Jens Eriksson

Short presentation

This text is not available in English, therefore the Swedish version is shown.

Arbetar med frågor rörande publicering och öppen vetenskap.

Fil. dr. i idé- och lärdomshistoria


Drawing on recent advances in the book historical field, Jens Eriksson’s dissertation aims to rethink the history of authorship and print piracy in the German language area around the turn of the century 1800. Until recently, the turn of the century 1800 marked the moment in German cultural history when early modern notions of writing finally gave way to the modern notion of authorship and sweeping legal reforms put in place the laws against unauthorized copying that continues to hold sway in Europe and the rest of the Western world. In recent years, a small but growing number of book historians and legal historians have begun to question the traditional understanding of the period and instead showed that contemporaries appreciated the sharing and copying of intellectual work much more than historians have hitherto been able to recognize. Building on and contributing to the bourgeoning revision currently underway, this dissertation explores the making, circulation and reception of reprints from the southern parts of the German language area, a genre of printed matter that has only recently begun to get the attention it deserves.

Reprints from the south invite historians to reflect on the history of authorship and print piracy from the vantage point of the geo-political situation that defined the era. The original editions that these books reproduced began their communication circuits in north German cities such as Leipzig and Weimar. They were then reproduced in Vienna and other cities in the Catholic south, a part of the German language area where a number of states including the Habsburg Monarchy provided financial, political and judicial backing to their reprint industries. When the original editions passed through the hands of these reprinters, they were often not only reproduced but also altered in the process. Some of these changes introduced trivial alterations to the original edition and did not significantly alter the latter, but many did. These unsolicited changes form the empirical focal point of this study. Employing paratextual devices such as title pages and prefaces, those who subjected the originals to this treatment introduced themselves to the public as “learned men” who marketed their interventions as “improvements”, “expansions” or “corrections” of the original edition. The genres covered in this study reveal that the reprinters intervened in a wide range of fields. Over the course of this book, I will study the adjustment of numbers in arithmetical tables, the rewriting of poetry belonging to high-profile authors such as Goethe, the correction of maps over Continental Europe, and the updating of encyclopedias with information about recent advances in the sciences.

The reception history of this line of work has much to offer cultural historians who wish to craft and explore new narratives about one of the most formative moments in the modern history of authorship, intellectual property and print piracy. Though historians have so far paid an inordinately small amount of attention to them, this particular brand of reprinting stood at the forefront of contemporary legal debates about the nature of authorship in the sciences and in the arts. Were these books corrupt versions of the original and therefore an especially heinous form of reproduction, contemporaries asked? Or did these changes transform the reprint into an entirely new book, the author of which was now the learned man hired to edit the north German original? If so, should these books be protected against reprinting as well? The reception history of these books turns up surprising answers to these questions. If, as historians have previously argued, the German print culture grew more hostile towards the reprinters, these books should have been criminalized and then thrown on the historical scrap heap. Yet many of them weren’t and neither of the histories unfolded over the course of this book conforms to the traditional narrative about German reprinting and authorship around the turn of the century 1800. Thanks to the peculiar and widely misunderstood meaning that many contemporaries attributed to the term authorship, then mostly defined as the processing rather than the creation of content, the books foregrounded in this study met with a fate that the traditional narrative would be hard pressed to account for. While they began their life on the German book market as reproductions, they eventually established a communications circuit of their own. Though these books did not earn recognition as independent works of the intellect by being great publishing successes then, at least three of the books that I will focus on, an atlas, a set of logarithmic tables and a book on linguistics, enjoyed extraordinary careers and managed to establish themselves as canonical works in their respective fields.

Paying close attention to the process that redefined these books as new ones, this dissertation differs from other studies of the same source material. While historians have so far done important work and revealed much about the making of these reprints, this dissertation primarily hopes to throw light on another process, the one that led to the disappearance of reprints from the German book market. During the first decades of the nineteenth century, historians have argued, the German Age of Reprinting came to an end. The traditional but now criticized way to account for this change explains the process as the result of a geo-political sea change in the relation between the north and the south. The southern and southwestern states that sponsored the reprinters, historians have argued, initially did so because they lacked literary cultures of their own but, when the authorial output of states like the Habsburg Monarchy eventually took off in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the division between the north and the south eventually evened out. Having established bustling literary cultures of their own, it has been argued, the former reprint states had no need to reproduce the north German ones, and the flood of cheap reprints that had until then allegedly poured out of the area finally dried up. Exploring a process that blurred the line of demarcation between the production and reproduction of intellectual work, this study thus challenge one of the core assumptions underpinning the traditional account of why print piracy came to an end in the German language area.

In doing so, this dissertation hopes to shed new light on much more than a formative period in German history. While the scope of the study will be limited to the German-speaking part of Europe, what happened there was part of a much larger transformation, one that fundamentally changed European information commerce during the nineteenth century. Today, the idea that Europe and the Western world are areas of the world where mass piracy belongs to an earlier historical epoch, one that other areas of the world have yet to overcome, continues to exert a powerful influence on the identity of these places and their role in global commerce. Contributing to a more complex understanding of how piracy disappeared from the German language area, this dissertation ultimately sheds new light on how Europe became modern.


Selection of publications

Recent publications

All publications


Jens Eriksson