The Journal of Economic History


Charting the “Rise of the West”: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, A Long-Term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries

Eltjo Buringha1 and Jan Luiten Van Zandena2

a1 Postdoctoral Student, Utrecht University, Drift 10, 3512 BS Utrecht, The Netherlands. E-mail:

a2 Professor of Economic history, Utrecht University, Drift 10, 3512 BS Utrecht, The Netherlands, and Senior Researcher, International Institute of Social History, Cruquiusweg 31, 1019 AT Amsterdam, The Netherlands. E-mail:


This article estimates the development of manuscripts and printed books in Western Europe over the course of thirteen centuries. As these estimates show, medieval and early modern book production was a dynamic economic sector, with an average annual growth rate of around one percent. Rising production after the middle of the fifteenth century probably resulted from lower book prices and higher literacy. To explain the dynamics of medieval book production, we provide estimates for urbanization rates and for the numbers of universities and monasteries. Monasteries seem to have been most important in the early period, while universities and laypeople dominated the later medieval demand for books.


We wish to thank Bas van Bavel, Maarten Prak, Tine de Moor, the participants in seminars at the Economics Department of Groningen University and the Economic History Group at London School of Economics, two anonymous referees and the editor of this JOURNAL for their comments on earlier drafts of this article, as well as Peter Koudijs and Maarten Bosker for their help with the econometrics.