1.0: 1460 - 1585 - Introduction

The arrival of the art of printing in the Netherlands is shrouded in darkness. For centuries, ambiguous evidence caused a fierce controversy over the tradition that movable type was a Dutch invention. It is beyond any doubt, however, that starting around 1455 it was from Mainz that printing branched out over Europe, and that the earliest extant small printed books that can be associated with the Netherlands were not produced until some eight or ten years later. They are known collectively as Dutch prototypography, and form a striking contrast to the large folio volumes of Bibles, Church-Fathers, law books and classical texts that were printed in Mainz, and a few years later in Bamberg, Strasbourg, Rome and Venice, primarily destined for monasteries and churches. The earliest Dutch printed books were mainly schoolbooks for the elementary teaching of Latin. The intimate nature of books intended for reading privately by readers of all ages remained a characteristic of Dutch book production of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, with the emphasis on devotional works, schoolbooks and literary works in Dutch and Latin. Many such works were illustrated, first with woodcuts and in the sixteenth century often with copper engravings. In the Netherlands, however, books were also published for a scholarly readership, especially in Louvain with its new university, and in Deventer. Printers who had started their careers elsewhere had a dominant role in this kind of book production. Johannes de Westfalia, his brother Conrad and his partner Dirk Martens must each have visited Venice and Padua before they set up business in Alost (1473) and Louvain (1474 and 1476). A similar influence can be detected in the humanist publishing programme of Nicolaes Ketelaer and Gheraert de Leempt in Utrecht (1473-1474). Richard Pafraet, who worked in Deventer from 1477, was much influenced by the scholastic culture of Cologne, whence he came.

Printers in the Low Countries did not only produce their books for a local clientele, but from early on worked for a market that extended to England, northern France and Germany. In the fifteenth century, books were not only printed in Latin and Dutch, but also in English, French, Low-German and Frisian. Towards the end of the fifteenth century and during the Reformation period, Antwerp became the centre of book production. English Bible translations and other Protestant works were produced - and punished by death - until heretical printers placed themselves beyond imperial authority by moving to Emden and Wesel. Later in the century, the firms of Christopher Plantin and his contemporary Willem Silvius reached an apotheosis in book production, and with that a high development of typography and bookbinding. This phase came to an end in 1583 when Plantin moved to Leiden to take over the business of Willem Silvius who had fled Antwerp in 1579. From then on, Leiden and Amsterdam assumed the important role that Antwerp had played in the world of books.

The trade in printed books and the materials used for their production was international from the start. In the fifteenth century, numerous printers, especially from the Northern Netherlands, worked in Italian cities and made further contacts that extended across the book trade. Paper was usually procured from North-East France. Punches and matrices for printing type were obtained from Venice, Nuremberg, Basel, Cologne and even Naples, until by the end of the fifteenth century Antwerp began to develop a tradition in manufacturing type that conquered the market and contributed to the unmistakable character of the books printed by Christopher Plantin. Illustrative material, however, was never imported from elsewhere. A strong tradition in the visual arts found new forms of expression in woodcuts and copper engraving. Bookbinding was usually the work of the retailer (stationer) who sold the book, for when books were transported in quantity they were usually unbound, loose-leafed ('in albis'), packed in barrels or baskets.

What Dutch readers owned, read or consulted was not limited to what was produced in the Low Countries. The core collections of ancient libraries such as the university libraries in Groningen and Utrecht, the Athenaeum Library in Deventer, the City Library of Haarlem and the Librije at Zutphen still bear witness to the far-reaching contacts in the book trade of the early period.

A book is a movable text, an artefact made for transmitting a text, whatever its form; manuscript or print, clay tablet, roll or codex. A text is printed to be transmitted to contemporaries, known as well as unknown, since it is imperative to sell a certain number of copies of a print run for the enterprise to be viable. Printing a book entails a considerable investment, in materials and in labour. Perhaps the most significant change that the new technique entailed was that the publisher no longer produced a text for readers known to him - as had normally been the case with manuscripts - but that the result of his work, the book, had to be accessible to a much wider public, beyond his own horizon. The lower price of printed books contributed to enlarging the readership. The loss of any direct relationship between maker and reader had an immediate effect on typography and the use of language. Printed books lost out on the individuality and the nuances of manuscripts, but the regularity and uniformity of print led to greater ease in use and to a new aesthetic.

author: L. Hellinga