In commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the journal Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture will be releasing a volume specifically dedicated to the subject in December 2017. The interview below is the second of several that will feature authors of articles for this special issue. For this interview, we were fortunate to be able to speak to Andrew Pettegree, Professor of History at the University of St. Andrews. Professor Pettegree is a leading scholar of Europe during the Reformation. He is the author of numerous books on the subjects, including most recently Brand Luther, 1517, Printing and the Making of the Reformation (Penguin, 2015). He is also the director of the Universal Short Title Catalogue Project, which aims to collect all books published in Europe between the invention of printing and the end of the sixteenth century. We were fortunate to be able to speak to Professor Pettegree about his upcoming article in Church History, “Print and the Reformation: A Drama in Three Acts.”
How did you come across the topic of your article?
I’ve been working on the Reformation, particularly print in the Reformation, for most of my career. My second book was about the Synod of Emden and the Dutch revoltsRevolt. Part of that book involved the study of all the books printed in Emden, many of them anonymously. This peaked piqued my interest in the topic of the Reformation and print, not just in Luther’s own lifetime but going through several centuries. The opportunity to write about this topic for this special issue was the opportunity to weld together my work on Luther and my 2015 book, Brand Luther, 1517, Printing and the Making of the Reformation, with this intermediary stage when the book was being published in places where the Reformation was persecuted, like Emden. It was also an opportunity to bring together relevant sources for my ongoing work on the 17th century Dutch Republic and compiling a new bibliographical text for that project.
Is there a particular source you came across during the course of your research that you would like to share with us?
My rule of thumb when it comes to discovery is that the best discoveries you make in your career always come when you are looking for something else. When I was working on my book about the Synod of Emden, I discovered a source that was too good to be true, which was a bookseller’s list of books published in Emden at the height of the Dutch revoltRevolt. It seemed to be a remarkably diverse offering for a relatively small place like Emden. This excited me and inspired me to pursue further how books moved around Europe and how the European book market worked. Now, with this Dutch work, we have come across an absolute treasure trove of material in auction catalogs. One of the things that auction catalogs give you access to is books published in the 16th or 17th centuries that cannot now be traced in any surviving copy in any library. Therefore, they are a wayThey offer a crucial means to understand books and book markets. We know that a very large portion of books published during the 16th and 17th centuries survive today in only one copy. If this is the case, it must mean that many more have been lost altogether. These are generally books of a particular type, which were intended for use rather than for collecting. Yet, these lost books played a vital part in underpinning the economics of the book industry. We thought that, for us to understand how the book industry works, we have to find a way to reconstruct this hinterland of lost books. That is really what we have been searching for in Saint Andrews during the last three or four years. Before we started this interview, that is what I was working on! I think that this information can help us revolutionize our understanding of books and printing during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Where did research for this article take you (archives, cities, etc.)?
Because I have worked mostly on the European book trade writ large, I am used to the idea that most of my work takes me abroad. This takes me to a whole variety of rare book collections. I have worked in approximately 300 rare book reading rooms around Europe. I think I am one of the best-placed people to write a rare-book-room guide! The interesting thing, though, is that so much print survives today in archives rather than libraries. This is particularly true of ephemeral print that oiled the gears of government. These sources were never systematically collected so they can only really be found if you go into archives and search through bundles of documents looking for print stuck in between the pages. This has been one of our most crucial contributions: digging through archives rather than just looking in libraries.
Is there anything else relating to this article and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation that you would like to share?
The Reformation at 500 has been very well celebrated. I have been able to make my particular contribution by talking about the issue of print. Through all of this, I think there has been a tension between the Reformation as a historical event that occurred 500 years ago and the pressures to make it relevant to a modern audience. That has led in church celebrations to an emphasis on ecumenical celebration with the Reformation as an act of commemoration rather than one of partisan celebration. That is all very understandable, but I think that it is important not to lose track of the fact that, when we look at historical events, we are trying to explain difference rather than to look for echoes of ourselves. What makes the Reformation remarkable is that it happened because people had the courage to step outside the mainstream of their own societies, to take risks, to offend the collective wisdom, and to stay things that other intellectuals found deeply offensive. I think that is something we should take out of the Reformation commemorations as well. The insistence on conformity in thought is not always going to be inimical to an event like the Reformation.