A Serious Game of Hide and Seek


[Amsterdam about 1600]

The year is 1609 and the place is Amsterdam, a city that has arrived on the threshold of what we now call the Golden Age. The VOC – the Dutch East Indies Company – has been functioning for seven years, but its greatness is still something for the future and the riches of the East are – as yet – nothing but a tempting promise. By now, the eighty years struggle of the Dutch with their Spanish overlords is halfway its lifespan. The Dutch have been fighting the Spaniards for 41 years, but a truce has finally been declared. A truce that was designed to bring twelve years of peace to the tired and war-weary contestants.
In fact the Spanish government turned against a part of their own population that had long been suspected of heresy. The expulsion of the moriscos, christians of muslim extraction, was an action that would in time have grave economical consequences, as the most productive and successful members of the population were banished to Afrika. A few years later the Spanish Empire also became embroiled in the bloodiest conflict of the seventeenth century, the German 30 years war that started in 1618.
Only a few relatively quiet and peaceful years had passed, when the Dutch went after each other’s throat in a social conflict that has been called a ‘cold civil war’. The religious background of this conflict is too abstruse to expound on here. Although religious differences were at the core of the conflict that almost destroyed the state, it was actually fueled by fundamental disagreements about the future of the young republic. How was the government to be organized? Should it be centralized from The Hague, where the Stadtholder held court? Or, alternatively, should it be decentralized in a typical Dutch way with local oligarchs taking charge, like they had done for centuries?


[Counterremonstrants attacking their opponents in 1617]
The champions of decentralized government were the States of Holland, dominated by Amsterdam. Until 1618 the States with its pensionary Johan van Oldenbarneveldt were in charge, together with the more liberal minded oligarchs who preached religious tolerance. Stadtholder Maurice was the servant of the Republic, but also a hereditary Prince of Orange in his own right. In 1618 Maurice sided with the intolerant diehard Calvinists, changed the government and had Van Oldenbarneveldt beheaded. This amalgam of feuds is of great interest to the bookhistorian, since printing played a major role in spreading conflicting ideas and arguments.
Pamphlets informed an increasingly engaged public on current affairs and swayed the public opinion of the high and the low in an unprecedented way. Hundreds of these pamphlets appeared each year. Many of those were written by articulate authors who knew how to entertain and to persuade their readers at the same time. Booksellers published most of them without the name of either the writer or the printer, although the government forbade this in a virtually endless series of placards that promised to punish the culprits and pay handsome rewards to those who turned them in.

One of the peculiarities of the Dutch governmental system was its particularism. A city like Amsterdam was a city-state. The seat of the government, The Hague, was divided into two jurisdictions that were each jealous of their prerogatives. The city of Delft is located just an hour’s walk from The Hague. From there William of Orange and the States had ruled the free provinces in the late sixteenth century. A printer living and working in Delft was outside the jurisdiction of the burgomasters of The Hague, but he could send his apprentices with recently printed pamphlets right into the heart of the government buildings without impediment, and no questions asked. Cities were jealous of their privileges and the rights of their citizens.

The decentralized system of government in the Netherlands made the placards futile. More often than not they were published by the central government in The Hague to please an ambassador or a foreign prince or government. Placards can certainly not be considered as acts of a government that was ready to apply a vigorous censorship. The States General knew that their words carried little weight in a city like Amsterdam. Placards had in fact the effect of an advertisement: ‘get this pamphlet.’

 In the seventeenth century Amsterdam presses churned out hundreds of books and pamphlets each year. Although every town, whatever their size, counted some booksellers, most of them lived in Amsterdam. Their output dwarfed the combined work of all others in the Netherlands and later in the century they would indeed publish about a quarter of all books published in Europe. They formed a well-defined community where each had its role: Christian books of different denominations were published by two big booksellers. To one of them, Marten Jansz Brandt, I will return later. There were publishers of maps and travelogues, specialists who catered for the lovers of poems and plays, and there were a few publishers who produced the very first newspapers, setting an example soon to be followed in Britain and elsewhere.

[one of the most popular pamphlets of the truce. Printed in Delft in 1612 this allegory was printed time after time] 

There were outsiders as well, who were shunned by the traditional community of printers and publishers: Willem Jansz Blaeu, now of international fame, was one of them. This nephew of an Amsterdam burgomaster was parachuted into the world of the book by his uncle to become the foremost printer of his time. Blaeu was a loner, without any of the traditional contacts with his colleagues. Most publishers that were comparable to him had extended networks reaching all over the Netherlands and beyond. Blaeu had no such thing.
Blaeu was also a printer of catholic books. He published these under the false name of Van Egmond, a printer that was supposed to live in Cologne. The whole city knew about this and it is easy to see why: Blaeu used the same initials and ornaments in those imprints that could be found in the books that he published under his own name. The same goes for the works of Hugo Grotius that were supposed to be printed in Paris.


[One of the more than 100 woodcut initials Blaeu used in his catholic books]
Next door to Blaeu the printer Joannes Janssonius or John Johnson ran his shop. He too published Catholic books using the imprint of Van Egmond. He is now famous – or notorious – for the editions he pirated from Blaeu, including a book on sea-faring that Blaeu wrote himself. Janssonius also published anonymous pamphlets. He was one of the great publishers of pamphlets who broke the law year after year. His output is easy to recognize, again by the initials and ornaments he used. In the conflict that broke out during the truce he played a dubious role, publishing the propaganda of both sides, although in public he posed as a Calvinist.
I have made some passing remarks on the initials and ornaments that can be used to trace the printers of almost any book. It is time now to take a closer look at them. Almost every printer from 1480 up to 1750 used ornamented letters that can be used to identify their output. From the beginning these were cut in wood, but early in the sixteenth century they were also cast in lead. Most, if not all of these are interesting in themselves as they reflect the art of the time in which they were created. But they can also be used to find printers.


[ a beautiful initial of Van Ravesteyn, also used in his ‘anonymous’ work. It shows that wood engraving was invented long before Bewick]
A few fellow bibliographers have – with some justification – argued that identification with the help of ornamentation should be carried out with caution. Printers used to lend each others materials. Although I have never observed this in seventeenth Dutch printing I have noticed that sixteenth century Venetian printers and printers from Cologne in Germany were in the habit to do so, making the identification of their output an interesting puzzle for some and a nightmare for many of my colleagues.

And then there are the cast initials. These are small slabs of lead, cast in sand or in some kind of matrix and nailed to a piece of boxwood. They were common in the seventeenth century and in fact any printer in the Netherlands could buy the same initials and ornaments. Lucky enough for the bibliographer they are nailed to the wood in different places and the rough handling of the presses made the nails come up through the lead in different ways.


[a nail sticking through a cast initial. This is one of Willem Jansz Blaeu]

The identification of printers with the help of their material was tried as early as the sixteenth century. The well-known specialist Paul Valkema Blouw noticed that printers who published controversial texts – and this were the days when the inquisition burned its victims on the stake – took great care to hide their traces. They did not use any ornamentation and when Margaretha of Parma had printer’s shops in Brussels and Antwerp searched no proof could be found. From the early sixteenth century on printers tended more and more to use the same typefaces so these could not be used to trace the culprits.
Back to Amsterdam and the crisis brought on by the temporary peace. As I mentioned before, the controversies spawned thousands of pamphlets without the printer (or the author) bothering to put their name on them. I have studied these in detail and I have established some patterns in the publishing which I will now put before you.
I mentioned Blaeu and his Catholic books. When in 1672 one of Blaeu’s printing houses burned down – causing damages of the staggering amount of at least 70.000.000 euro in today’s currency – people were saying that this was God’s punishment. Everybody in Amsterdam knew that he published catholic works and indeed these books are easy to recognize for nowadays researchers. 
When I researched anonymous pamphlets published in the years 1600-1625 I was able to trace about 80% of them to a printer without much difficulties. All of them were of course ornamented. Some of them with cast initials that were a little bit more difficult to trace to their owners, but often with wooden initials and ornaments that are unique. Soon it became clear that there was a publisher hiding behind some of these printers who printed virulent attacks on remonstrant preachers but also on the head of the government Johannes van Oldenbarneveldt himself.


[a virulent attack on the head of the state, Johan van Oldenbarneveldt]
I already made a passing remark on Marten Jansz Brandt. He was a staunch Calvinist with a populist streak who published any attack on his adversaries, how far fetched or even outright crazy they might be. His opponents seem to have been well aware of his activities were and answered him in kind, often poking fun at his fanatisicm. As a publisher he employed Amsterdam printers of different creeds. All of these also published anonymous pamphlets that were more in line with the opinions of Brandt than with their own inclinations. Some printed pamphlets for his opponents too and if you take a look at their normal output it seems that this was more in line with their point of view. The overall picture seems to show us a publisher who orchestrates attacks on his adversaries using the printers who printed the books that bore his impressum.

 I identified 80% of all anonymous printed pamphlets and that leaves us with 20%. Let me confess immediately that I have not tried to identify those leftovers. Most printers in the Netherlands used the same typefaces and these are thus almost unusable for identification. Almost: the time-honored practice of looking for broken type would probably tell us who the printers were of some of them. The study of lay-out and printing house practices will turn up a few more. But this kind of research fell beyond my scope. I will say something about them though and then pass on to the point I wish to make today.
The 20% or about 400 pamphlets that have not been traced have something in common – apart from the obvious absence of initials and ornaments. They were, for instance, rarely if ever reprinted. It is also clear to me that most of them did not come from the great Amsterdam presses, but were printed in the provinces. This is a notion that yet has to be formalized in research – through study for instance of the lay-out. And then there is the most interesting group: pamphlets by writers who were critical about the the East Indian Company or about the kings of Britain and France and their kin.
In fact, it seems that the authorities cared little about the slandering of parsons, university professors, or even themselves. They cared a lot however about the sensitivities of foreign allies – and their own purses. And so it has the appearance that early seventeenth publishers, their public and the authorities were in fact playing a game of hide and seek. Authors and publishers were hiding, but – at the same time – they were easy to find. The many satirical poems that were published as broadsheets bear this out. The activities of publishers like Janssonius who published everything controversial as long as it sold, point in the same direction.


[Oldenbarneveldt on the scaffold]

It was a game indeed – until 1619. When Van Oldenbarneveldt was beheaded, it became clear that the stakes were higher than many had thought. From then until the death of Stadtholder Maurice in 1626 the number of pamphlets dropped significantly. The percentage of publications that cannot be traced rose sharply. The tone changed too – for a while. An author who did not see the change in time was in danger of losing his head. Pastor Henrikus Slatius was the only Dutch writer who lost his life on the scaffold, in 1622. He was condemned for plotting against Maurice, but the accusations were a fabrication and his confession the result of torture.


[pastor Henricus Slatius tried to escape from the Netherlands dressed as a farmer but his soft, white hands betrayed him. Anonymous broadsheet, printed by Govert Basson in Leiden]
After the death of Maurice the Dutch Republic slowly returned to the more tolerant course that has been its trademark almost ever since. But perhaps indifference is a better word for what defined the Dutch stance. The Dutch were merchants. They were hardly interested in the habits or thought of other peoples, let alone that they would ever put any effort in trying to change these. This pragmatic view of the world shows in the way they handled censorship. When a writer threatened the peace or the economic status quo the authorities stepped in. Otherwise writers, publishers and booksellers were more or less free to do as they liked. And that is exactly what they did. Sometimes booksellers were partners of the inteprid authors they published. They were facilitators, activist dreamers who went into publishing to promote their own ideas or those of others, and some were prepared to sell their souls if necessary in order to make a profit.

Pamphlets have been compared to modern newspapers for the impact they had on public opinion, but that is a false comparison. To print a newspaper one needs machines that cost millions. A writer will have to convince an editorial board of his ideas, and if he is lucky he will find them edited if not emasculated on the backside of an advertisement somewhere at the back. In early modern Amsterdam all you needed was twenty guilders in cash to have 300 pamphlets of some 5,000 words printed. This was the normal size of an edition for this type of publication. For a printer it was an afternoon’s work. Knowledge of a certain pamphlet could spread like a wildfire. Some pamphlets were printed time after time and copied by a dozen other printers. For that reason, the comparison with a blog, or even facebook, is a better one.