Frankfurt Book Fair

Almost as soon as Gutenberg had developed his movable type in the mid-fifteenth century in Mainz, local book fairs were held in Frankfurt, already a centre of trading for handwritten manuscripts.  By 1485, the Frankfurt book fair was frequented by the biggest names in printing and publishing, such as Anton Koberger from Nuremberg, who conducted negotiations there with Basel-based Johann Ammerbach.  Frankfurt’s reputation as a principle centre for the printed book trade was firmly established and growing, and was even influencing scholarship.  Albert Rabil explains, “Luther published, on the last day of 1525, his rejoinder to Erasmus’s initial defense of free will (1524).  Erasmus regarded this as a ploy to assure an uncontested presence at the next Frankfurt book fair.  To prevent this, he rushed into print with Hyperaspistes I early in 1527.”.  It was in 1598 that copies of the Catalogus Universalis, the accompanying catalogue to the Frankfurt book fair, were starting to be printed by the order of Frankfurt Council, advertising those items which were thought to have potentially the widest readership.

Magdalene College’s Old Library has a collection of bookseller and book fair catalogues from the 17th century – a very rare group of documents. The volume has been bound in a contemporary calf binding (later rebacked) and has a gilt spine label saying “Catalogus”.  Amongst other European examples, there are both English and German editions of the Frankfurt Book Fair catalogue, the Catalogus Universalis, in the volume.

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Image 1 = Old Library H.6.21(1), Title page of the 1622 Catalogus Universalis, English edition.  Image 2 = title page of English supplement in the Catalogus Universalis.  Image 3 = the entry advertising Shakespeare’s first folio, (line 11)

In 1617, the first English editions of Catalogus Universalis appeared, demonstrating the international interest in the book fair.  From 1622, as in the publication depicted above, the printed catalogues included a supplement for the English book sellers.  It is in this first supplement of 1622 that an advertisement of Shakespeare’s first folio appears, yet to be published.  Alan Nelson writes, “The Frankfurt Fair advertisements of the First Folio suggest that William Shakespeare had gained a reputation beyond the boundaries of England, while the First Folio was thought capable of attracting the attention of European buyers even a year in advance of its actual publication.”

The example above was printed by the Eliot’s Court Press in London, but with a ‘false imprint’ stating that it was published in Frankfurt  – a common occurrence in the earlier English editions of the Catalogus Universalis.  It is worth comparing this with an example of a German Catalogus Universalis published in Frankfurt:


Old Library H.6.12(6), Title page of the 1622 Catalogus Universalis, German edition.

As one can see, the use of German Fraktur blackletter type is an immediately noticeable difference between the genuine German publication and the English ‘false imprint’.

The catalogues in the bound volume range in date from 1614 to 1657 and small markings in pen and ink by certain entries prove that the catalogues were studied carefully and were probably being used for book purchasing decisions.  Is it possible that the catalogues were all collected by the same person – perhaps a bibliophile fellow of Magdalene in the 17th century?

 By Catherine Sutherland

Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections


Lawrence, David R. The Complete Soldier: Military Books and Military Culture in Early Stuart England, 1603-1645. History of Warfare, v. 53. Leiden: Brill, 2009.

Rabil, Albert. Review of Review of The Correspondence of Erasmus: Letters 1658-1801 (1526-1527), by Desiderius Erasmus, Alexander Dalzell, and Charles G. Nauert. Renaissance Quarterly 57, no. 2 (2004): 669–70

Rovelstad, Mathilde. ‘The Frankfurt Book Fair’. Journal of Library History, Philosophy, and Comparative Librarianship 8, no. 3/4 (1973): 113–23.

‘Catalogus Universalis, Autumn 1622: Reference to Shakespeare and the First Folio’. Shakespeare Documented. Accessed 5 April 2017.

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