From Medieval to Modern: The Frankfurt Book Fair Through The Ages

August 7, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 1 4 min read

For over five hundred years, barring a few interruptions, Frankfurt has been a magnet, both commercial and cultural, attracting publishers and printers, scribblers and spies. From neighboring towns to neighboring lands, then later from all of Europe, and eventually from all corners of the globe, anyone with a vested interest in the printed word would make his way to Frankfurt.

Gutenberg might have been there, back at the beginning, in 1454. Maybe. We’re not entirely sure. But Peter Weidhaas makes a good case for it, illustrating the possibility with a short tale of a man of Gutenberg’s demeanor walking through the narrow streets of Frankfurt as the book fair was taking its nascent steps.

coverThis little bit of speculation opens Weidhaas’ recently-published A History of the Frankfurt Book Fair. No stranger to the fair, Weidhaas served as Director from 1975 through to the new millennium, and is uniquely positioned to offer colorful detail on the five hundred-year-old event. While at times there might just be too much detail (do we really need a half-page list, in the middle of the narrative, of publishers and printers attending the fair in the early 1500s?), there are still enough fascinating tidbits and tangents, woven together with what amounts to a quick history of printing and the printed word, to make this an engaging read.

The fair rose and fell and then rose once more. Whether he attended or not, Gutenberg’s presence was felt, as, in the 1400s, Frankfurt began to gain fame as a center of trade for the printed word. Printers came to the city in droves, not just in Frankfurt, but in its arch-rival Leipzig.

We get a glimpse into the development of paper as a replacement for parchment, and the rise of the paper mill, allowing information to reach the masses (or at least the educated among them) instead of just the economic elite who could afford paper’s pricey precursor. The demands of the book market were beginning to be met. By 1498 there were 118 publishers in Europe.

Weidhaas gives us a taste of book culture at the time. The development of Humanism led to a revival of the classics. And there was a rise in popularity of travel-related publications. Let’s linger on that for a moment. What we’re actually talking about are accounts of voyages by Columbus and Vespucci to the New World and Marco Polo in China. Travel lit indeed!

From Weidhaas’s peek into the 1500s, we find out that books were shipped unbound, and would be bound upon arrival at the fair. Later, much later, books would be sent bound and so could be sold year round. Publishers would eventually not need the fair (as it was then) to sell books. But then, as now, it was the sale of books that drove the book fair.

Some colorful asides from that era: Weidhaas gives us a scathing account by Erasmus of getting a room at a German inn, and Weidhaas also notes the popularity, in the mid-1500s, of prose versions of German epic ballads from the Middle Ages – many with such titillating and enticing titles as “Emperor Octavian, how he banished his wife and two sons to a life of misery; and how, amazingly, they were once again reunited in France with good King Dagobert.” This verbosity was effectively an early form of sales advertising.

While money was the driving force, Frankfurt was also becoming an intellectual hub of the time, despite not having its own university until 1914. Professors would meet each other at the fair; as would librarians, poets, archivists, mathematicians.

Pamphlets of Martin Luther’s writings were made readily available to the people of Frankfurt. And later, during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), we see mathematician Johannes Kepler flogging his books at the fair.

Then there was a long, protracted fall. Between 1680 and 1690, nearly every publishing house in Frankfurt collapsed due to the indebtedness of publishers. As a result of this there was an anti-Semitic backlash, Jewish financiers becoming the scapegoats for the failure of the publishing houses, and regulations were imposed forbidding trading to Jews. In fact, it was the wars instigated by Louis XIV, and repercussions of the War of the Spanish Succession that crippled the economy.

As well, the Reformation had moved the intellectual hub north, and the center of trade was shifting east, giving Leipzig an edge over Frankfurt. Bookshops in Frankfurt turned into bars.

By the mid-1800s, even Leipzig was in decline. Book fairs – as they were envisioned then – had had their day, as the book trade was no longer dependent on fairs.

The modern era of the Frankfurt Book Fair, after a few false starts, began in the late 1940s. The 1950 fair was a major success. It was both a cultural exchange and a trade show emphasizing merchandising and marketing. A literary peace prize had also been established – Albert Schweitzer won it that year – giving the fair an added PR boost.

There was no shortage of intrigue in the post-war book fair. The Cold War and the building of the Berlin Wall led to the infiltration of West Germany (and the Frankfurt Book Fair) by East German spies! Beginning in 1967 and continuing into the 70s, undercover agents (using pseudonyms) from East German publishing houses were covertly checking out the activity at the fair, seeing which of their authors had books there.

Weidhaas also flags some modern trends: the rise of paperbacks in the 60s to the more recent rise of the CD-ROM, the effects of the fatwa issued against Rushdie and the necessary security for publishers exhibiting his books at the fair, the banning (for two years anyway) of Iran from the fair, and the rise of inflated advances for big-name authors, at the expense of niche writers.

A couple of caveats: When Weidhaas comes to the part of the fair’s history that was under his watch, and needs to refer to himself, he does so in the third person, which I actually found curiously endearing.

Also, some of those same chapters are loaded with a bit too much minutiae – details of who exhibited where, and lots of internal politics. Those bits strike me as being of interest to those who were in attendance, less compelling to a casual reader. But as the book is divided into short chapters, it’s easy enough to skip over bits. It’s guaranteed there will be a fascinating surprise around the next corner.

is a writer in Toronto, Canada, and passes his days as a copy editor with The Globe and Mail. He spends his moments of leisure listening to music, reading, watching films and prowling the streets of Toronto, and he feels that he is long-overdue for a vacation so that he can do more of those things. At any given time, he is probably pining for distant shores and really should do more traveling and less pining.

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