Today we are faced with a revolution in the technology of reading: the printed book is being supplemented, if not replaced, by electronic media. A more gradual, but no less fundamental revolution took place in European book production from between c.1450 and 1550. By the early 1400s readership was growing rapidly, prompting an ever-increasing demand for more and cheaper books. Manuscripts (hand-made books) were relatively expensive items, slow to produce, and no two could be made exactly alike. In the early 1440s and 50s the technology of printing was developed by Johann Gutenberg at Strasbourg and Mainz: its main elements were the use of moveable metal type, which when inked could produce the text for a whole page, applied by a hand press. Identical copies could be produced by this means many times over. Over the next century printing spread rapidly across Europe, and by c. 1550 the industry that supported the handmade book was gone.
This exhibition presents all of the manuscripts and printed books to the 1560s held by the University of Tasmania Library, plus one from St David’s Cathedral. Although the collection is small, amongst it are two notable books printed before 1500 (known as incunables or incunabula), and several products of famous presses and printers. Early printing was a risky business, so printers sought to reproduce old and popular texts for which they knew there was a ready market; but they also printed newly-available or newly-composed literature, such as the Greek and Latin texts rediscovered by the Renaissance humanists, and the religious literature associated with the Reformation in Germany and elsewhere. All of these categories are represented here.
Note, in particular, how much the earliest printed books look like the manuscripts that preceded them. This probably reflects both the uncertainties of the early printers as to the possibilities of the new technology, and the innate conservatism of their readership.
Professor Rodney Thomson
School of History and Classics
University of Tasmania