Yale, £30, 422pp. £27 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Book in the Renaissance, By Andrew Pettegree

History is what survives. One man's dustbin is another's potential archive. A narrow partition divides the hoarder from the scholar. With this remarkable book, Andrew Pettegree immediately shows gratitude to scattered libraries which have somehow kept scarce books, and pamphlets, absent from earlier surveys of printed books. Paradoxically enough, only with online catalogues have so many near-fugitive works become more apparent. Pettegree not only pursues Continental haunts but "the Library at Innerpeffay, tucked away up a farm track in rural Perthshire".

Pettegree has worked on his book while overseeing a universal catalogue of these library holdings, available next year. Step back, and it is surprising to reflect that it is a leap across relatively few generations to the advent of the book. The printed book supplanted a system, a medieval Napstar, by which handwritten copies were made under supervision. This had "allowed for the multiplication of copies while preserving accuracy. Of course it broke down if the student mades made unauthorised copies of each others' texts".

Naturally, there is a place here for Caxton and Gutenberg, who took a financial pounding. But Petegree gives an emphasis to the jobbing printer for whom a pamphlet, that veritable tool in turbulent times - Luther has a central place - was a salve for that eternal question of cash-flow while preparing an elegant folio for gentlemen garnering their libraries. The London printing trade was considerably smaller than Continental centres of publishing, for the population of England and Wales was then a seventh of France's. What's more, in his time, even Shakespeare was a victim of it being considerably cheaper to stage a play than to print it.

With aplomb Pettegree moves from such matters as the literary aftermath of the St Bartholomew Day's Massacre in 1572 to the way in which schlock sustained quality. Astrological works were a bulwark for scientific publishing: tactful predictions for royal personages brought handy patronage.

Pettegree is as at home in Wittenberg as he is in forays to Constantinople and Latin America, switching readily from the demands of chivalric romance to a particularly interesting section on the technological demands of reproducing music staves. He is as familiar with the female authors who followed publication of the sonnets of Vittoria Colonna, the learned Marchioness of Pescara, in 1538, as he is those previously unknown pamphlets, which reveal much about a Rouen audience hungry for news of conflict between Charles V and Francis l.

It's implicit that readers then were living through as much of a maelstrom as we are. Like them, one might find refuge in Ariosto's epic Orlando Furioso, which Pettegree calls "tales infused with the knowing sophistication of the age of humanism". Such books, said the Duke of Ferrara, gave him "more pleasure and contentment than the capture of a city". Would that more local councillors today, forever closing libraries, had the Duke's spirit.

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