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


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

ELTJO BURINGH AND JAN LUITEN VAN ZANDEN

The Journal of Economic History, Vol.69 (2009)

Abstract

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 quantitative reconstruction of book production can help shed new light on the long-term development of the European economy in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution. Books, it can be argued, were strategic commodities. They were a crucial part of the information infrastructure and, in a way, the “hardware” which stored all ideas. The production and accumulation of books can therefore be used as a proxy for the production and accumulation of ideas—an important variable in endogenous growth theory.

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