Kristian Jensen, Lyell Lectures, COLLECTING INCUNABULA le 22 avril-6 mai 2008 ŕ Oxford

During the eighteenth century the past was radically reassessed in order to understand and to influence changing political and social structures. The consequences of the invention of printing, long celebrated as a crucial event in European history, were rethought in the light of contemporary concerns: as a result opinions were polarised. As books from the earliest years of printing were increasingly investigated as physical evidence of the invention, categories of books previously neglected became very expensive indeed. This changed the relationship between scholars, craftsmen, traders, collectors and institutions, who all now had a claim to be taken seriously when speaking about books. This new multipolarity was a challenge to the authority of those institutions or groups which felt that it was their privilege to assess books, to judge them good or bad.

The lectures explore and compare reactions in the two leading centres of the market for early books, Paris and London. Although the market for a new-found luxury was remarkably unified, different mechanisms for social control in each centre meant that tensions were addressed differently. The lectures discuss the political and commercial impact of the French Revolution on these two centres, underlining the complex interplay between politics, the marketplace, and cultural values. It was in this period that books from the fifteenth century emerged as a coherent, marketable commodity, as incunabula. This depended on a new, systematic discipline, created outside universities and academies, which saw books as physical, not textual, evidence of the past. The lectures investigate parallels with the development of art history and the art market. As fifteenth-century books became incunabula in the eighteenth century, they were required to fulfil the expectations of their new owners, not only as texts, but especially as objects whose fate was to be physically transformed.

The lectures rely on unpublished evidence from archives in Britain and France, correspondence between dealers, collectors, librarians, and scholars, on extensive information about prices and price developments, and on a wide range of eighteenth-century published works, from political, philosophical and historical studies, to novels and drinking songs. Visual information provided by the books themselves is located in the broader context of eighteenth-century aesthetics.