Publishing and Protestantism

Posted by dianamuir on January 30, 2013
Cultural values

“The acceleration of book output after 1454 continued until the end of the sixteenth century; in the year 1550 alone, for example, some 3 million books were produced in Western Europe, more than the total number of manuscripts produced during the fourteenth century as a whole. During the rest of the early modern period growth continued, but at a slightly slower pace (somewhat under 1 percent per year). “

“One variable that correlated very strongly with literacy and book consumption was Protestantism, which in itself was able to explain almost all of the difference in literacy between northwestern Europe (England, the Netherlands, and Sweden) and the rest of the subcontinent. The question remains to what extent the growth of book production and consumption was driven by cultural or by economic factors. This was the period of the “Little Divergence,” during which the economies of the Low Countries and Great Britain continued to expand, whereas the rest of Western Europe more or less stagnated. These diverging trends are in particular clear from the estimates of real wages constructed by Allen.52 The “Little Divergence” is clearly present in the estimates of book consumption, but Catholic Belgium more or less falls out of the region of high demand for books, whereas in economically “backward” but Protestant Sweden book production expands very strongly. On the other hand, Switzerland, another (partially) Protestant nation, is a leading publisher only during the sixteenth century, but falls back dramatically during the next two centuries. This also leaves open the question if the Reformation was an external factor—an exogenous shock—or should be considered endogenous, the result of, for example, growing literacy at the grass roots level during the late medieval period, creating favorable conditions for the message of Luther and Calvin.53

count of unique titles, editions


Charting the “Rise of the West”: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, A Long-Term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries


This article estimates the development of manuscripts and printed books in Western Europe over the course of thirteen centuries. As these estimates show, medieval and early modern book production was a dynamic economic sector, with an average annual growth rate of around one percent. Rising production after the middle of the fifteenth century probably resulted from lower book prices and higher literacy. To explain the dynamics of medieval book production, we provide estimates for urbanization rates and for the numbers of universities and monasteries. Monasteries seem to have been most important in the early period, while universities and laypeople dominated the later medieval demand for books.


The Journal of Economic History / Volume 69 / Issue 02 / June 2009, pp 409 – 445

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009


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