1.2.7: 1460 - 1585 - Working conditions

In the early years of printing, a printing house might witness hearty scenes. The introduction of new technology required well-attuned co-operation between the various teams sharing responsibility for production, more intensive than had been necessary in a scriptorium. When producing manuscripts, scribes and illuminators had of course to adapt to one another's work, but that was not nearly as crucial in matters of timing as the need for an equilibrium between the activities of a printing house. At a variety of levels, the new techniques for book production required new forms of organisation within printing houses, as well as new forms of business relations between publishers, connections with financiers and with the book trade. Within a printing house the compositors had to provide a constant flow of work for the press crews after it had passed the scrutiny of the correctors, and the press-crews had to complete their stints in time for the formes to be washed, and the type to be distributed over the type-cases, ready to be used again by the compositors.

The efficiency of such a cycle was a condition for a productive and profitable business, but was certainly not always achieved. As ever, there is very little direct information for the early period. From a few sources outside the Netherlands we understand that it was indeed very difficult to maintain regularity in the workshop. To ensure that employees remained on the job they might, for example, be allowed a stake in the financial aspects of the enterprise. We may infer that the situation was similar in the Netherlands. A few incidents, recorded by chance, provide isolated vignettes of the atmosphere. In 1530, a letter of recommendation for a young man who had worked in Dirk Martens's printing house in Louvain observes that he is therefore accustomed to long hours and harsh scolding. And worse had happened before: in 1492 Gheraert Leeu was killed when defending his business interests in an obviously violent dispute with his punchcutter.

Of one large company, with many compositors and presses and the expectation of high standards in the quality of the work, some documents survive that show the attempts made to enforce the regular flow of work. They are the 'Ordinances' of Christopher Plantin's printing house, transmitted in twelve successive versions that can be dated between 1555/1556 and 1581. They were drawn up with the purpose of ensuring that the typesetting completed by the compositors was proof-read and corrected before the formes were sent to the presses, and at the same time to ensure that press-crews would not be idly waiting until this part of the process was completed. Fines were set for negligence. Over the years, changes were made in the ordinances, indicating what was realistic and what was acceptable for those working in the printing house. Parallel to the tightening of the regulations regarding the work-flow, the work-force also established an organisation in response to the requirements of their work, known as the printing house chapel.

author: L. Hellinga

Working conditions