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Economic and Social History Blog


Eltjo Buringh

Books do not die: the price of information, Human Capital and the Black Death in the long fourteenth century

In this blog I will explain why I am busy working on trends in the prices of medieval hand-written books between circa 1250 and 1500. It may seem as escapism in these times of Corona, but because my time-window includes the Black Death – that killed approximately one third of the European population back then – in my opinion this subject in some way connects to the
current period.
In the second half of the thirteenth century books still were luxury products, costing nearly as much as a house. Despite their high prices they were used by monks, theologists, lawyers, parish priests, notaries and doctors, to name some of their medieval readers. In the Middle Ages a correct written text was considered essential for the liturgy, because the divine service had to be exact in its wording in order to be valid. Books then were generally written in Latin. Their contents did not change quickly and a typical manuscript book on parchment could generally reach an age of some 400 years before it had to be replaced because of wear and tear. Book prices are an indicator of the accessibility that medieval literates had to information; and in that way also a proxy for the contemporary human capital development (which is economically important). In the later medieval period urban literates, such as artisans, also often had one or two books of their own. Titles of books (and their value) are sometimes indicated on medieval inventories, wills or probate lists. Because of their longevity books always outlived their owners and as a valuable asset they were part of the inheritance. Using information on book valuations after death has a number of advantages. It gives a clear price, a date and a title. Also contracts to write a book for someone or contracts of a sale give this kind of information.
Currently I have collected nearly 1600 different prices, dates and titles in my study period (still waiting for some more books with information to hopefully add a few more). Medieval books can be very different in their execution and workmanship, however, naturally inventories tell us nothing about this. Also their prices may be given in all kinds of currencies, complicating comparisons. What makes my approach different from previous papers on medieval book prices is that  I calculate the price of information in grams of silver per thousand characters of plain text. (Therefore I had to count/estimate the numbers of characters in nearly
600 important medieval texts) Nevertheless I make a distinction between a thousand characters in liturgical books and those in the rest of the manuscripts: the non-liturgical books. Medieval liturgical books generally were written in a larger letter (textura) than non-liturgical books, and also the quality of their parchment was as a rule better. Furthermore I make a distinction between
new books written to order (by contracts) and used books, because the bulk of the book sales were used books as they went along some 400 years and a medieval owner could expect to use a book some 25 years. Even high ranked officials often bought used books in the Middle Ages.
A few preliminary conclusions are already possible. The general trend of book prices is downward, in which a faster writing speed (smaller letters and more abbreviations) was instrumental. The influence of the Black Death on the book prices is huge, as you can expect from a sudden drop in demand. Gradually more schooling after the BD and a more literate population bring the prices up again after some decades. However, after 1425 I see the book prices go down again, this is certainly not yet the influence of printing (which only kicked in after 1470), I still have to work out what goes on here.

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