How did authors find readers for their books when only 10 copies were in existence?

The right connections and soaring popularity were assets In the literary world of the Middle Ages, says Professor Samu Niskanen.

What are your research topics?

I investigate the publishing strategies of authors in the period from 400 to 1500, roughly speaking. I look into how mediaeval writers attempted to find readers and ensure the preservation of their works over time. At the core of this question are the manifestations of the human need of attention in a literary world whose social laws and mechanisms of book distribution are unfamiliar to us.

Where and how does the topic of your research have an impact?

In the Middle Ages, books were not printed, but copied by hand. Because of this slow form of production, only dozens of copies were in circulation, even for the most popular contemporary works almost without exception. In addition, books were lost and destroyed.

In fact, it was crucial to ensure that new works would quickly find readers. That would make it possible for new copies to be made, and the work to be preserved for future generations. You had to be credible, be well connected in the right circles and acquire effective distribution channels. My research helps to understand, in the long term, what it is like to be a writer.

What is particularly inspiring in your field right now?

Combining book history with broader intellectual and societal contexts is a growing trend to which my research is linked. Asking why and how certain works spread and others did not provides fresh tools for examining various intellectual and societal phenomena.


Samu Niskanen is Professor of Mediaeval History at the Faculty of Arts.

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