Thames Street

01Thames Street (City of London) 01 A shibboleth is a linguistic identity marker. It is a phrase (or custom) that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. Its functions as a password and excludes those that do not ‘belong’. A person whose way of speaking violates a shibboleth is identified as an outsider. In ancient Hebrew dialects the word meant ear (of grain or corn).
The book of Judges (chapter xii: 1-15) describes the battle between two Semitic tribes in which the Ephraimites are defeated by the Gileadites. The victorious soldiers set up a blockade across the Jordan River to prevent fleeing enemies to get back to their territory. The sentries asked each person who wanted to cross the river to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimites, who had no sh sound in their language, pronounced the word with an s. They were thereby unmasked and killed. It is a way of ethnic cleansing that has become all too familiar. Time and again, during armed ethnic conflicts language is a tool for persecution and brutality. In the late 1970s during riots in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese forces at makeshift roadblocks stopped cars and forced passengers to say a phrase or two. Physically, they could not distinguish between Sinhalese and Tamils. But they could tell by word choice, accent, and intonation. Anyone who spoke in an identifiably Tamil manner was hauled out of the car and beaten up. Such examples are as numerous as they are disturbing.


The word ‘mob’ is derived from the Latin phrase mobile vulgus (the fickle crowd). It had its origin at the period of the Exclusion Crisis when the nation became divided into party and faction, Whig versus Tory. Elections for parliament, and other public meetings, resulted inevitably in riots, fights and other disturbances. Initially the word ‘the mobile’ circulated. It was soon shortened to ‘mob’. The term gradually entered the language that Londoners used to describe disorder over the next few decades. Many objected to the influx of new ‘slang’ abbreviations but most of such words took root relatively quickly. The protests of those who like Swift objected to the neologism and insisted on the older word ‘rabble’ were ignored. Justices of the peace did not use the term to refer to riots in their Court of Quarter Sessions records until the first decade of the eighteenth century.


The connotation of ‘party political’ unrest may be a relatively recent one, but rioting had long been a facet of urban life. Londoners were used to disorder in the metropolis. The first manifestation of mob violence in the capital was caused by the imposition of the poll tax in 1381. The revolt took place in the dark aftermath of the Black Death epidemic of the late 1340s which had devastating socio-economic consequences both in rural and urban parts of the country. Rioters rebelled against the landowning classes and the incompetent government of Richard II. They murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Treasurer of England, numerous lawyers and royal servants, and laid siege to the Tower of London. This, the Peasant’s Revolt, began in the Essex village of Fobbing in May 1381 with the arrival of a Royal tax commissioner, John Bampton, enquiring into evasion of the new tax. Unrest spread quickly through the county and then into Kent. On 7 June Wat Tyler joined the uprising in Maidstone and assumed leadership of the Kentish rebels. He marched his men into London. They left a trail of destruction behind them, including the burning of Savoy Palace, home of the hated, the fourth son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault who took his name from his godfather, John, Duke of Brabant, one of Edward’s allies in the Low Countries. Gaunt is a corrupted form of Ghent. Bringing the riot under control proved difficult and the rebellion soon appeared to be out of control. A horde of drunken men went in search of immigrants and a massacre took place in the neighbourhood of St Martin’s Vintry.


The revolt turned out to be a lynch party long before the word ‘lynching’ was entered into the dictionary. The spirit of rebellion lasted all summer. The violence in London was related by the anonymous author of the Anonimalle Chronicle 1333 to 1381 who has left the following record: ‘whoever could catch any Fleming or other aliens of any nation, might cut off their heads; and so they did accordingly … they went to the church of St Martin’s in the Vintry, and found therein thirty-five Flemings, whom they dragged outside and beheaded in the streets .On that day there were beheaded 140 or 160 persons. Then they took their way to the places of Lombards and other aliens, and broke into their houses, and robbed them of all their goods that they could discover’. Jack Straw was a leading figure in the London riots who was later executed for his involvement. In The Nun’s Priest’s Tale Geoffrey Chaucer (whose father lived locally) refers to the massacre of Flemings by Straw and his gang:

Jack Straw and all his followers in their brawl

Were never half so shrill, for all their noise,

When they were murdering those Flemish boys.


One of the victims was an illegitimate wine merchant, financier and royal advisor Richard Lyons who was of Flemish descent. He was beheaded in Cheapside on 14 June 1381. His head was carry round the city on a pole. At his death he held lands in Essex, Kent, Suffolk, Surrey, Sussex, Middlesex, and Hertfordshire, as well as London property which included a large house in Thames Street, a narrow riverside street in Vintry, which contained grand residences of courtiers and merchants. The street represented money, authority and foreign influence. Dozens of Flemings were dragged from their dwellings and the sanctuary of city churches, beheaded, and their bodies left to rot. Nobody was spared during that violent outburst, except those who could plainly pronounce the shibboleth ‘bread and cheese’. If their speech sounded anything like ‘brot and cawse’, off went their heads, as a sure mark they were Flemish. Language has been a controversial aspect of the immigration debate from the outset.


Another eye witness was an immigrant. Historian and poet Jean Froissart was born at Valenciennes, Hainault, towards the end of 1337. This county was then part of the Low Countries in the western tip of the Holy Roman Empire (now in France). Around 1360 he was employed by Philippa of Hainault, Queen Consort of Edward III, as court poet and historian. In his Chronicles he depicts the London rebellion describing Wat Tyler as a ‘tiler of houses, an ungracious patron’. A lavishly illustrated edition of the Chronicles was commissioned by Louis of Gruuthuuse, a nobleman within the Burgundian court and bibliophile from Bruges, who was awarded the title of Earl of Winchester by Edward IV in 1472. The four volumes contain 112 miniatures of various sizes painted by some of the best Brugeois artists of the day, including splendid images of Richard II meeting the rebels, and the murder of Wat Tyler, in the style of Flemish illuminator Loiset Liédet. The London cityscape figures splendidly in the background of both scenes. After the death of Queen Philippa at Windsor Castle in August 1369 Froissart returned to the Continent. It is a bitter irony that one of the bloodiest moments in London’s history helped to bring about what is arguably the most superbly illustrated book about the capital.

Harley 4379 f.3

The Invention of the Printing Press


There is a national myth in the Netherlands that was taught in school well into the sixties of the 20th century: a man who lived in Haarlem, Laurens Jansz Coster, was walking his small children in the nearby dunes and to amuse and teach them he cut a letter from a piece of wood. He dropped the stick with the letter by accident, it fell on sand instead of grass and then in a single instant he saw for his eyes the complete process of printing: the cutting and casting of letters, how to create pages with them and the printing itself. But the invention was stolen on Christmas-eve by a certain Fust or Faust who took it to Germany where he gave the secret to Gutenberg. Faust came to a bad end soon after, when he sold his soul to the devil, but the stolen invention was claimed by the Germans as theirs ever after.


First told by the Dutch scholar Petrus Scriverius in his book on Haarlem (published in 1628), this story played an important part in the genesis of the history of the book as a serious activity for scholars. Of course printing was invented by Gutenberg, who may or may not have had the same ‘eureuka’ experience as his fictitious Dutch counterpart, but who was to spend long years of trail and error before his printing press became the machine that would change the world. The controversies – the Dutch of course did not give in right away and were helped by some French and English scholars – brought about a vast corpus of books on early printing. The serious study of incunabula (or ‘new-borns’ as they were known in later years) started in the late 18th century while the Dutch claim was only definitly rejected by historians and philologists in the 20th century. It still lingers on, in school and probably in the city of Haarlem too.


What did Gutenberg invent? The printing process encompasses activities that are quite diverse. One can imagine the thought-process, starting with a ‘what if …’
What if you could press letters, sentences, even pages on a sheet of paper, instead of having to write it all down, letter by letter, word by word? You would have to print on the recto and the verso or frontside and backside of a sheet of paper but that was of course easy. And yes: it would even be easier to print more than one page on the side of a sheet to be able to fold and bind it afterwards. As the position of the pages on the sheet was not sequential this called for some math. To put each page on the right place was called imposition and it was known to the scribes of an earlier age who wrote books by hand.


What if you cut each letter on a separate block so that you could use the letters again and again? The Chinese method of printing was to cut whole pages at a time on a block of wood and so did the makers of the so-called blockbooks that were published about or after the time Gutenberg started printing. But the cutting of whole pages in a tiny roman or gothic script was difficult – if not impossible at all – and uneconomical as the resulting block was to fragile to be put under a printing press. You could rub it of with your hands by placing a piece of paper on the inked wood thousands of times like the Chinese did but then you could only use one side of the paper. and the process was slower. You could also use such complete pages for one text.

The answer to this would be to use separate little blocks but you would soon find out that wood was to soft and sensitive to water and ink to put pages together from separate wooden letters. And was the cutting of hundreds of copies of each separate letter feasible at all? Using some kind of metal for letters was of course the answer – and so was casting them in series, instead of cutting them all separately. To cast letters you needed a matrix. How to create it? You could use sand or clay like the casters of silver and bronze did – this is how dentists still make crowns and how goldsmiths like Benvenuto Cellini worked in the days of Gutenberg. But you could also try and find a more permanent matrix. To be able to make that you had to create a punch that was struck in a small rectancle of copper and made to fit a mold later on. Dies and coins were made like that well before the classical era.


What Gutenberg did, was to combine different techniques that had existed for some time – and sometimes even for ages – giving them a twist of his own. The ink was probably something that he created out of nothing, but even that may have been related to the oil-based paints that had recently been invented by the Flemish painter Van Eyck.


The invention spread like a wildfire over Europe. His successors Fust and Schoeffer were not as secretive as Gutenberg – who may have been after the money, by selling “manuscripts” that were made at a fraction of the cost of a written book but were sold for the full price. But in some old sources printing was called ‘artificial writing’ and maybe we should think of it as that and accept that there was no clear divide between before and after Gutenberg. You bought a book – the artificial kind became cheaper in time and a few snobs declared that they would not have them in their palaces since they did not like paper.


Some of the inventions ascribed to Gutenberg have been questioned. According to bookhistorian Paul Needham and scientist Blaise Aguerra y Arcas the variations in the letters show that Gutenberg at least in some of his books did not use matrixes as we know them from the 16th century. At least part of his material seems to have been casted in sand or perhaps some other not permanent material like plaster. As the detailed pictures of type in this book show there was a lot of variation in 15th century letters – even on pages that were printed by Jenson himself – who is credited by Lotte Hellinga as the inventor of the permanent matrix.


Perhaps Gutenberg did invent the matrix as it was used until the 19th century but did he not invent or use it when he started to print his first books. It seems that not every printer used permanent matrixes, but that some had their letters casted in not permanent ones as were used by goldsmiths of their days. A non permanent matrix makes casting of type a labor-intensive job: you have to recreate the matrix for every single cast. Casting letters in sand takes probably at least forty times as much time to get a usable amount of type as using a permanent matrix. Why would printers use such a less advanced technique? The answer may be that they simply did not have all the information on how it was done. The first printers may have had to reinvent parts of the printing-process.


It took at least twenty years before printers did their work more or less in the same way. We are then well into the eighties of the fiftheenth century. Some pictures in this book show a diversity that give some support to this idea. On the other hand the letters we see on the page are at least six steps away from the original design on top of the punch. With a punch one could make a lot of matrixes that would have to be adjusted and that was a process that may have created variations. Then there is the casting: handwork that needs a lot of dexterity and easely results in quite diverse letters – siblings that were looking different but were all coming from the same matrix. Simply by re-using casted type even more variation was created, and inking and the uneven quality of the paper also did their part.


In the beginning there may not have existed a dichotomy between the written book and it’s printed cousin. Buyers were supposed to have their printed books rubricated, historiated and bound, just like they did before when they ordered their books to be written at one of the ateliers that could be found in any city. Most of the earliest printed books that survived, have spend time with the rubricator and the painter. But perhaps these copies own their survival just to that. There are of course lots of books that were meant to be touched up but that never saw a paintbrush. This completing of books by hand was done until the middle of the 16th century but the emancipation of the printed book from the artisans started somewhere in the seventies of the 15th century. Erhard Ratdolt is a printer who deserves to be named as one of the great innovators. He was one of the first who had his initials and ornaments cut in wood so they could be printed instead of having to be painted in in each single copy of an edition (in those days 300-500 was probably a normal print run).

The mechanization of all activities that were part of the process of creating books changed the way books looked in many ways. The one reason for this was the disappearance of color from the book. The rubricator touched up all letters and words with red or blue ink that deserved special attention from the reader or helped him on his way through the text. But printing in color was difficult and time-consuming and thus expensive. The printers had to find other ways to express the different kinds of information that could be found on the pages of their books. They did this by using white as a mean of dividing paragraphs, by using smallcaps, the italic and all the other ways that we now use to structure our texts even if we are writing them by hand. Eventually color returned to the book. But not as a way to bring articulation to the text. It was used for illustrations and for artistic expression.


Thames Street (London)


Thames Street is a narrow river-side street in Vintry which, during the reign of Henry VIII, contained the grand residences of many courtiers and merchants. Wool exporter and Lord Mayor of London John Lovekyn had a grand mansion in Thames Street overlooking the river. Sir William Walworth also lived here. The street represented money, authority and power. Historically, the area gained fame for the two greatest benefits to mankind, wine and printing – and for the unfortunate legacy of mob violence. These riots have gone down into history. They are represented in a remarkable set of early London cityscapes.



Vintry is one of the twenty-five wards of the City of London and owes its name to its former status as a site for the wine merchants of Bordeaux who stored and sold their products there. The ‘Worshipful Company of Vintners’ is one of the Livery Companies which probably existed as early as the twelfth century. It received a Royal Charter in 1364. Chronologically, these merchants were preceded by cooks as has been recorded in Fritz-Stephen’s (who was clerk to Thomas à Beckett) lively Description of London of 1170. In this, the first general description of the metropolis, the author lists in great detail the cook shops on the banks of the River Thames which he thought the acme off civilization, ‘at any time of day or night, any number could be fed to suit all palates and all purses’.

There is a theory that the word ‘Cockney’ is derived from the Latin ‘coquina’ (cookery) at the time that London was widely praised for its cook shops. Later in the thirteenth century the river banks were taken over by vintners and their wine vaults. The cooks packed their pots and pans and moved elsewhere, to Eastcheap and Bread Street. Connected to all this is the name of Geoffrey Chaucer. He was born in the parish of St Martin Vintry into a prosperous Suffolk merchant family which had been engaged in the export of wool to the Low Countries and the import of wine. His great-grandfather Andrew of Dynyngton was also known as Andrew the Taverner, and most likely kept a tavern there. The move to London was made by Geoffrey’s grandfather Robert Dynyngton, known as Robert Malyn le Chaucer (that name, meaning ‘maker of shoes’, may well have been adopted by Robert on the death of his employer, the mercer John le Chaucer). Robert’s son John Chaucer became a prominent London wine merchant and an influential freeman of the city. Young Geoffrey Chaucer was much aware of the link between tavern and creativity. 04 Before the fourteenth century, popular uprisings tended to operate on a local scale. This changed when downward pressures on the poor resulted in mass manifestations of resistance across Europe. In the 1320s, beginning as a series of scattered rural riots, the peasant insurrection in Flanders escalated into a full-scale rebellion that dominated public affairs for nearly five years. Between May and August 1381 England experienced a popular uproar of dramatic severity. Rioters rebelled against the landowning classes and the incompetent government of Richard II. They murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Treasurer of England, numerous lawyers and royal servants, and laid siege to the Tower of London.

The spirit of rebellion lasted all summer and was recorded with horror by contemporaries, including Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower and the chroniclers Thomas Walsingham and Jean Froissart. That the rebels marched from country to capital was a new phenomenon. This was the first manifestation of urban mob violence in England. A specific target of the crowd was London’s immigrant population. The Peasant’s Revolt had begun in the Essex village of Fobbing in May of that year. It started with the arrival of a Royal commissioner, John Bampton, enquiring into tax evasion. Unrest spread quickly through the county and into Kent. In early June Wat Tyler joined the uprising in Maidstone and assumed leadership of the Kentish rebels. He marched his men into London who left a trail of destruction behind them. They burned down the Palace of Savoy, home of the hated John of Gaunt. The latter was the fourth son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault and took his name from his godfather, John, Duke of Brabant, one of Edward’s allies in the Low Countries: Gaunt is a corrupted form of Ghent. The rebellion soon appeared to be out of control. A horde of drunken men went in search of immigrants.

The massacre of Flemish citizens took place in the neighbourhood of St Martin’s Vintry. The area was a known haunt of Continental merchants and was located one block down Thames Street from the house of John Chaucer, father of the author. Dozens of Flemings were dragged from the sanctuary of the city churches, beheaded, and their bodies left to rot. Nobody was spared during that violent outburst, except those who could plainly pronounce ‘bread and cheese’, for if their speech sounded anything like ‘brot’ or ‘cawse’, off went their heads, as a sure mark they were Flemish. One of the victims was merchant and financier Richard Lyons. Most likely of Flemish descent, he was killed in Cheapside on 14 June 1381. At his death he held lands in Essex, Kent, Suffolk, Surrey, Sussex, Middlesex, and Hertfordshire, as well as London property which included a large house in Thames Street. Lyons had been engaged in the exercise of the sweet wine monopoly. One of the leaders of the London riots, afterwards executed for his involvement, was Jack Straw. Geoffrey Chaucer refers to the massacre of Flemings by Straw and his gang in ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’.


Jean Froissart’s Chronicle is a crucial source for students of the first half of the Hundred Years’ War. The author originated from Valenciennes and had started his working life as a merchant. Having become a clerk, his skills were soon recognized and he was employed by Philippa of Hainault, Queen Consort of Edward III of England, as court poet and historian. The Chronicle depicts the rebellion – Froissart describes Wat Tyler as a ‘tiler of houses, an ungracious patron’ – and illustrates the latter’s demise. Having been summoned to speak with King Richard II at Smithfield on 15 June 1381, Tyler outlined the rebels’ demands, which included the abolition of serfdom. A fracas then ensued, allegedly because Tyler kept his head covered in the King’s presence, leading the Mayor of London, William Walworth, to try to arrest him. In the struggle between the two men, Tyler was wounded. The other rebels quickly dispersed, having been granted a royal pardon. Tyler was dragged from the nearby hospital of St Bartholomew, and summarily executed at Smithfield.

A lavishly illustrated edition of the Chronicles in four volumes was commissioned by Louis of Gruuthuuse, a nobleman and bibliophile from Bruges. The four volumes are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale and contain 112 miniatures of various sizes painted by some of the best Brugeois artists of the day including splendid images of the meeting between Richard II and the rebels and the murder of Wat Tyler in the style of Flemish illuminator Loiset Liédet. The London cityscape figures splendidly in the background of both scenes. It may be coincidence or it may be a distant reminder of disturbances in the area, but towards the end of the fifteenth century Thames Street became a centre of legal printing and documentation. The very first book printed in London was Antonius Andreae’s Quaestiones super XII libros Metaphysicae Aristotelis. Dating from 1480, it is a Latin commentary on the metaphysics of Aristotle. Its publication was financed by the draper William Wilcock. The printer of this work went by the name of Johannes Lettou. He may be the same Johannes who worked in the previous years in Rome, mainly for the papal Curia. Apart from the colophons in his books, Lettou’s name is known from a register of aliens in which he is recorded as head of a household of German printers living in what is now Lower Thames Street. A member of this household was William de Machlinia [Maclyn], with whom Lettou formed a partnership in about 1481/2. Their first publication was the Abbreviamentum statutorum, a handbook for lawyers that contained summaries of the laws of the land, alphabetically arranged by subject. The partners published in the following years at least five books of common law. They include two editions of Sir Thomas Littleton, Tenores novelli, in 1482/3 and 1484. Their final joint publication was a full edition of the parliamentary statutes from the reign of Edward II, Nova statuta, during the printing of which Lettou is thought to have died. William de Machlinia continued the business alone for another few years in which he published an edition of the statutes promulgated by the only parliament of Richard III in 1484/5 – one of the earliest examples of an official publication. In March 1486 De Machlinia printed the bull in which Pope Innocent III granted dispensation for the marriage of Henry VIII and Elizabeth of York. There was an old tradition for legal books, manuscript and print, to be richly decorated. Lettou and De Machlinia made a gesture for honouring this tradition, for many copies of their books are decorated with red and blue initials.



The presence of printers in Thames Street was continued by the eminent Henry Bynneman who, using his familiar sign of the Mermaid, had premises here. Motto to the press was ‘Omnia tempus habent’, which is the opening phrase of a passage in Ecclesiastes III and translates as ‘To every thing there is a season [and a time to every purpose under the heaven]’. Thames Street has certainly served a variety of aims and purposes over is long history. Elizabeth’s reign was a period of a great expansion of Italian culture in England in spite of Puritan suspicions. In the 1560s a number of Boccaccio’s vernacular works appeared in English translation and Bynneman’s press was active in publishing those.

Giovanni Boccaccio was a sophisticated Florentine who performed various diplomatic services for the city government. He was above all a talented urban writer. The background for his Decameron is the Florentine plague epidemic of 1348 (in a sense this is the first urban disaster story). Throughout the narrative urban values of quick wit and intelligence are treasured, while stupidity and dullness are punished. This city orientation was an emerging feature of Europe fiction and Boccaccio strongly influenced its development. Geoffrey Chaucer was intrigued and inspired by Boccaccio’s work. His Canterbury Tales also uses the concept of a large story as the framework which includes all other tales allowing the author to explore a wide range of experiences, perspectives, themes and opinions. Fluent in French, conversant in Italian and widely read, he was open to assimilate the rich domain of Continental literature. Chaucer masterfully adapted Boccaccio’s urban passion. The city was about to take centre-stage in European literature.


Piazza del Campo (Siena) Or rather: not the Piazza del Campo …


The characteristic mode of portraying the city in early European painting was as a cluster of towers hidden behind an enclosing barrier, and seen in the background of a scene to which it not necessarily holds a narrative connection. The urban setting is more often than not separated from the storyline of the painting. The city is a decorative addition, a distant stage set. Towards the end of the fifteenth century Venetian civic pride began to manifest itself in art. Painters like Vittorio Carpaccio or Gentile Bellini started to pay closer attention to topographical accuracy as settings for their narratives. Urban backdrops, either observed or imagined, acquired a more dominant presence and detailed presentation within the composition of their work. A contributory factor to that development in Venice and elsewhere was the ground-breaking innovations that took place in printing and the graphic arts.


Printing had arrived in Italy in 1464, hardly a decade after the invention of the printing press, when two clerics, Conrad Sweynheym from Mainz and Arnold Pannartz from Cologne, set up shop in the Benedictine monastery St Scholastica at Subiaco, in the Sabine mountains near Rome, where they lived as lay brothers. In 1465, they issued the edition princeps of De oratore by Cicero, the first book printed in Italy. Sweynheym and Pannartz printed just three books at the monastery before moving their press to the Palazzo Massimi at Campo dei Fiori in the centre of Rome. There, they printed twenty-eight volumes in editions of up to 300 copies each. These included editions of, amongst others, Caesar, Livy, Virgil and Lucan.
However, there was no viable market for such publications and they failed to sell their stock. Sweynheym dissolved the partnership in 1473 and returned to his former profession as an engraver, while Pannartz struggled on alone until his death in 1477. The output of these and other early printers was predominantly classical texts that appealed to the small community of Humanists, but not in the least to Roman ultramontanists who were concerned with legal affairs at the papal court.

Ulrich Han another German printer in Rome produced classical texts from 1467 to 1471, by which time he was overstocked with Cicero, Livy and Plutarch. He then formed a partnership with merchant Simon Nicolai Chardella who instructed him to print books on Roman and Canon law and pamphlets pertaining to affairs at the court. This market-orientated attention meant that Han’s business began to prosper. Other best-selling publications at the time were guides to Rome’s sights and indulgences. Large numbers of German pilgrims journeyed to the city and few of them would have been able to read Latin. They were eager to purchase a travel guide, a Renaissance Baedeker in their native language. Adam Rot ran a printing press in Rome from 1471 to 1474. He was the first to publish books for visiting pilgrims, issuing several guides on the marvels of Rome. The venture proved a commercial success and the history of the guidebook was secured.


The incunable Peregrinatio in terram sanctam by Bernard von Breydenbach is one of the earliest travel books containing detailed illustrations of European and Middle Eastern cities. The book was used as a preparatory guide for pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The author’s journey took place from April 1483 to January 1484. A reckless person as a youngster and seeking salvation, he and two companions set out from Oppenheim in Germany and reached Venice two weeks later. They spent three weeks in the city which allowed the book’s illustrator Erhard Reuwich of Utrecht ample time to make sketches of his urban impressions. His image of Venice is regarded as the first purely topographical view of the city. It is significant that it appeared in a medium that that was not weighed down by traditions of narrative painting or expectations of patron or public. The book was aimed at distant readers who had never been to Venice, Jerusalem, or any of the other cities depicted and described. Reuwich created an observed vision of the city, not the background to an alternative storyline. The Peregrinatio was originally published in Mainz and became a contemporary ‘bestseller’. The splendid illustrations played a crucial part in the success of this book. Another spectacular image of Venice was published soon after. Jacopo de’ Barbari’s ‘View of Venice’ is one of the most stunning achievements of Renaissance printmaking. The aerial view was printed from large woodblocks on six sheets of paper which were then joined together to cover an area of nearly four square metres. Eleven copies are known to survive of the first state of the woodcut printed in 1500 (one of those is held at the British Museum). The original woodblocks are in the Correr Museum in Venice. The print took three years to produce and was based on careful surveys of the streets and buildings of Venice, almost every one of which can be seen clearly. It was later updated by others to reflect new building projects in a second state of the print. Publisher of the image was Anton Kolb, a merchant from Nuremberg in Germany who was resident in Venice. He recorded that no woodcut on such a size using such large blocks had ever been made before. Kolb was granted copyright on the design by the government of Venice and allowed to sell impressions for the high price of three ducats. Generally speaking, however, in artistic renderings the city remained subordinate to the representation of the religious or historical narrative. Neither painters nor patrons showed any particular interest in exploring the possibilities of producing townscapes for their own sake. The contents of the story remained fundamental to the creative effort.


Closely associated to the emergence of travel books was the phenomenal progress made in the art of cartography. The biography of every great city is represented by the history of its maps and panoramas. In the chaos of urban growth the cartographer brings line and harmony (the map of the London Underground system is the most reassuring document the overwhelmed visitor to the metropolis can wish for). Maps and topographical drawings became a popular form of wall decoration. Monarchs, nobles and eminent citizens commissioned artists to adorn their residences with panoramas of cities, either in single sheets or in series. The sixteenth century developed a passion for geography. The expansion of travel, the Spanish and Portuguese exploration of Africa, Asia and the New World, along with the rediscovery of Claudius Ptolemy’s Geography (the earliest printed edition with engraved maps was produced in Bologna in 1477), stimulated the demand for accurate maps. Political struggle and continuous warfare contributed to this demand. An army in action needed detailed locations of possible battlegrounds and accurate views of the cities that were to be besieged. The art of map-making demanded scientific precision (no more artistic sea-monsters or mermaids in the margin) which could only be obtained through training in the use of mathematical scales and instruments.


Antwerp-born Antonius van den Wyngaerde was a prolific topographical artist who produced panoramic sketches and paintings of towns in the Low Countries, England, Italy and Spain. He is recorded as saying that among all the joys that the art of painting has to offer, ‘there is not one that I hold in higher esteem than the representation of cities’. His first known work was a vista of the Dutch city of Dordrecht (historically in English named Dort) from around 1544. On a visit to Italy, he created views of Rome, Genoa, Naples and Ancona. Between 1558 and 1559 he visited England, perhaps more than once, where he made views of Dover, London and the palaces of Greenwich, Hampton Court, Oatlands and Richmond. He is best known for many panoramas of cities in Spain that he drew while employed as court artist (‘pintor de cámera’) by Philip II to whom he was known as Antonio de las Viñas. He was commissioned by the king to document all the main towns and produced at least sixty-two cityscapes (he also drew the first picture of Gibraltar). Always striving for accuracy, Van den Wyngaerde also depicted vivid town activities, but there is no trace of the squalor of street life that prevailed in all cities of that time. These images served to demonstrate the might of Philip’s Spain and give visual expression to the might of his rule.


They depended on the artist’s direct observation and visual memory – but also on his imagination. Any suggestion of realism was illusory. This is clear from his view of Valencia. The lay-out of the streets here is wide and straight as if the city had been formally planned. The squares are made larger and some of the towers moved to different positions. Despite many details, the picture is an idealized rather than an accurate representation. The same applied to his view of Granada where the size and height of churches are increased (without distorting the arrangement) in order to draw attention to the city as a ‘civitas christiana’. Shortly after the artist’s death, Philips sent the collection of views to the Plantin press in Antwerp for engraving. His likely ambition was to create a Spanish city atlas. Unfortunately, the project was never completed. Van den Wyngaerde’s views were dispersed to Vienna, Prague and London and it took until the late 1980s that the corpus of Spanish views was finally published. At the time of its creation, this record of Spanish city views was unique and without precedent. No other European ruler could boast to possess such a complete and accurate visual overview of his realms.


The first volume of the Civitates orbis terrarum was published in Cologne in 1572. This city atlas, edited by Georg Braun and largely engraved by Franz Hogenberg, eventually contained 546 prospects and map views of cities from all over the world. It provided a comprehensive image of urban life at the turn of the sixteenth century. Braun, a cleric of Cologne, was the principal editor of the work, and was supported in his project by Abraham Ortelius whose Theatrum orbis terrarum of 1570 was, as a systematic collection of maps of uniform style, the first true atlas. The Civitates was intended as a companion for the Theatrum although it was more popular in approach, no doubt because the novelty of a collection of city views represented a more risky commercial undertaking than a world atlas for which there had been a number of successful precedents. A large number of Jacob van Deventer’s plans of towns of the Netherlands were copied, as were Stumpf’s woodcuts from the Schweizer Chronik of 1548, and Sebastian Munster’s German views from the 1550 and 1572 editions of his Cosmographia. Another source was the work of Danish cartographer Heinrich van Rantzau, better known under his Latin name Rantzovius, who provided maps of Scandinavian cities. A significant contributor was Antwerp-born artist Joris Hoefnagel (with Antonius van Wyngaerde the most prolific topographical artist of his day) who not only contributed most of the original material for the Spanish and Italian towns, but also re-worked and modified those of other contributors. Plantin’s printing house in Antwerp, famous for its Polyglot Bible of 1572, was active in the fields of science and cartography as well. By offering mapmakers a space where they could interact with explorers and by supplying the know-how of printing precise and detailed maps, Christoph Plantin became a driving force behind the creation of the modern atlas. Why were the northern regions particularly active in this field of knowledge gathering? The strong topographical tradition was partly due to political developments in Germany and the Low Countries. The more Emperors Maximilian I, Charles I and Philips II tried to expand the power of imperial institutions at the expense of local city autonomy, the more these developed and sophisticated cities resisted interference in their affairs. Shared adversity created unity. It promoted civic awareness of the city’s history, its traditions, its institutions, and its cultural output. The Aristotelian concept of the’communitas perfecta’, the idea of a fully autonomous body possessing all the means of securing its own welfare and pursuing its chosen goals, supported an outburst of local pride and found expression in a variety of topographical works.


Book illustrators and map makers in particular pushed forward the development of topographical images and cityscapes. It makes the presence of Ambrogio Lorenzetti all the more remarkable. The latter was an Italian painter of the Sienese school who was active between approximately from 1317 to 1348 (the year that he died of the plague). Although few of his pieces have survived, he is considered one of the most inventive artists of the early fourteenth century. The Republic of Siena at the time was a powerful city-state where merchants and bankers had developed a strong commercial base with a range of international contacts. Politically, this was a turbulent age marred by a string of violent conflicts. Governments were overthrown and reinstated. During the late 1330s the Council of Nine (the city council) commissioned Lorenzetti to paint the ‘Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government’ series in the Sala dei Nove of Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico. The artist created an ensemble of urban images that is exceptional within the medieval tradition. Unlike most contemporary paintings the subject matter is not religious but civic. The aim of the painting is to exalt the political creed of the government of the ‘Nove’, a clique of Guelphs who retained power in Siena until 1355. Lorenzetti’s frescoes promoted the morality of government. By showing comprehensive cause-and-effect situations of corrupt governing in comparison to those of virtuous leadership, these images were aimed at reminding members of the council to seek justice at all times. The murals occupy three of the four walls of the Council Room. On the eastern wall Lorenzetti depicted the scenes of the ‘Effects of Good Government’, while on the western wall the ‘Effects of Bad Government’ are depicted. Overlooking both these murals, the personifications of the allegorical depictions of the virtues of good government are found on the northern wall.


In the foreground of the ‘Allegory of Good Government’ figures of contemporary Siena are represented. They act as symbolic representations of the various civic officers and magistrates. Behind them, on a stage, there are allegoric figures representing Good Government. Wisdom is seated upon a throne and holds an orb and sceptre, symbolizing temporal power. He is dressed in the colours of the ‘Balzana’, the black and white Sienese coat-of-arms. Around his head are the four letters CSCV, (Commune Saenorum Civitatis Virginis) which explains his identity as the embodiment of the Siena Council. The virtues of good government are represented by the female figures of Peace, Fortitude and Prudence on the left, and Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice on the right. On the longer wall of the room is the fresco of the ‘Effects of Good Government in the City and in the Country’. Part of that image is ‘Peaceful City’ which provides the first panoramic view of Siena. The city is filled with palaces, markets, towers, churches, streets and walls. Busy shops indicate prosperity. The fresco then blends into the ‘Peaceful Country’. The transition is made by an entourage passing through the city gate. The scene shows a bird’s-eye view of the Tuscan countryside, with villas, castles, and farmers working the fields.


The wall on which the fresco of the ‘Effects of Bad Government’ is depicted used to be an exterior wall, so has suffered damage in the past. The image shows Tyrammides (Tyranny) resting his feet upon a goat (symbolic of luxury), his hand holding a dagger, while the figures of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division, and War flank him. Above him float those of Avarice, Pride, and Vanity. The city itself is in ruin. Houses are being smashed and the streets are deserted. Crime and disease are rampant. The countryside suffers from drought and shows two battle-ready armies advancing towards each other. The disaster of bad government served as a powerful reminder to members of the council. 12 Lorenzetti supplied a painted view of a secular city in detail and inclusiveness. Commerce, trade and various social activities are visualized, while religious manifestations are almost entirely excluded. There are three identifiable churches, but they are marginal to the composition. Even the city’s impressive duomo has been squeezed into the background – no more than a tiny tower. Lorenzetti’s secular medieval city is not a faithful portrait of Siena, nor is it a true topographical representation. His ambition was to depict an ideal city, one that should be compared to Siena, but not be mistaken for it. The buildings are real structures, but the totality is imaginary. Topography is overruled by the artist’s message. His purpose was to portray the peaceful prosperity of a well-governed city. For the sake of the representation of various trades, social interaction, and communal celebrations, he re-designed the heart of the city and created a large open foreground which allowed him to display a variety of activities. That space in front of the new Palazzo Pubblico is not the Piazza del Campo, nor is it any other known open space in Siena. This large area behind the remarkably thin city-wall is a creation of the artist’s fancy. In other words, ‘Lorenzetti Square’ is an imaginary public place. The streetscape serves a particular purpose and is made subordinate to the moral message – Lorenzetti’s Siena nevertheless remains a remarkable portrait of a proud city.


Rue Saint-Jacques (Paris)


Rue Saint-Jacques once was a major passage in the Quartier Latin of old Paris before it was turned into a backstreet with the creation of the Boulevard Saint-Germain as part of Haussmann’s regeneration scheme of the capital. It was the starting point for pilgrims to make their way along the Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle that led eventually to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia where the remains of the apostle Saint James are supposed to be buried. The Paris base of the Dominican Order was established in 1218 in the Chapelle Saint-Jacques. However, it was not for religion or piety that the street won its reputation, but for the crucial role it played in the history of French printing.


In 1466, German-born Johann Heynlin obtained a doctorate in theology at the Sorbonne. Three years later he was elected Rector of the university and became Professor of Theology. He established of the first printing-press in France in cooperation with Guillaume Fichet who also taught at the Sorbonne. Around 1469/70, Heynlin hired three Swiss printers, Ulrich Gering, Michael Friburger and Martin Crantz, to install and run this press in the buildings of the university. He also gave financial aid to their undertakings, especially for the printing of the works of the Church Fathers. Their first publication with this press – the first book printed in France – was a collection of letters (Epistolae Gasparini) by the fifteenth century grammarian Gasparinus de Bergamo. The book dates from 1470. During the following two years over twenty works appeared from the press, including Fichet’s own Rhetorica. By the end of 1472 the venture came to an end and the three printers left the Sorbonne to set up on their own at the sign of the Soleil d’Or on the Rue Saint Jacques, thus starting a long tradition of printing in the street (the proximity of the Sorbonne attracted many later booksellers and printers).

ImageThe Rue Saint-Jacques has been associated with a number of new printing techniques that were introduced over the ages. Jacques Chéreau was a portrait engraver and publisher of ‘optical prints’ at the Rue Saint-Jacques. From about 1740 to about 1820 such prints were made to be viewed through a so-called zograscope. This was an optical device for enhancing the sense of depth perception from a flat picture. The machine consists of a large magnifying lens through which the picture is viewed. Some models have the lens mounted on a stand in front of an angled mirror allowing a person to sit and look through the lens at the picture flat on the table. Pictures viewed in this way need to be left-right reversed. They are called ‘vues perspectives’.


The origin of the term zograscope has been lost, but it is also known as a diagonal mirror or as an optical pillar machine. Machines of that kind were popular during the Georgian era as parlour entertainments. They were produced for the luxury market as fine pieces of furniture, with turned stands, mouldings, and brass fittings. Intaglio optical prints have deliberately exaggerated converging lines and bright colours which contribute to the illusion of depth. Jacques Chéreau and his brother were amongst the most prolific publishers and producers of such prints in Paris. Typical subjects include current events, views of the known world, fantasy compositions, and cityscapes. Chéreau himself for example, around 1750, produced a coloured print ‘Vue de la ville et du pont de Francfort’ which shows the city’s Medieval bridge over the river Main.


Auguste Delâtre was an artist’s printer who pioneered the ‘mobile etching’ technique, a method of painting ink on to the plate so that up to forty unique impressions could be made from the same plate, rather than a uniformly wiped edition. This influenced the practice of monotype amongst artists such as Ludovic Lepic and Edgar Degas. He built up a considerable reputation amongst artists and it was to him that the majority of progressive etchers turned. One of those artists was Whistler. In 1855, the latter asked the printer to produce a number of sets of his ‘Douze eaux-fortes d’après nature’. Twenty were printed at Delâtre’s shop at no. 171 Rue St Jacques, and a further fifty sets were printed later in London.


Delâtre was also involved in the printing of Whistler’s ‘Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects’ in 1861. In return Whistler etched his portrait. In 1862 Delâtre helped to found the Société des Aquafortistes in Paris. In the disastrous Prussian siege of Paris in 1870 his studio was destroyed, as were his works and equipment. He fled to London, where he met up with other expatriate French artists such as James Tissot and Jules Dalou. He returned to Paris in 1876 and set up a new studio in Montmartre.


Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard was a French cloth merchant who, in the 1840s, became a student of photography. In 1850, he introduced the albumen paper printing technique and started the Imprimerie Photographique in Lille a year later. It was the first commercially viable method of producing a print on a paper base from a negative. It used the albumen found in egg whites to bind the photographic chemicals to the paper and remained the dominant form of photographic positives from 1855 to the turn of the twentieth century.


The process produced some stunning images, including those of Jane Morris (née Burden), wife of William Morris, who was an embroiderer and model. She worked with her husband in their furnishings business. In the late 1860s, Jane began a romantic liaison with Rossetti that lasted until 1876. She was the model for some of his most famous paintings, and her striking appearance provided him with inspiration for over twenty years. Emery Walker produced with an iconic image with his albumen print of Jane Morris seated, leaning forward with her face towards the viewer and her left hand leaning on her face.


There are, furthermore, a number of albumen images of the Rue Saint-Jacques. There is, for example, Charles Marville’s 1865/9 print of the ‘Rue Saint-Jacques’. This photograph depicts an intersection near the Sorbonne University. Marville was hired by the government to record the old city before modernization. Made for documentary purposes, this delightful image captures the street’s architectural character and shows the light flooding through the narrow passageway and lingers on the contrast between the bold lettering of advertisements and the peeling walls that threaten to absorb them.

Eugène Atget was equally passionate in preserving memories of old Paris and a one-man archive. Between 1897 and 1927, he made roughly 10,000 negatives from which he produced and sold some 25,000 prints to individuals and institutions. His photographs show Paris in its various facets: narrow lanes, historic courtyards and pre-Revolution palaces under threat of demolition, bridges and quays on the banks of the Seine, and shops with their window displays. Whilst Impressionist painters recorded the transformation of the city with its new boulevards and stations in bright colours, photographers hurried to capture the last remnants and muted tones of the Medieval town.

A tradition of renewal: on innovation in the 15th and the 21th century

To know the future we have to understand the past. And of course there is also history repeating itself.

Gustave Flaubert would have loved these two sayings and he would certainly have used them for his dictionary of received ideas. Flaubert himself noted down a cliche that has some relevance for this lecture. It goes

photography: will make painting obsolete.

Karl Marx used the one about history for one of his funnier quips: history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a comedy.

Still, there is truth in both sayings. History – or humanity – certainly has a tendency to repeat itself and we can only recognize these repetitions and learn something if we have some knowledge of the past.

At the moment we are in the middle of one of the greatest sea-changes the world of information has gone through. Therefore I want to take a look at what happened during an earlier era and share some ideas with you about the lessons of history.

What can we learn from the 15th century change from manuscript to printed book? Does it tell us something about the fate of the printed book itself? What lessons might the early heroes of printing have for the internet publishers of our days – and of course for us bookhistorians who are going through such interesting times. I will say something about design but more about the financial circumstances that influence design. During my research for this paper I came to the conclusion that these circumstances are perhaps more important than changes in design we see on the page – and may expect to see on the screen of our digital books.

Let me first say that I consider the codex a far more important, interesting and influential invention than the computer or the internet. The codex has now reached a venerable age of more than 17 centuries. About a hundred generations have used it’s unique features.

There is a difference between a codex and a pile of papers held together by a pin or glue. The uniformity of the size of the pages defines the accessibility of a book. Quick and random acces to information, that is what the codex is about.

Creating such a book in the middle ages was everything but easy.

For a medieval codex you would have to slaughter ten or twelve pigs or sheep and have vellum made of their skins. After that you had to find that rarest of species: a man or woman who could write down a text for you. Early medieval society was hardly organized and places where you could have a book made or actually see a book where few. Monasteries were scarce and wide apart.

Secular reading – for instruction or pleasure – belonged to the city. To be able to live in a city and do something else than menial work, you would have to be able to read. Once you could read you probably wanted to read more than bookkeepers records. You wanted to read books. Religious books, scholarly books, adventures and poetry.

And soon an industry came into existence that catered for this new market of readers. Scriptoria in great cities like Florence where well organized companies that produced high-quality manuscripts for a decent price.

Then, halfway the 15th century came the printing press – invented by the Man of the Millennium, Gutenberg. More than 29.000 titles were printed up to 1500. If we put the number of copies of an edition on the arbitrary number of 300 this would mean that about 9.000.000 books were made and sold during the first 40 years after Gutenberg. How many scribes would be needed to create such a mountain of books?

It is clear that here we have a genuine information revolution. At the same time it is a rather curious revolution! What everybody knows, but hardly anybody seems to realize, is that printers played a relative small part in the making of a book. In the days of Gutenberg the typesetters and printers realized far less than half of the value of a copy.

The materials of which books were made, claimed the major part, even when paper was about ten times less expensive that vellum. So the actual printing of a book may have been 50 times less costly than writing it down by hand, but the printers could only claim about 20% of all work done on a single copy. The rest was done – or supposed to be done – by rubricators, illuminators and bookbinders.

In the 15th century a paper copy of a printed book would be half as expensive as a handwritten one. It will be clear that the prime importance of Gutenbergs printing press lies in being a catalyst. Printers printed editions and editions had to be sold.

Gutenbergs artificial writing machine was certainly not meant to be a prime mover that made knowledge available to the masses and revolutionized the world. That kind of book emerged almost half a century later and was created by a totally different kind of man. The 40 years between Gutenberg and Aldus Manutius brought us the modern book.

The birth of the book as we know it is the result of typical capitalist development with its system of trial and error, fuelled by greed. It is important to remember that, while the price of a single copy of a book might be halved, the total investment needed to produce that copy as part of an edition would rise more than twohundredfold. The return of investment would be slow as it might take years to sell an edition. And before work on that edition could start, there would be an initial investment in the equipment of a printing house and the hiring of an expensive specialist workforce.

It was only in the 16th that being a publisher or even a printer became a sure way to riches. In the early days the infrastructure to sell 500 copies of a book was non-existent. Early printers seem to have thought and act like the makers of manuscripts. The first printing press in Italy was up in the mountains and days away from Rome. It was rather difficult to print in Subiaco and still expect to sell a lot of books in little time. So Sweynheim and Pannartz moved their bussiness to Rome. And even then life was difficult. To be able to sell books printers and publishers had to create a close knit community that was parochial and international at the same time.

The advent of the printed book made rubricating and illuminating a booming business and that is perhaps the reason why the quality of manuscripts detoriated so much in the last decennia of the fiftheenth century. It was only in the fiftheen-seventies that printers started to experiment with printed initials and woodcuts, thus streamlining the production and reducing the costs of a single copy with at least another 20%.

Aldus Manutius established his firm in the great merchant city of Venice, had sound financial backers and reduced the size and thus the price of books. But he hardly used the woodcut initials that would have reduced the price of his books even more, although he did so in his most famous publication: the Hypnerotomachia.

It seems clear that most 15th century printers did not realize the real potency of the printing press and indeed saw it as a form of artificial writing. There was no break with the past. They saw their activities in no different light than the makers of manuscripts.

Even today paid writers exist who ply their trade on the streetcorners in Mexico or India. They write letters but also newspapers. The investment for such a trade is small. You have to know how to write, which may take some years to learn and that is it. I will come back to these writers later on when I will discuss the impact of the internet on the publishing industry.

Many books have been written about how the layout of the page had to be reconstructed to conquer the oceans of information that suddenly became available. Pages had to be numbered. The paragraph had to be invented, just as notes and bibliographical references. Running titles. And most important of all: the title-page.

Most of these innovations come together in the work of Erhard Ratdolt, the Augsburg and Venetian printer already mentioned. He was an early adapter: he used a title-page, printed in color and so on. I especially mention the way he placed woodcut illustrations in the margins in one of the most beautiful and well-structured books ever published: his first edition of Euclid that dates from 1482.

Why did changes that were clearly great innovations not find their way immediately and sometime took ages to get accepted. Why did not all printers started to use woodcut initials right after they were invented – why did it take almost a century for such a simple but effective innovation to be generally accepted?

I have a few assertions that will play a role in the second – smaller – part of this lecture when I will discuss the digital age.

The first one goes like this: what we see as typographical innovation is often a ressurection of something older. Most typographical inventions of the 15th century are in fact reinventions.

My second obervation is that almost all real innovations come from outsiders. The power of tradition is very strong, especially in the field of printing and publishing were innovation is stultyfied by the conservatism of the trade and the consumers.

What does this mean for the future of publishing and more specifically for the future of design? I love the term Information Architecture as it covers perfectly what modern design is really about.

It will be clear that the internet and searchmachines have changed the way we look at information and how we use it. Will we need footnotes when all books have been digitized? I can imagine a searchmachine that analyzes texts in depth: a researchmachine. Now information is anchored to a page but digitized it can have any form – especially as we do not need to refer to a given page any more.

On the other hand the way we organize and read texts will not change. Writing and reading is about rhetorics and expectations and these are deep undercurrents that were probably hotwired into the human brain long before we were able to notice them. We will always need art and need to create art, or science and scholarship.

Digital information will always be expressed in books and these books will be more beautiful and better made. More people than ever before are active as designers, of typefaces and of books. They are counted in tens of thousands where there used to be hundreds. Of course beauty and taste have nothing to do with numbers. But more practitioners create more choices for a public that has become more critical in its appraisal.

And perhaps more important the costs are low. In fact everybody with a computer can create a book and have it printed. We have – again – arrived in an age where the costs are counted per single copy in stead of editions. The modern bookdesigner is in fact a publisher and can be compared to those writers in India I mentioned earlier who still write newspapers in longhand – and even more with the scribes of the early 15th century. And so it seems that we are in fact swinging back to an earlier age, on a different, higher level.

How does this work out in the real world? A few months ago I had the great honor to participate in the creation of a new and beautiful magazine on typedesign, called Codex. The publisher, John Boardley is well known for his blog He lives in Japan, the editor somewhere in Canada, some of the authors are in fact here in this room, but they can also be found in California and Brazil. It was printed and shipped by a German firm. All 5000 copies were sold, most of them directly to readers of blogs on typography, a few by specialist bookstores, none by the great chains like the Dutch Selexyz.

I think that a few years from now there will be less books than there are now, but they will be better edited, better designed and better printed. Part, perhaps even the greater part, of the mass market will go digital. This will make books less interesting to the kind of publisher or bookseller that now fill the great chains of bookstores with endless and depressing repetitions of soulless and bad designed books. The independent bookseller will rise again and so will the independent publisher. I think that this is the future, an interesting and humane future and certainly our future as book historians.

Erasmus in the Playground


For the medieval student, rhetoric, along with grammar and logic, was part of the trivium – the three rocks of education. Rhetoric was special because, more than logic and grammar, it required invention, spontaneity, and creativity. Renaissance teaching methods emerged from the rediscovery of the classical tradition, and especially of Aristotle who had defined rhetoric as the ability to use all possible means of persuasion to good effect. An able orator could be put on the spot and deliver an argument that would sway an audience regardless of time or situation. Improvisation demands an oratorical flexibility that comes from complete linguistic mastery.

One of Erasmus’s early pupils in Paris was William Blount, fourth Baron Mountjoy, diplomat, scholar and patron of learning. In the summer of 1499 William returned to England and invited Erasmus to accompany him for an extended stay. His financial situation was precarious and he accepted Mountjoy’s invitation. In England, he experienced a spell of luxury on a rural estate, a novel experience for a man who had always lived a life of poverty. He was received as the guest of a nobleman and a published author of Latin poems. His prospects however remained minimal. Mountjoy offered him a small pension for life but no other rewards for his work came his way. During the summer he decided to return to the Continent, but his journey was delayed. He travelled to Oxford where he listened to John Colet lecturing on the ‘Epistle to the Romans’. The latter interpreted the New Testament as a literary text rather than as a bundle of scholastic propositions. Colet tried to persuade him to teach at Oxford and lecture on the Old Testament. Erasmus declined. He considered it impossible to carry out competent exegesis solely on the basis of the Latin translation. Learning Greek was his priority. Oxford could not offer him that opportunity and in January 1500 he returned to France. There was only one active teacher of Greek at Paris, a Byzantine exile, but Erasmus considered him expensive and incompetent. He taught himself the language by patiently translating Greek books into Latin. By late 1502 he claimed that he was able to read and write the language. When the plague drove him from Paris, he moved to Louvain. He kept himself alive by teaching private pupils.


By the end of 1504 Erasmus returned to Paris to present Jodocus Badius with the finished manuscript of Lorenzo Valla’s In Novum Testamentum ex diversorum utriusque linguae codicum collatione adnotationes (‘Annotations on the New Testament’). This work had been Valla’s most impressive application of his knowledge of ancient Greek. He had observed stylistic defects in the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, and sought to remedy these by referring to the Greek original. He insisted that New Testament scholarship must refer to the Greek text. What he eventually produced was a set of notes on specific passages where unclear phrases or apparent errors could be remedied by looking at the Greek. This pioneering effort attracted little attention until 1504, when Erasmus found a manuscript of the Annotations in a monastery near Louvain. He published it the following year, an important step in the development of his own biblical scholarship and proof of the massive progress he had made in mastering Greek. Shortly afterwards Lord Mountjoy invited him again to England, and this second visit was more successful. He was introduced to William Warham and other prominent dignitaries. Warham, Lord Chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury, became Erasmus’s most generous patron and ‘sacred anchor’. Both men were associated with the paradigm shift of the so-called Northern Renaissance. Warham’s academic background and his travels on the Continent inspired him to support the study of Greek and encourage the revival of classical learning. His money and political support acted as a force enabling Erasmus to get his work on the New Testament published which, in turn, facilitated the biblical scholarship of the Reformation. Froben’s Basel edition of Erasmus’s Jerome was dedicated to William Warham. The dynamics of their collaboration acted as a catalyst for religious change in England.


Erasmus travelled to Venice to negotiate with Aldus Manutius for a new edition of his Adagia (dedicated to Mountjoy). On the death of Henry VII, Lord Mountjoy wrote to Erasmus in Italy pleading with him to return to England, painting the prospect of a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’. Together with Warham he sent the scholar £10 to cover the cost of the journey. At first Erasmus was hesitant. The level of Italian scholarship may have disappointed him, but he had made many friends in Aldus’s circle. Moreover, his reception had been flattering, especially in Rome. But remaining in Rome would be a sell-out since he would never enjoy the intellectual freedom he demanded. Reluctantly he decided to travel northwards and reached London in the autumn of 1511. Staying at Thomas More’s house in Bucklersbury he wrote his satirical masterpiece Moriae encomium. Erasmus, moreover, had been working on a treatise on Latin composition entitled De duplici copia verborum ac rerum (On the twofold abundance of expressions and ideas), a project that had been the intermittent labour of more than twelve years in Paris, Italy, and England. On this, his third visit to England, Erasmus once again paid a visit to John Colet, the son of a City mercer and twice Lord Mayor of London. After early schooling in London, Colet had moved to Oxford, where he spent some twenty years as a scholar. He received priestly orders in 1498 and left Oxford six years later to become Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. There, in 1509, he began preparations for the founding of St Paul’s School, adapted to receive 153 poor boys (the number of fishes taken by Peter in the miraculous draught). Only those children were admitted who could say their catechism, and read and write competently. As he put down in the school’s statutes, ‘My intent is by this school specially to increase knowledge and worshipping of God and our Lord Jesus Christ and good Christian life and manners in the children’.


The meeting of Erasmus and Colet was a fruitful one. The latter requested Erasmus to finish De duplici for use in this newly founded school in St Paul’s churchyard. This treatise, often referred to as ‘the copia’, was designed to help the young student in acquiring an elegant style of expression and to provide abundant examples of how to say the same thing in various ways. In the words of Erasmus himself: ‘no artist will better compress speech to conciseness than he who has skill to enrich the same with as varied an embellishment as possible’. The book quickly became the standard work on rhetorical dilation, adopted by virtually every school in England as well as by many schools on the Continent. It went through well over a hundred editions in the sixteenth century alone. Learning to Erasmus had to have a social meaning. He was an educationalist, not a stuffy or retiring scholar. Rather than withdrawing in a study or library, reaching the outside world was him aim. Like every great teacher and reformer, he wanted to communicate with the young. What better method than writing an elegant and entertaining schoolbook? The publication constituted the concluding part of a set of educational writings of which De ratione studii, a basic grammar, forms the foundation. The Colloquia is a student reader; the Adagia a dictionary of examples; and the De copia a comprehensive rhetoric, setting out the rules for applying the grammar and vocabulary the student had acquired during the course of his linguistic journey. The purpose of Erasmus’s treatise was to provide students with a repertoire of linguistic expression. One of his teaching methods was to take a simple phrase and invent as many variations as possible. In chapter thirty-three of the ‘copia’ the author offers an example by demonstrating 195 different and inventive ways of saying ‘Your letter pleased me greatly’. Linguistic invention was the keyword. To Erasmus, playing with language is the root of creativity. In the age of email we do not bother any more. Progress, as Johan Huizinga would argue, stifles playfulness. It is hardly surprising that the author of Homo ludens also wrote a biography of the mind behind In Praise of Folly, praising Erasmus for the fact that ‘he radiates the spirit of play from his whole being!’


Erasmus, More and Colet – it was an extraordinary meeting of minds in that same year. Colet and More had both joined the Mercers’ Company in 1509 and were close friends (Colet was More’s confessor). Both had studied at Oxford and both were interested in teaching. Thomas More was a proponent of sound education, and not just for boys. His daughter, known by her married name of Margaret Roper, was a qualified scholar in Latin, Greek and theology. More significantly, she was one of the first women in England to appear in print. More and Colet were important figures in England at the times. These men lived in an age of perpetual change and continuous conflict. The range of new discoveries and intellectual challenges had an inevitable impact on the position of the Catholic Church: Savonarola was executed for condemning corruption in the Church in 1498; Luther’s ninety-five theses appeared in 1517, at about the same time as Zwingli became the driving force behind Protestantism in Switzerland. A key element in the growing ferment for change was the advent of printing. It is no coincidence that Geneva became a centre for religious change as well as printing.


In England, the crucial event was the Tyndale Bible of 1526 which drew on both Greek and Hebrew sources. Colet himself began to translate parts of the New Testament from the Greek, which he read from the pulpit at St Paul’s Cross to crowds that were estimated to number 20,000. This brought him into conflict with his the established church. There was even some concern that he could be charged with heresy. This threat however may have been triggered by his unpopular reforms to the running of the Cathedral. Erasmus described Colet as a quick-tempered man with a fertile mind who was suspicious of undue pomp. Always dressed in plain black, he mistrusted religious institutions and conventional piety, and was intolerant of pilgrimage and the cult of relics as it was widely practised. Thomas More, in the meantime, had to cope with wider responsibilities. As Chancellor, he relentlessly pursued those who were responsible for the clandestine distribution of Tyndale’s Bible. His stubborn opposition to change in the Church may seem paradoxical in the light of the enlightened views he expounded in Utopia, where freedom of conscience is accepted and tolerated. His overriding concern however was the threat of further religious conflict and, as a consequence, the social instability for which too many citizens on the Continent had paid dearly. Defending the status quo meant a vote for peace.


Erasmus’s ‘copia’ was first printed in Paris by Jodocus Badius in July 1512 (prefaced by a gracious letter to John Colet) along with several other minor works although pirated copies were already in circulation. The latter, sometimes called Badius Ascensius from his birthplace Asse (Flemish Brabant), was a pioneering printer and a fine classical scholar. He moved to Paris in 1503 where his house came to be known as the ‘Prelum Ascensianum’. He specialized in annotated editions of Roman classical texts for the student market, and also Latin works by contemporary humanist writers. He was himself the author of numerous studies, amongst which a life of Thomas à Kempis, and a satire on female follies, entitled Navicula stultarum mulierum. It is hardly surprising that both towering figures, Erasmus and Badius, were attracted to one another. During the first three decades of the sixteenth century Badius produced an extraordinary number of titles (775 editions are listed in Renouard’s Imprimeurs & libraires parisiens du XVIe siècle). He frequently worked in partnership with Jean Petit, who was by far the most important wholesale bookseller/publisher of this period.

Soon the ‘copia’ was reprinted all over the place. An elegant edition was produced by Matthias Schürer in Strasbourg in October 1516, the title-page of which is printed within a superb historiated woodcut border showing two jesters, architectural columns, and two putti holding a shield with the initials ‘M. S’. This edition contains Erasmus’ long letter to the Alsatian humanist Jakob Wimpfeling, dated 21 September 1514, in which he relates his previous journey to Basel, mentioning all the humanist scholars he had met from Alsace and Basel. Erasmus had first become acquainted with Wimpheling in August 1514 when he stopped in Strasbourg on his way to Basel, and was officially and warmly welcomed by the members of the recently founded literary society. The work concludes with three poems by Erasmus addressed to Sebastian Brant, Joannes Sapidus and Thomas Didimus, together with the latter’s reply. With the University of Louvain increasingly overrun with Dominicans and Franciscans who were united in their enmity to classical learning, Erasmus finally decided to seek a more congenial home in Switzerland. He settled permanently at Basel in November 1521, in the capacity of general editor and literary adviser of Froben’s press. Froben was delighted. His mastery of printing combined with Erasmus’s editorial skill turned the Basel press to the most important house in Europe at the time. As a consequence, the collaboration with Jodocus Badius came to an end.


It may well have been that Colet intended Erasmus to be the first High Master of his new school. Erasmus, both intellectually and physically, was too restless a mover – the eternal refugee – to settle into a job that would clip his wings. It did not harm their friendship. Colet was an outspoken critic of the powerful Church of his day. He made the Mercer’s Company trustees to the School, rather than the Church or Oxford or Cambridge University, because he found – interestingly – ‘less corruption’ among married men of business. The Worshipful Company of Mercers was the premier Livery Company of the City of London, the first of the so-called ‘Great Twelve City Livery Companies’. Its earliest extant charter dates from 1394. The Company’s aim was to act as a trade association for merchants, especially for exporters of wool and importers of velvet, silk and other fabrics. By the sixteenth century many members of the Company had lost any connection with the original trade. Colet’s school was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, and was rebuilt by the Mercers’ Company in 1670. Among famous Mercers were such figures as John Dee, Thomas Gresham and Robert Baden-Powell. The most notable of them in this context was England’s pioneering printer, diplomat, writer and merchant – William Caxton himself.

In 1596 Richard Mulcaster was appointed headmaster of St Paul’s. Previously, he had been the first headteacher of the Merchant Taylors’ School in London. He was a gifted educator and a good scholar in Latin and Greek. Many of his pupils made distinguished careers, the poet Edmund Spenser the most famous of those. His two books on education, Positions Concerning the Training up of Children (1581) and The First Part of the Elementarie (1582) are sections of an unfinished analysis of the educational system of his time. In the development of English schooling, Mulcaster represents a midpoint between Erasmus and John Locke. Whilst developing his pedagogy, he was in close contact with the Flemish/Dutch community in London (with Emmanuel van Meteren in particular) and with correspondents such as Ortelius and Dousa in Antwerp and Leiden. The word school (scole) itself was derived from the Dutch. The contemporary discussion about the use of the vernacular in education which took place in the Low Countries may have encouraged him to write his books in English. He defended this decision in these terms: ‘I love Rome, but London better, I favour Italie, but England more, I honour the Latin, but I worship the English’. Like Erasmus, he thought corporal punishment in education unnecessary and pernicious, but competitive sports and physical exercise were part of his educational thinking. His description in Positions of ‘footeball’ as a refereed team sport is the earliest reference to the game stating that football has positive educational value as it promotes health and strength. For this particular passage he is considered the father of modern football.

rinus michels

Mulcaster did not create Total Football. That was left to Rinus Michels, another Dutchman. The latter was a master of his own game, elected coach of the century by FIFA in 1999, a man who raised the muddy and rather mundane game of soccer to the level of pure imagination and poetry in motion. The sporting metaphor appears regularly in the aesthetic writings of eighteenth century Classicists when referring to artistic rivalry on an individual level. To them, the creative process was an exciting race between able and skilled competitors. Michels proved that the fundamentals of team sport and creativity are also comparable in the exhibition of silky skills and vanguard tactics, and in the precious interplay of individual initiative and collective effort – or, in literary terms, tradition.

Pamphlet and Petrol Bomb

A pamphlet is a short piece of polemical writing, printed in the form of a booklet and aimed at a large public. The character of a pamphlet is oppositional, its contents more often than not politically subversive. Pamphlets are circulated for their impact upon public opinion. The English word pamphlet entered the vernacular in the fifteenth century. Early printers used black-letter (or Gothic) type for news pamphlets, a typeface generally reserved for ballads, proclamations, and other publications intended for a wide audience. Pamphlet writing rose in importance with the growth of the letterpress. Pamphleteering thrives in an atmosphere of controversy. During the mid-seventeenth century French Fronde more than 5,000 political pamphlets appeared (called ‘mazarinades’ after their usual subject, Cardinal Mazarin). One legacy of the French Revolution is a substantial body of pamphlet literature. The most effective political pamphlet ever produced was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776). This passionate plea for American independence sold 100,000 copies within a period of three months. Until the emergence of the mass media, the pamphlet remained an important vehicle for shaping public opinion and expressing political dissent. In the history of censorship, it was the pamphleteers who suffered the most vicious attacks on both work and body.

Queen Elizabeth never married. Until bearing a child became impossible, she considered several suitors. Her last courtship, ending in 1581 at the age of forty-eight, was with François, Duke of Anjou, who was her junior by twenty-two years. In August 1579, Cambridge-educated Puritan pamphleteer John Stubbe wrote The Discoverie of a Gaping Gulf whereunto England is like to be swallowed by another French Marriage, in which he objected to Elizabeth’s proposed marriage with Anjou. He argued that it was against God’s law for a Protestant to marry a Catholic. Moreover, English values, customs and morality would be undermined by mixing with the French. National identity is a serious matter – then and now. The book was printed by Hugh Singleton. Elizabeth was incensed by the publication and a proclamation was issued prohibiting its circulation. Copies of the pamphlet were publicly burned. On 13 October 1579, writer and publisher were arrested. Elizabeth wanted to hang them both by Royal prerogative, but agreed instead to their trial for felony. The jury refused to convict. The accused were charged with conspiring to excite sedition. They were sentenced to have their right hands cut off, though it appears that Singleton was pardoned because of old age. The sentence was carried out at the market place in Westminster. It took three blows to chop off Stubbe’s hand. Surgeons were present to prevent him bleeding to death. He subsequently signed his name ‘John Stubbe, scaeva’ – the left-handed.

Why were punishments so severe for pamphleteers who responded critically to public or political affairs? The authorities lived in fear of the ‘lethal power’ of the printing press. Writing rebellious pamphlets was a criminal act to be punished by public humiliation and physical marking. The aim of punishment in general was to set a disturbing example to others to restrain from criminal or subversive activity. The legal spectacle was designed to shock and prevent. The law was about impact. Early descriptions of hell gave precise descriptions of punishments for specific sins. These were detailed catalogues of crime and its consequences. Temporal and ecclesiastical courts followed a similar line of proceedings. Every potential criminal knew exactly what to expect if he/she was caught. Punishment was a public affair. It was a spectacle, a drama, attended by large crowds who were there to witness that justice had been done. To the pamphleteer, writing controversial documents was a serious and dangerous undertaking. It did not stop authors from expressing their criticism or concern in print. Far from it. The seventeenth century was the age of the pamphlet. London was the centre of printing activity. There, during the time when censorship laws were enforced, twenty formally licensed printers were the only authorized publishers. Of course, there were far more than just twenty printers at work. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the capital housed several hundred unlicensed printing presses, and by the middle of the century, printing facilities were to found in a range of locations outside London. However, the cost of printing remained relatively high. It was not until the 1620s that less expensive type-face technologies reduced the cost of production. This coincided with the revolutionary unrest that would lead to the Civil War. The printing press played a significant role in the outbreak of armed conflict.

The most direct form of expression was the pamphlet. Once printed, a pamphlet would be sold on street corners and in coffeehouses. Pamphlets could easily be transported to more distant locations. The ever increasing level of literacy allowed the messages of printed pamphlets to spread to all corners of the country. It became impossible to maintain the rigid censorship of old. Regulations dating from the sixteenth century required that every prospective publication must be licensed by a censor and then recorded in the Stationer’s register. After 1637 printed materials had to include the name of the person who authorized the publication. Enforcement of these laws went under the jurisdiction of the Star Chamber (a Soviet sounding name if ever there was one) which sat at the Palace of Westminster. The court was set up to ensure the enforcement of laws against prominent or wealthy people who otherwise may escape justice. Court sessions were held in secret and evidence was presented in writing. There was no right of appeal, there were no juries. The court could punish offenders with fines, imprisonment, or corporal mutilation. King Charles I used the Court of Star Chamber as a political tool during the eleven years when he ruled without a Parliament. The Chamber became notorious for judgments favourable to himself and to Archbishop Laud. Their Puritan critics were treated brutally. In his campaign for church uniformity, Laud dismissed nonconformist ministers and suppressed Puritan preachers.

In November 1630, Alexander Leighton was brought before Star Chamber for circulating a petition that demanded the abolition of episcopacy. He was sentenced to be flogged, mutilated and imprisoned for life. Leighton was the first of many Puritans to be punished for their beliefs during the 1630s. In June 1637, lawyer William Prynne, clergyman Henry Burton and physician John Bastwick were prosecuted by the Chamber for publishing pamphlets that criticized Laudian doctrines. All three were sentenced to be stood in the pillory. The letter S and L were branded on William Prynne’s cheeks (Seditious Libeller: he would later say that the letters stood for ‘Stigma of Laud’). So large was the crowd which flocked to see William Prynne branded that Sir Kenelm Digby complained that even the appearance of royalty would bring out fewer people. The Chamber also ordered the physical mutilation of Burton and Bastwick. They had their ears cut off. An account of the execution has been left by John Rushworth, Oliver Cromwell’s personal secretary: ‘The executioner cut off [Burton’s] ears deep and close, in a cruel manner, with much effusion of blood, an artery being cut, as there was likewise of Dr Bastwick. Then Mr Prynne’s cheeks were seared with an iron made exceeding hot which done, the executioner cut off one of his ears and a piece of his cheek with it; then hacking the other ear almost off, he left it hanging and went down; but being called up again he cut it quite off’.

The punishments became the focus for popular demonstrations against Laud and made Prynne, Burton and Bastwick into Puritan martyrs. The practices of censorship and punishment became hotly debated issues. Early in 1641 Parliament decided to dissolve the Star Chamber. From that point until the Royalist regained control over the press in August of 1642, England witnessed a participation in national politics as never seen before. The statistics are staggering. The British Library holds the so-called Thomason Tracts, one of the most important sources relating to the English Civil War. These are a vast collection of printed pamphlets, books, and newspapers, printed in London between 1640 and 1661, originally brought together by bookseller George Thomason. An analysis preserved in the collection shows that although only twenty-two pamphlets were published in 1640, more than 1,000 were issued in each of the succeeding four years. Once censorship was abolished, fear of repression and mutilation disappeared, and all brakes were taken off. The age expressed itself in a flood of hostile pamphlets and an unprecedented violence of words. In contemporary terms, the pamphlet was a petrol bomb of controversy.

On the love of Books

In everybody’s life there are defining moments. The first time one falls in love is such an occasion – the actual moment often being a matter of hindsight and/or nostalgia. I remember sitting on a curb in the dusk of an early summer’s day waiting for a girl who didn’t show up. She told me later that she loved someone else. It is the sudden understanding of feelings that must have been there for months and at the same time the agonizing pain of the heart ‘that even a bullet cannot cure.’

Then there is the first encounter with truly great fiction. In my case it was Joyce’s Ulysses. I took the novel from the shelf in a friend’s study and was bowled over by the first sentence about stately plump Buck Mulligan coming down the stairs. It changed my life forever.

I experienced a similar sensation when confronted with 17th century books. Twenty-five years ago I was not enthused by my master-course in Dutch literature. I was going through the motions of a study I did not appreciate. We were taught analytical bibliography. The teaching up till that moment was limited to the discussion of rather boring texts. However, one day we were each presented with a book in order to do a simple autopsy. The volume on my desk was a play by Joost van den Vondel, published in 1648, and bound in a cover made of white vellum. I had never touched a similar book before.

This was the first of some 100.000 books I have opened since. For a number of reasons I have been able to read only a few of them. Lack of time, leisure and linguistic knowledge – I know a little Latin, but no Greek or Hebrew, nor am I fluent in the early versions of modern European languages – prevented me from reading more widely. But I have handled the books. The best way to study typography is by trying to understand the structure of books you are unable read. There are no facts, opinions or other challenges to distract the mind from the real subject-matter of typography, i.e. the way information is organized in book form.

It seems at times that we restrict attractiveness to looks, ignoring the fact that the beauty of a face is made up of intelligence and gentleness as well. The same applies good design. My initial love for books was all about the mise-en-page, but it was the underlying content that came to appeal to me just as much, even if I was unable to read the book. I did not know this at the time, just as I did not realize that the design of books was a conscious process, practised by people who had gone to school to study it. Early printers were certainly not educated in that manner. They learned their trade in the workshop by imitating the books that were printed by earlier generations. Historically speaking, all innovation in design came from outsiders, from scholars and businessmen who had turned to printing, questioning the how and why of age-old methods.

On Dutch books
When I started my career as a professional book-historian and bibliographer I worked exclusively with 17th century Dutch books. During its golden age (ca 1625-1670) the Netherlands produced almost half of the total European book-output. Nowadays most of these books are not widely known – with the exception of those printed by the Elzevir-dynasty. The Dutch Republic counted many outstanding printers: Blaeu (world famous as a mapmaker, but little known as a printer) Van Ravesteyn, the Van den Rade family and many others. About 2,000 printers are known to have worked in Holland during the 17th century. They published books for the local market, they catered for an international circle of scholars, and smuggled Bibles to England. Enjoying relative freedom, they printed books that were forbidden elsewhere in Europe. The design and style of books printed in the Netherlands were derived from printers who had fled Flanders out of fear for the Spanish inquisition during the late sixteenth century. These Flemish printers had in their turn been influenced both by the great French masters of their age, and by Swiss publishers who printed the works of theologians like Calvin at Geneva and Basel.

Dutch printers gave the elegant books of the French a twist of their own. Their preferred format was a broad quarto (about 24x20cm), they liked their ornaments big and their fat typefaces well inked. The quality of both printing and paper was excellent, at that time better than the books produced elsewhere in Europe. Their books were cheaper too. Thanks to the foundation of the University of Leiden with its high standards of teaching, the level of scholarship was outstanding. It inspired the quality of academic texts that came from the Dutch presses. The works of Descartes and Spinoza were published in the Netherlands, together with those of all the lesser luminaries who are presently forgotten but who were famous in their own time.

French books
Having studied Dutch books for about ten years, I turned my attention to those printed elsewhere. This initial lack of involvement was not only caused by my professional activities – I catalogued Dutch books for a living – but also by the problems that a different approach of design creates. A different taste has to be acquired. It almost seems that a liking for the subtle and beautiful is more difficult to develop than an appreciation of the simple and crude. Today I love incunabula – the earliest printed books that show the struggle of printers to liberate themselves from the style and methods of the manuscript era – but I remember disliking, almost hating them for their primitive pages and for their lack of such essentials as a title-page, headlines and page-numbers.

The same goes for 16th century French books. Their style is subtle yet bold. In France, printers started out in a medieval mode. Early 16th century French books have the flavour of their cathedrals. They are filled with all the trappings of Catholicism and decorated with the stone gargoyles that have become famous ever since. Within a decade all this changed half way in the 16th century. After the fifties nearly all books printed in Lyons or Paris were in the austere style that we identify with the Estiennes, Vascosan or the De Tournes.

Ornaments became simple arabesques, the severe initials found themselves in a black field dotted with white pinpoints and slightly decorated with some almost abstract plant-forms. The typefaces – still familiar to us – were created by Garamond and the lesser known type-cutters that in time have been absorbed into his great name. The lay-out of the pages had been brought to perfection with headlines that were set in spaced small-caps, the indents that replaced the paragraph-signs and most of all of course the perfect typefaces that were set and printed by masters unsurpassed in their art. In fact a 16th century book of one of the great French printers looks more familiar to us than any book that dates from before or after it. Their style and typefaces were adopted by Stanley Morison in the early 20th century. His work stayed in vogue well into the fifties. And even though the avant-garde has opened up new ways of thinking, mainstream book-design is still done in a way that was first explored almost four centuries ago.

An international style
The first printed books were made to look like the most valued manuscripts of their days. In its first stage, the invention of printing was certainly not as revolutionary as many people think it may have been. Most of the work on a book remained done by hand, especially that on the decorations. Less than 20% of the creation of a book was done by printers. It was not until the end of the 15th century that printing really took off. Nevertheless, the 1,100 printers that were active in Europe in the early days opened up vast domains of knowledge. Their books were often as original as they were beautiful. Those were the days that an expanding printing industry started to find form and style.

Although printing, especially printing in the vernacular brought about a more patriotic awareness among European nations, the printing community of booksellers, printers and type-founders established a truly multi-national trade. With it came an international style. The writers of these books belonged to a cosmopolitan circle of scholars, Erasmus being the prime example of such a thinker. In fact, the Dutch publications mentioned in an earlier paragraph form the epitome of this international style. The works printed by the Elzevirs are the supreme example of this kind of book. Authors and editors of their books were eminent figures in their respective fields, the printing was superb. The same applies to the ornamentation, which in comparison to books produced in France, Germany or Italy at the time, was subdued but effective.

During the early 18th century a new French style ruled supreme once more with a rococo-decoration that was based on marine life and constituted of small ‘fleurons’ instead of the woodcuts that characterized the books of an earlier era. Less frivolous and more in tune with modern taste are the well-known books of Bodoni and the Didots. The style of the Elzevirs returned for a short period in the 19th century when the collector’s craze for their books resulted in a revival of some of their designs.

19th century books and their critics
The demise of modernism has not yet led to a reappraisal of 19th-century book-design. We tend to consider these books over-decorated and lacking in originality. They are the mindless products of early industrialism. This point of view was propagated by William Morris in particular. He wanted to create books that were treated as works of art and handcrafted instead of machine-tooled. A different line of attack was undertaken by modernists who considered all decoration as an almost criminal form of primitivism.

By trying to understand 19th century books on their own terms one will be able to discern their individual beauty. There is undoubtedly an affinity with the magnificence of operas by Rossini or Bellini, or with the novels of writers like Walter Scott or Alexandre Dumas. The 19th century reproduction and printing techniques were used to create books that were as haunting as any story written in those days, their gothic revivals having a singular beauty of their own. In our post-modern days we may perhaps be able to absorb their lessons again. William Morris was a formidable critic of such books, although the work of Stanley Morison in the early 20th century has been more influential. As a designer and theorist the latter has done more to give to the book the face we now consider as familiar. It is a rather austere face, but not as forbidding as the works printed in the late 18th century by Baskerville or Bodoni and their kin. The typefaces designed by Morison were modeled on earlier, and to our eyes: friendlier designs of Garamond and Granjon. The decoration is minimal – a line or a single fleuron is considered sufficient. Lately this is changing again, especially in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Europe.

And now
Opinion makers in our own age tell us that the book as we know it has reached the end of its lifespan. Is this indeed the case? I think not. Perhaps some types of book will expire soon. After all, for our factual information we all check the internet. Then there is the poorly designed paperback we read on the beach. This book will disappear as soon as computers can be dropped in the sand and read comfortably in the full blast of the sun. The well-designed book, whether fictional or academic, will continue for a long time to come. Computerized books on the other hand will continue to be much better designed. The art of design has become more democratic. The instruments we need to make books and typefaces are now available to a broad community of practitioners. To give a single example: in the fifties there were three type-designers in the Netherlands, now there are hundreds of them. Fifty years ago it was virtually impossible to become a type-designer. One had to know the right people to get access to the instruments or contact the specialists who handled them. Learning the trade was restricted to insiders only.

Many beautiful books are produced at present. Each day brings new type-designs and exciting visions of how we can distribute information on the page and throughout a book. Thanks to the revolution in design on the one hand, and to the internet on the other, splendid books from previous centuries have become more visible than ever before and are influential once again. The internet exhibits a wide range of books from different epochs and, in doing so, unites new communities of readers and designers – the people who love and deserve the beauty of books.

Three easy pieces


Looking back is as easy as looking forward. So it is not difficult to see why the Hypnerotomachia Polyphili is one of the greatest books ever published – in 1499.

The maker was Aldus Manutius. He was the greatest publisher of his age and one of the great innovators of all time. He invented the pocketbook and the italic.

To create a book like the Hypnerotomachia an influence from outside was needed. A writer – and probably a mecenas who paid for it – who told the publisher how he wanted it and why.

It’s illustrations and the way they were integrated in the text where something completely new.


Erhard Ratdolt. Unsung but of the greatest importance as a printer and a publisher.

Ratdolt came from Augsburg but spend most of his working life in Venice where he published some of the most important books of the 15th century. His edition of Euclid was the first and at the same time something completely new: a book that was created on the printing press instead of being illustrated by hand as most of the books at that time.

Ratdolt returned to Augsburg where he probably had a happy time with old friends, creating books almost as if he was a private press in our days.


Sometimes a printer can be seminal – and hardly noticed in his own time although his influence was enourmous. Geoffroy Tory was one of these. A printer we consider now as one of the most important French publishers and designers of the 16th century.

Now historians can trace the influence of his designs, like those small trickles that in the end make great rivers. In his own time he was probably not taken quite serious. A woodcutter whose designs were pleasing and sold well, even if they did not resemble the rest. A designer of typefaces whose ideas seemed out of tune – then. Today we can see that he was harbinger of things that were to come.