Last positing in this thread: Visual Literary History (2)
The following diagram is part of a book project on the history of literature. The data are derived from the German VD16 and VD17 online catalogues of all books printed in German and in the German speaking territories. One can actually use the VD16-interface for both parts of the production, i.e. the 16th- and the 17th-century production. The search form allows to scan the catalogue for entire years. Right at the moment the we get 2821 listings for 1650, 2171 listings for 1651, and so on. The data are not entirely stable — they have changed since my gathering in 2010. They, secondly, require special care with “round” dates like 1650, 1660, 1670 but also with the mid-decade dates of 1665, 1675, 1685 and so on. Undated titles are listed under these presumably less aribitrary dates. I used median values of the respective neighboring years to avoid the peaks the graph would otherwise have shown in 10- and 5-year intervals.
The graph shows a first significant rise of the production in the 1520s. Only the 1590s reach such numbers again. A look into the production reveals the impact of the reformation. The Thirty Years War (1618—1648) is anticipated in press wars of the 1570s, 80s and 90s. The beginning of the war, 1618, fuels the production. A decline begins, however, in the 1620s. The lowest number of titles produced is given for 1639 with 1348 titles. The end of the war was, so it seems, anticipated again: We are back at 2154 titles in 1648. Numbers of the 1660s are healthy again and above the pre-war figures.
Thus far we do not have the corresponding data of the VD18 to see how the graph continued into the 18th century.
Our histories of literature are not histories of the book production
The previous posting in this series gave a picture of the interest displayed by the best known German history of literature. What is startling here is that our present literary histories are rather counter productive where they handle the early modern period. The Thirty Years War becomes the centre of the baroque production, with peaks in a field of actual decline in production numbers. The era between 1545 and 1570 is practically a terra incognita in modern German studies — the book production does not give an indication why this should be the case. Years of a soaring production are rather uninteresting in the literary historian’s eye. Works of this genre are written to shed light onto eras of historical significance, they focus on works they can interpret to this point — ages of crisis and war become particularily interesting here.
One could also conclude that “literature” (as we define it) is selective and designed to offer a balance to the commercial production. We might use the term to create alternative productions we (as representatives of the national secondary discourses) can position against the interest of readers and “the market”.
Two postings should follow: a comparative look at the English market and special posting about the distortions of title counts. One would need paper consumption statistics to give a clearer picture of the actual production.