Paratexts and Print in Renaissance Humanism: The Impact of Printing on Paratexts

Manuscript written in Latin

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The Panizzi Lectures 2019

The first of three lectures by Ann Blair on paratexts and print in Renaissance humanism. 

How do we know what to expect from a book? Our first impressions are typically formed not from the text itself but from the paratexts which surround it, such as dustjacket and blurbs, title page, table of contents, preface, index. Paratexts have a history, as their norms and forms have varied across cultures, genres, and time periods.

Gutenberg’s invention in mid-15th-century Europe made it suddenly possible to produce hundreds of copies of a text with unprecedented speed and at significantly lower cost per copy. But the new technology also required high expenditures upfront which needed to be recovered through the sales of as many of those printed copies as possible. Thus one of the new functions of paratexts in the age of print was to attract buyers. Learned books especially needed to appeal to readers far beyond their original context of production in order to sell enough copies, because they posed significant barriers to access: they were among the largest and most expensive printed books and they were written in Latin, a language common to the educated across the continent, but inaccessible to the vast majority of the population. How did this new expectation of a broad and impersonal geographic circulation transform paratexts in the transition from a manuscript culture to the age of the printed book?

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Ann Blair is Carl H Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard University, where she specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of early modern Europe (16th-17th centuries), with an emphasis on France. Her interests include the history of the book and of reading, the history of the disciplines and of scholarship, and the history of interactions between science and religion.


Name: Paratexts and Print in Renaissance Humanism: The Impact of Printing on Paratexts
Where: Knowledge Centre
The British Library
96 Euston Road
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Enquiries: +44 (0)1937 546546