johan de Wit (1662-1701) and Constantijn Huygens (1628-1697).[1] This might lead to a large proportion of continentally printed books in these catalogues, which would favour my three non-British protagonists Braun, Reland, and Renaudot.

Hypothesis II

But, second, of course there were British scholars also whose works were printed in Oxford, Cambridge, and London; so this might lead to a greater number of locally produced works, favouring the non-continental scholar amongst the four, Thomas Gale.   

Hypotheses III

Third, it seems likely that there was an incubation phase between a book being bought as it came from press and binder and between this book being re-sold at the auction of the library, namely the time in which the library’s owner used his books himself. Then my protagonist’s books would only hit the second-hand market with a delay of several years, favouring those works printed earlier. On the other hand, sudden death was an ever-present risk at the time, so that it might well be the case that owners died soon after buying a particular book, setting it free again.

Hypothesis IV

Fourth, geographical proximity between the Netherlands and Britain might facilitate the import of Dutch books, which might result in giving Reland and Braun a comparative advantage on the British market compared to Eusèbe Renaudot from France.

… and: testing!

To put these assumptions to the test I am currently bolstering up those data I already gathered three years ago on Reland’s and Braun’s books in auction catalogues in ECCO with those for Gale and Renaudot also. This is a time-consuming process even with the advantage of conducting full-text searches, but I can give at least some preliminary sketches for the situation in the first decades of the 18th century. What you see here is the statistical breakdown of 21 auction catalogues listing works by my protagonists, from the first one I have found so far (appearing in 1720) until the year 1740. That the number of catalogues matches the years is coincidental, as I for some years I did not yet find any matching results, and two or three for others. While this is in no way a statistically representative sample it nevertheless shows some interesting trends.

The works of Braun, Gale, Reland, and Renaudot in 21 British auction catalogues between 1720 and 1740

H I: Rather not…

First, the import of books from the continent obviously really favoured one of my continental protagonists, and this was Adriaan Reland, whose books got the second most listings of all four: 39 in total.

H II: …also not really.

But, second, local origin seems to have beaten it, because Thomas Gale scored first place with 54 listings of his works in total in these 21 catalogues. Or the reason for this might, at least partly, be that Gale’s books were on average older than Reland’s, as Gale had started publishing in the mid-1670s when Reland was just born.

H III: Not very likely…

But, third, time seems not to have been the all-important factor, otherwise Gale and Braun as the elder scholars who began publishing earlier would be scoring higher than Reland and Renaudot who both published much later. And although Renaudot is, with only seven listings of works by him in these 21 catalogues, the scholar least referred in terms of this sample, the publication date of his works is likely not the issue here, because six of these seven listings go to the same work, his 1718 Anciennes Relations des Indes et de la Chine de deux voyageurs mahométans,[2] or even its 1733 English translation.

H IV: …and not decisive, too.

Fourth, geographical proximity also seems not to be the decisive factor. Although Renaudot’s works are listed only a couple of times, the catalogues do frequently list other French and Latin titles printed in France. In fact, two of Thomas Gale’s works which circulated on the British second hand market had been printed abroad, in Paris[3] and Amsterdam[4]. And between the two scholars whose works originated from Dutch presses, Braun and Reland, the difference is virtually as large as that between Reland and Renaudot – where Renaudot scored seven listings, Braun scored eight.

To be continued! (In two weeks, though)

So if none of the four hypotheses I wanted to test by this first small sample has real explanatory power, what has? And does this mean that Renaudot and Braun were comparatively much more forgotten than Gale and Reland, at least within the reference frame of the British used book trade? Well, this will become clearer in two weeks’ time, I hope – I do have some days off next week, so there will be no Research weekly on May 31st. Gives me more time to complete the sample, so let’s see what this will show, then.


[1] Catalogue of books, in Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, English, and French. Collected chiefly from the libraries of John de Wit, Constantin Huygens, and Frederick Spanheim. With divers curious editions of ancient and modern authors, and most of the classics printed by Aldus, Rob. Stephans, Christ. Plantin, Old Elzevir, and Gryphius. Lately brought from France and Holland. With a curious parcel of prints. To be sold by auction, in Exeter-Exchange, at the west-end, up stairs. On Wednesday the 25th of February, 1701/2. Catalogues are sold for 6d. apiece by Mr. Hensman in Westminster-Hall, Edw. Castle next Scotland-Yard-Gate near Whitehal, P. Varenn at Seneca’s-Head near Somerset-house, Mr. Wotton at the 3 Daggers near the Temple-Gate, J. Knapton at the Crown in Pauls-Church-Yard, Rich. Parker under the Piazza’s of the Royal-Exchange, H. Clemens in Oxford, and Edm. Jefferies in Cambridge. The books may be view’d five days before the sale begins. [London ],  [1702].

[2] Eusèbe Renaudot (ed.): Anciennes Relations des Indes et de la Chine de deux voyageurs mahométans, qui y allèrent dans le neuvième siècle [Texte imprimé], traduites d’arabe (par l’abbé Eusèbe Renaudot), avec des remarques sur les principaux endroits de ces relations, Paris : Coignard 1718.

[3] Thomas Gale: Historiæ Poeticæ Scriptores Antiqui : Apollodorus Atheniensis. Ptolemæus Hephæst. F. Conon Grammaticus. Parthenius Nicaensis. Antoninus Liberalis ; Græcè & Latinè ; Acceßêre breves Notæ & Indices necessarij, Paris: Muguet 1675.  

[4] Thomas Gale: Opuscula mythologica, physica et ethica graece et latine ; Seriem eorum sistit pagina praefationem proxime sequens, Amsterdam : Wetstein 1688.


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