Collaboration and Conflict: A Review of Revolution and the Antiquarian Book

Jensen, Kristian. Revolution and the Antiquarian Book: Reshaping the Past, 1780-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011

Jensen’s Revolution and the Antiquarian Book took shape as a series of lectures; specifically the University of Oxford’s Lyell Lectures. The 2008 selection of Kristian Jensen as the Lyell Reader, coupled with his position as Head of Arts and Humanities at the British Library cannot leave us in any doubt of his expertise on the subject of the history of collecting incunabula. Incunabula are texts that were printed before 1501, and are some of the earliest texts that knew the firm pressure of a printing press. These were some of the first books that  Revolutions of the Antiquarian Book recommends Jensen’s scholarship all the more, being a fastidiously well-researched and thoughtful consideration of the decreasing production of manuscripts after the fifteenth century  and their increasing popularity as collector’s items in the eighteenth century. Jensen’s depiction of this at times fraught world of incunabula book trade is set against the backdrop of revolution and conflict in eighteenth-century Europe. Revolution highlights the everyday interactions and idiosyncrasies of those involved in the book trade, some of whom were shockingly and delightfully wily. By indicating individual as well as national conceptions of book collection, trade, and value, Jensen furthers Robert Darnton’s argument for the study of the history of texts and the necessarily interdisciplinary nature of that study.

Jensen is at all times focused on the eighteenth century’s understanding of the importance and meaning of the antique book, which for Jensen means the incunabula, the fifteenth century’s first offerings of printed texts. In a marvel of exploration, the reader is exposed to the tactics deployed by university, national, and private library collectors alike in order to collect, or at times avoid, collecting incunabula. In an act that any Ptolemaic pharaoh would appreciate, victorious French armies took their orders from the National Library when they seized incunables from German libraries. This story is just one of many in Revolution that underscores the separate loyalties to patron and country (not always one’s own), that expand our understanding of the eighteenth-century European book trade as well as a text’s capacity to survive.

Gutenberg Bibles are some of the rarest and most highly valued incunables. The one shown above is housed at the New York Public Library.

Divided into six lucidly outlined chapters, Jensen constantly points towards ensuing chapters and draws upon previously stated facts, leaving no mystery as to why any given section is included. Beginning with eighteenth-century politics and published philosophy regarding the fifteenth-century, Jensen provides a framework to understanding the motivations behind collectors’ interest in and suspicion of incunabula. Aside from the complicating matter of the invention of printing bolstering and then disputing traditional authorities (i.e., the Church, the monarchy), print led many to wonder if the economic opportunities of the printing industry was not an invitation for corruption, of the physical texts as well as the fledgling print industry itself. In the first chapter Jensen lays out the differences and similarities between European countries collection interests and abilities to collect those items; the conflicts that arise from these similarities and differences provide a crucial fulcrum around which Revolution continually pivots.

During the eighteenth-century, Oxford University’s Bodleian Library amassed the world’s largest collection of incunabula. The above photograph shows the Duke Humphrey’s Reading Room in the Bodleian.

As mentioned, Jensen focuses not only on national and university collections but on private collectors as well, particularly the British aristocrat the Earl of Spencer. Of course, Jensen makes plain that the book trade is a fluid one. The wider marketplace is populated by respectable as well as “questionable” persons, although these individuals are sometimes indistinguishable. Jean-Baptise Maugérard, who supplied aristocracy, politicians, churchmen with incunabula, was considered “the worst of thieves” (49). It is during the late eighteenth-century that society begins to view incunabula as objets d’art, and a distinction between a market for incunabula and a market for modern books was established against the backdrop of intermingling international war and trade.

Jensen echoes Darnton’s seminal article “What is the History of Books?” (1982) in the “flesh and blood” aspect of the trade and study of books. Revolution summarizes three competing veins of study – philology, antiquarianism, and historiography – that ultimately must draw upon one another for each field to reach its richest observations. Using these three fields of study Jensen advances his argument of incunabula as objets d’art by demonstrating the competition between those that treated the texts as intellectual resources and those that treated them as collectibles with high market value. Both views deem the incunabula worthy of preservation, one for (largely) pedagogical reasons, the other for (largely) economic reasons. These books were sometimes one in the same. Jensen details a number of cases in which incunabula of “modern intellectual significance” were purchased by private collectors, bringing them into conflict with national or university library collectors that wanted the texts for pedagogical purposes. Further, there was a growing disparity in price between those texts that were intellectually significant but new (and thus of little value in the book trade market) and those of little textual merit but antique and increasingly rare (and thus of great value in the book trade market).

A 1492 printing of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

Jensen continually returns to the catalyst for the French Revolution: the inequality between well-entrenched societal classes and the question of authrity, both of which influenced and were influenced by incunabula collection and the wider book trade market. Although George III certainly never entered a seedy book market (nor is it clear that the personally requested an item that might be found in one of them), his royal librarian did buy an early printing by Caxton, which is a marvel to Jensen (80). Yet Jensen does not suggest that this brush between royalty and commoners indicates the conclusion of the social strati, particularly in terms of scholarship. In the fourth chapter: “Competing for Authority,” Jensen takes pains to demonstrate that the very artisans who created modern texts, those that followed in the traditions of the original printers, were not considered experts or scholars by traditional academics of the eighteenth-century. Jensen paints a particularly vivid portrait of Abbé Rive’s contempt for those in the book trade. The clergyman and librarian insisted that all book tradesmen were nothing but “book shop boy[s]” (113) who had somehow duped the aristocracy into believing that they had anything intelligible to say on the worth of incunabula.

William Caxton (~1422-1492) introduced the printing in England. Caxton’s firm printed over 100 books, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Unlike Stevens’ (2010) enthusiasm for the rigid framework of antique evaluation provided by Leon Rosenstein in his article “Antiques: The History of an Idea,” I believe that Jensen is correct when he points to the fluidity of the notion of the antique. Although a book may be old, rare, and intellectually significant to one group, cultural and societal norms and impetuses force a text into or out of a library as much as anything else. Jensen’s previous discussion about the fluctuating meaning of a text prepares us for the insertion of a text from one context to another. The importance of bindings and changing of binding is strongly noted throughout Revolutions, especially when pondering the value a private collector or university or national library collectors placed on a text. Despite the historical evidence that an old binding might provide in pointing to the original intention and meaning of a text, such cultural or historical value was abandoned in favour of the aesthetic value claimed though rebinding incunabula – thus appropriating and asserting new cultural importance on the text. Jensen is concerned with having his audience understand the fluctuating prices of these texts and gives very useful analogies and comparisons, if ad nauseam.

During a time when it became possible that history would not only take into account the actions and interests of the nobility but those of everyday individuals, or scholars as well as lay people, it was crucial to affirm the natural, and sometimes imposed, interests and practices of all individuals (180). By presenting the eighteenth-century collectors and dealers throughout the text from diverse standpoints, Jensen grants his readers a comprehensive and considerate examination of the incunabula marketplace of the eighteenth-century.

Although the text is more than fit for scholarly consumption, Jensen sets a firm enough historical and bibliographical foundation in Revolution that those outside bibliographic study can enjoy this work. The sole exception may be in the extensive notes in the back of the text, many of which are written in French, and some of which are written in Latin. This being said, the text is a complete body of work without reading every last endnote. The accessibility of Revolution is achieved primarily through Jensen’s carefully articulated research, as well as his descriptive account of the many colourful participants in the book trade. By pointing to individual eccentricities of the involved individuals, well-engrained yet radically shifting social values and strati, and competing profits (monetary, cultural, and otherwise), Jensen reveals the multitude of disciplines, institutions, and people on which book history depends.


Darnton, Robert. “What is the History of Books?” Daedalus 111.3 (1982): 65-83. JSTOR.

Jensen, Kristian. Revolution and the Antiquarian Book: Reshaping the Past, 1780-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Stevens, Norman D. “[Antiques: The History of an Idea]”. RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, & Cultural Heritage 11.2 (2010): 157-8. Library Literature & Information Science Full Text (H.W. Wilson).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: