Lay Down Your Weary Tune : Palace of Westminster (Westminster)

The Renaissance held music in high regard. It played a prominent part in religious, court and civic life. The interchange of ideas in Europe through ever closer economic and political contact brought about the creation of new musical genres, the development of instruments, and the advancement of specialist printing. 

By about 1500, Franco-Flemish composers dominated the domain. Most prominent among them was Josquin des Prez who, like fellow artists at the time, travelled widely between nations. The intensity of international encounters led to stylistic developments that have been appreciated as being truly European. 

By the beginning of the sixteenth century Antwerp had developed into a hub of musical activity. The most important initiatives were undertaken by the church. Antwerp Cathedral employed twelve choristers who lived in a private house where they received instruction from a singing master. At the beginning of the century this office was held by Jacob Obrecht who was famous for his polyphonic compositions. The composer’s prolific output consists of some twenty-six masses, thirty-two motets, and thirty secular pieces, not all texted. Antwerp also employed a company of fiddlers for both secular and ecclesiastical performances. 

Composers from all over Europe chose Antwerp as their home, amongst them a number of English musicians. Peter Philips had moved to the Continent as a Catholic refugee. In 1593, he travelled from the Southern Netherlands to Amsterdam to see and heare an excellent man of his faculties’. The man he referred to was organist and composer JanPietersz Sweelinck, known as the ‘Orpheus of Amsterdam’. The latter had converted to Calvinism in 1578, but he was not unsympathetic to his old faith. Philips was one of many Catholic musicians who had left England. A prolific composer of Latin sacred choral music, he was made organist to the Chapel of Archduke Albrecht in Antwerp. 

Another refugee was Hereford-born John Bull. Appointed chief musician to Prince Henry in 1611, he furtively disappeared to Flanders after the death of his patron in November 1612. Bull later explained his flight because of the accusation of Catholic sympathies made against him. He moved to Brussels where he was briefly employed as one of the organists in the Chapel of Archduke Albrecht VII, sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands. From September 1615, he held the post of organist of Antwerp Cathedral. In December 1617 he acted as city organist at ‘s Hertogenbosch. Bull’s later reputation rests mainly on his keyboard music. The composition of God Save the Queen has been attributed to him. 

Antwerp acquired a reputation for its printing skills. Originally, all music was notated by hand. Manuscripts were costly and owned exclusively by religious orders, courts, or wealthy households. That all changed in 1501 when Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci published Harmonice musices odhecaton, the first significant anthology of (100) polyphonic secular songs. The availability of notation in print boosted the development of instrumental music for both soloists and ensembles, and engendered the creation of new genres. 

In Flanders, Tielman Susato was the first printer to gain esteem for producing music books. Nothing is known about the date or place of his birth – he may have been Dutch or German. Details about his activities begin in 1529 when he was working as a calligrapher for Antwerp Cathedral. He also played the trumpet and was listed as a ‘town player’ in the city. In 1541, he created the first music printing company in the Low Countries which he combined with selling musical instruments from his home. During his prolific publishing career he was responsible for twenty-five books of chansons, three books of masses, and nineteen books of motets. 

The indefatigable Christopher Plantin was also active in printing music and produced some of the finest choir-books of his day. From the 1570s onwards, the Bellerus and Phalesius families were leading printing houses within the domain. The whole contemporary repertoire was made available by Antwerp presses: vernacular song books and psalms as well as polyphonic secular and religious music. Composers from all over Europe had their work printed in this, the most musical of all cities at the time.

Flourishing musical life in Antwerp and Brussels did not go unnoticed at the English court. In fact, a number of outstanding Flemish musicians were invited to cross the Channel. Henry VIII had received a thorough musical education and was a dedicated patron of the arts. He was accomplished at the lute, organ, and virginals and, apparently, could sing as well. Henry recruited the best musicians to join his court. There are a number of Flemish musicians amongst the many Europeans that were attracted to join the music scene in and around London. 

Dyricke Gérarde [Derrick Gerarde] arrived in England in 1544. Little is known of his life, but almost his entire musical output is contained in manuscript in the British Library. These manuscripts constitute one of the largest collections of polyphony by a single composer to have survived from the Elizabethan era. His achievement however was overshadowed by the reputation of a Flemish composer who had arrived in London some two decades previously. 

Lutenist Philip van Wilder was first recorded as a resident in London in 1522. By 1529 he was a member of the Privy Chamber, the select group of musicians who played to the king in private. During the second quarter of the sixteenth century Van Wilder oversaw secular music-making at the court, a position that brought him close to Henry VIII. He taught playing the lute to Princess (later Queen) Mary and subsequently to Prince Edward (later Edward VI). 

At the time of Henry VIII’s death in 1547 Van Wilder was Keeper of the Instruments and effectively head of the instrumental musical establishment at Westminster, a post later known as Master of the King’s Music. The upkeep of the Royal instruments at Westminster was a heavy duty. The scope of that task becomes clear from the inventory of Henry’s possessions at his death, listing thirteen organs, nineteen other keyboard instruments (virginals and clavichords), and several hundred smaller wind and string instruments including viols, lutes, and recorders. 

Van Wilder continued to enjoy Royal favour during the reign of Edward VI. He was granted a coat of arms and crest and, in 1551, authorised to recruit boy singers for the Chapel Royal from anywhere in England. Three years after his death in February 1554 an anonymous tribute was paid to the musician and printed by Richard Tottel in his collection of Songes and Sonettes (1557), commonly known as ‘Tottel’s Miscellany’, containing the following line:

Laye downe your lutes and let your gitterns rest.

Phillips is dead whose like you can not finde,

Of musicke much exceeding all the rest.

Renaissance court and civic life teaches our age the salutary lesson that a nationalist message is one of isolationism. The appeal to nativist emotions conceals the yearning for an ideal world that never was. The cultural strength of a country manifests itself in the openness of its borders, in the assimilation of alien concepts, in the embracing of external influences. It takes a cosmopolitan mind to be a veritable patriot.

Cannon Street (City of London) : Hans Holbein

One of the major thoroughfares of the City of London, Cannon Street runs parallel to the Thames from St Paul’s Churchyard in the west to Eastcheap in the east. The street owes its name to one particular local industry. Cannon Street is a corruption of Candlewick Street which relates to the candle makers and wax chandlers who conducted their trade there in the Middle Ages. The name was gradually corrupted into Cannon Street. Pepys already uses the name in his diary. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Cannon Street was home to the Steelyard or ‘Stalhof’, the trading base of the Hanseatic League in London.

London: The Steelyard, Depot of the Hanseatic Merchants

During the high and late Middle Ages the majority of strangers in London were individual members of a multi-national merchant class. In 1303, Edward I had signed the Carta Mercatoria (Charter of the Merchants), an agreement in which rights were granted to foreign merchants in return for dues and levies. Under its terms overseas traders were free to come and go, import and export; they enjoyed freedom from city and road tolls; and were allowed to enforce contracts and settle disputes. Freedom of trade was inevitably accompanied by freedom of movement. Although attempts were made to regulate migration, many strangers settled in London and were able to pursue their business careers without too many obstacles. In 1334, in exchange for financial assistance, Edward III replaced the general grant of rights to foreign merchants with a particular charter granted specifically to the influential Hanseatic League. This trading company was formed by merchants from several Northern European cities including Bruges, Lübeck, Hamburg, Groningen, Danzig, Copenhagen, Bremen, and Novgorod. The merchants in the League met on a regular basis to make trading agreements and to work out issues of common (often political) interest.


The Hanse formulated many of our notions of commerce, economic association, the importance of free trade, and the role of the nation state. In its heyday, some seventy cities were regular League members and around one hundred more acted as passive associates without decision-making power. Its London branch occupied a walled area on the north bank of the Thames, just south of London Bridge. It was in effect a separate community, independent of the City of London, and governed by its own code of laws. It was called the Steelyard, either in reference to the great steel beam used for weighing goods, or to the extensive courtyard where products were traded from stalls. The yard was not dissolved until the German cities of Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg sold their common property in 1853.


Hans Holbein the younger was born in 1497/8 in Augsburg. His father had settled in that city in 1494 and presumably both his sons Ambrosius and Hans took their places in his workshop where he produced large altarpieces. By 1515 Hans and his brother appear to have migrated to Basel. This date is established by the survival of a copy of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, in which the margins are illustrated in pen and ink by Holbein and his brother. He was active in the city not only as a painter of portraits, religious pictures, and wall paintings, but also as a designer of woodcuts, engravings, and stained glass. Holbein’s earliest surviving dated paintings are the portraits of Jacob Meyer, ‘burgomeister’ of Basel, and that of his wife, both painted in 1516. He was appointed town painter in 1518/19. He may have painted relatively few portraits at the time, but the images he produced of his friend Erasmus in 1523 were prove of his prodigious talent.


The lure of a lucrative Royal post tempted Holbein to travel to England in 1526. Erasmus had many close contacts there and they helped him to find immediate patronage. His arrival effectively brought the stylistic Renaissance in painting from the Continent to England. He was commissioned to paint a series of portraits, including those of clergyman William Warham (patron of Erasmus), astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer, and of course that of his own patron Thomas More. Holbein’s first visit to England lasted only two years. He left London in 1528 for Basel, but the violent upheavals of the Reformation encouraged a swift return to in 1531/2. He stayed in London until his death in 1543. These were turbulent years in English history too, both politically and socially. During Holbein’s second spell in England, Thomas More resigned from office. Unable to depend on More’s influence to obtain commissions, he found employment amongst fellow countrymen, the German business community in London. Holbein created eight portraits of Steelyard merchants.


The first of those was a portrait commissioned by Georg Giese, titled ‘Der Kaufmann Georg Gisze’ (1532). This detailed composition may have been intended as a show piece to elicit further Steelyard commissions. A plaque depicted over the sitter’s head identifies him as a person and states his age. He is holding a letter he had received from his brother, written in Middle Low German. The portrait generally thought to have followed that of Georg Giese is that of Hans of Antwerp, which is dated 26 July 1532. This sitter resided in London from 1515 to as late as 1547 and was married to an English woman. He was employed as a jeweller by Thomas Cromwell and associated with the London Steelyard, combining the activities of goldsmith and merchant. Since Hans of Antwerp spent most of his life in London, it seems unlikely that this portrait was sent abroad, which may account for its early entry into the Royal Collection (first recorded in 1639).


In 1536, Holbein was appointed as painter to the court of Henry VIII. Thereafter, he devoted most of his time to Royal commissions. He is known to have been living in the parish of St Andrew Undershaft in Aldgate in 1541 and there is no evidence to suggest that he ever worked at Whitehall Palace. In addition to his role as painter to Henry VIII, Holbein created the portraits of many of the king’s courtiers, as well as those of other prominent figures living in London. A number of painted portraits survive, mostly unsigned, but there are a far greater number of preparatory drawings for them, the vast majority of which (more than eighty) are today in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. Holbein’s surviving portraits and drawings provide an unparalleled depiction of the men and women of the Tudor court, including a striking image of Henry VIII.


During Holbein’s stay in London the nature of immigration was changing. The Steelyard community had been a class of powerful merchants, influential but aloof, rich but reclusive. Members were welcomed in the highest circles, but did not mix with Londoners in their day to day business. In the course of the century however immigration moved on from a transient presence of merchants to a permanent settlement of an artisan class whose members mainly came from the Low Countries. This change in itself brought about substantial economic benefits to London and the Southeast, but the presence of a large number of strangers also created tension and occasional outbreaks of anti-alien violence. As far as immigration is concerned, Holbein’s portraits represents an earlier, more static state of affairs in the capital.


totengässlein (basel)


Early urban culture and the invention of the printing press are intertwined. The diffusion of this technology encouraged activity in the city and stimulated commercial and intellectual pursuits. Printing was the catalyst. It made a huge impact on business skill and performance (bookkeeping and the calculation of exchange and interest rates for example) and allowed for the social ascent of new professional classes such as merchants, lawyers, officials, doctors, and teachers.


The Arte dell’abbaco (known as the ‘Treviso arithmetic’), the earliest known printed book on mathematics, is a textbook in commercial arithmetic written in vernacular Venetian and published in Treviso in 1478. It is significant that early places of printing excellence were either commercial centres (Venice, Bruges), university towns (Mainz, Louvain), or both (Leiden). The early modern city was a meeting place of traders, bankers, printers and intellectuals.


The city-state (civitas) of Rome has been the inspiration to our notions of civilization and ‘civility’ (literally, the way of life that belongs to the city). The Latin term ‘urbs’ implies a tradition of ‘urbanity’ in a sense of refined social intercourse. A history of Western civilization is largely a tale of urban development within Europe. Basel is one of those cities that take pride in a strong intellectual tradition. Scholars have always enjoyed considerable prestige here. John Foxe worked on his history of the persecutions suffered by the Reformers while in exile in Basel; Jacob Burckhardt, who was born in the city, became the celebrated historian of the Italian Renaissance; Nietzsche taught Greek philology at Basel University and wrote some of his philosophical works there; Jung studied medicine at the University; and Theodor Herzl addressed the first Zionist Congress in the old Municipal Casino.


At present, the city is home to a number of famous schools and museums and constitutes an international marketplace for art and antiquities. Totengässlein, located in the heart of historic Basel (the name translates as Little Lane of the Dead), houses the Pharmazie-Historisches Museum which was founded in 1925. Dedicated to pharmaceutical history, it holds one of the world’s largest collections on the subject that includes notable books such as Der Gart der Gesundheyt by Johann de Cuba (Augsburg, 1488) and New Kreüterbuch by Leonhart Fuchs (Basel, 1543).


The museum is located in the historical house ‘Zum Vorderen Sessel’ which dates back to the thirteenth century. The building once housed an important printing press owned by Johann Amerbach who had arrived in Basel from Germany in 1475. In 1507 the property, consisting of several houses and a yard, was bought from him by his pupil Johann Froben. Here, in 1514, a meeting took place that would shape the course of Europe’s intellectual history. 06 In 1499, Erasmus of Rotterdam paid his first visit to England as guest of William Blount, his former pupil in Paris and the future Lord Mountjoy, who encouraged the Dutch scholar to compile his Adagia. During his stay Erasmus met Thomas More and the two became lifelong friends. Apparently, their very first meeting took place at the Lord Mayor’s table. They were seated opposite each other. Their debate was lively. Each was so impressed by the other’s wit that Erasmus exclaimed, ‘Aut tu es Morus, aut nullus’ (Either you are More, or no one), and More replied, ‘Aut tu es Erasmus, aut diabolus’ (You are either Erasmus, or the devil). Whilst on a second visit in 1505, Erasmus was joined by Thomas More and together they worked on the translation of Lucian’s satires from Greek into Latin (published in Paris, 1506).


In 1509 Erasmus visited England for a third time. During his stay he wrote Encomium Moriae (In Praise of Folly) which he dedicated to Thomas, jokingly including More’s name in the title. The meeting between Erasmus and Johannes Froben took place five years after the former’s 1509 visit to England. Froben was a printer in Basel who established the greatest Swiss publishing firm of the early sixteenth century. A scholar himself, a master printer, and a successful businessman, he recognized the vitality of humanistic thinking. Froben had originally worked in Nuremberg, before moving to Basel in 1490. Three years later, he entered a partnership with Johannes Petri and the leading Basel printer of the preceding generation, Johannes Amerbach.


A fine 1513 reprint of Aldus’s edition of Erasmus’s Adagia had drawn the humanist’s attention to the superb skills of the Basel printer. Moreover, Erasmus was intrigued by the work that was undertaken by Amerbach and Froben for an edition of the writings of Saint Jerome. Erasmus admired this early scholar and had been busy himself translating his epistles. His plan to restore the books of Jerome and add a commentary had been frustrated by a variety of problems. Basel offered the opportunity of joining a group of editors who were working on the same subject. In July 1514, he set out to meet Froben. He carried his notes on Jerome with him. After the death of his partners, Froben took full control of the press. In 1500 he married the daughter of the bookseller Wolfgang Lachner, who entered into a partnership with him. She ran the commercial side of the business, while Froben handled the authors and editors and the process of production. By 1510 his press had become the centre of a large circle of mostly German and Swiss humanist scholars. The inclusion of Erasmus meant a major turning point for the firm. From about 1515, Froben was the main publisher used by Erasmus. In 1521, the latter moved from the Netherlands to Basel.


It was Froben’s fine printing and humanistic scholarship that made him decide to make the move. It turned out to be a happy meeting of minds and skills. The greatest period of Froben’s work as a printer coincided with the years of his friendship with the celebrated scholar, the ‘prince of humanists’. Erasmus himself was delighted with the new environment in which he had settled. In a letter to Joannes Sapidus, he described his stay in Basel as ‘living in some charming sanctuary of the Muses, where a multitude of learned persons, and learned in no common fashion, appears a thing of course’. The vibrant intellectual climate and captivating atmosphere of the city inspired his finest work. The wandering scholar had found his home.


Froben could teach contemporary publishers a lesson or two. He was alert enough to offer Erasmus a fixed annual income of 200 gulden for his services and a fair share in the profits of the books produced. The two men entered into a proper business partnership. Working closely together, this relationship turned into a close friendship. What did these services consist of? Printing ancient texts demanded expert assistance. Manuscripts had to be obtained in the first place. When acquired, they needed to be evaluated (manuscripts were often in a poor state and before the invention of printing editors had not been particular careful with their texts), collated, and emendated. This task demanded scholarship of the highest level. Erasmus became the most eminent of ‘learned correctors’ at Froben’s publishing house. We think of Erasmus first and foremost as an author. Where did he gain his editorial skills? Before moving to Basel, Erasmus had spent nine months in Venice with Aldus Manutius, the most famous printer in Europe. It was Aldus’s ambition to rescue from oblivion the work of the classical, especially Greek, writers. To this end he edited and printed those works for which workable manuscripts could be procured. His firm, named Ne-academia Nostra, employed many scholars who were involved with the deciphering of ancient manuscripts. Erasmus stayed with Aldus from January to September 1508. It was there that he learned the editorial trade by preparing an impressive number of texts, including editions of Plautus, Seneca, Terence, and Plutarch.


In December 1516, Louvain-based printer Dirk Martens had published one of the lasting highlights of European literature. It was Thomas More’s Utopia. Whilst on a trade mission in the Low Countries in 1515, the author had entrusted the publication of his book to Erasmus and to Pieter Gillis (Petrus Aegidius in Latin or Peter Giles in English), a town councillor (‘griffier’) in Antwerp. The delightful introductory letter to the text itself is addressed to my ‘right heartily beloved friend Peter’ [Giles]. The book depicts the society of a fictional island and its religious, political and social customs. The quasi-Platonic debate in the first part of Utopia, in which a critique of a corrupt contemporary society is formulated, stands at the beginning of a long subsequent tradition of European socio-cultural criticism. A Paris edition was published in 1517, embellished with supportive letters from leading humanists to whom Erasmus had sent copies of the manuscript. That same year painter Quinten Massys completed his famous portrait of Erasmus which was commissioned with a pendant portrait of Pieter Gillis, to be sent as a gift to Thomas More. In presenting themselves surrounded by their books, both men must have hoped these portraits would seal their bonds of intellect and friendship with a like-minded thinker.


On 25 August 1517 Erasmus sent a letter from Louvain to Johannes Froben in Basel. In it, he recommended the publication of More’s Utopia in combination with the Prolusions (the works were published together in two 1518 – March and November – editions by Froben). If you think fit, Erasmus wrote, ‘let them go forth to the world and to posterity with the recommendation of being printed by you. For such is the reputation of your press that for a book to have been published by Froben, is a passport to the approbation of the learned’. Froben employed Hans Holbein to supply the woodcut borders to his edition. This border takes the form of a Renaissance niche flanked by columns in which putti play around a shield showing Froben’s printer’s mark with a bird perched on top. Holbein’s brother Ambrosius designed the alphabet letter within the text. The book proved to be an overwhelming success. By the middle of the century translations of the original Latin had appeared in German, Italian, French, and English. The first translation into Dutch entitled De Utopie van Thomas Morus, in zijn tijden Cancellier van Enghelant was printed by Hans de Laet in Antwerp in 1553. Within a time span of three decades the whole of Europe had taken notice of Thomas More’s masterpiece. Quality travels fast – even in those early days. 13 The close personal relationship between Froben and Erasmus is perhaps unparalleled in the history of authors and their publishers, although it was surely in keeping with the climate and ideals of the time. It was Renaissance humanism in its most perfect form. With the death of Froben in 1527, Erasmus expressed his personal loss and sorrow. His grief for the death of his close friend was more distressing than that which he had felt for the loss of his own brother. The world of ‘studia humanitatis’ was in mourning.


censorship and religion


Gutenberg brought freedom and suppression. He liberated the word, but from the sixteenth century onwards most secular and religious authorities in Europe tried to regulate and control it. Printers were required to hold official licenses to trade and produce books. In 1557 the English Crown aimed to stem the flow of dissent by chartering the Stationers’ Company. The right to print was restricted to Oxford and Cambridge and twenty-one existing printers in the City of London. The nature of censorship was initially predominantly religious in nature with the aim of suppressing views that were contrary of those of an organized religion on the grounds of blasphemy, heresy, sacrilege or impiety.


Tolerance and censorship are incompatible. There are civil, ecclesiastical and social components to the notion of tolerance. The first concerns the policy of the state towards dissent; the second focuses on the degree of diversity tolerated within a particular church; and the third deals with accepting or celebrating difference in the street and work place. The practice of religious toleration depends on the principle that society and the state extend freedom of belief and expression by refraining to impose restrictions, conditions, doctrines, or forms of worship or association upon them. The principle goes beyond the sole domain of religion as it incorporates the broader (and more important) goals of intellectual liberty and freedom from censorship. The early history of religious toleration in England is – in one way or another – connected with the Low Countries.


The accession of Elizabeth I put an end to the years of Catholic restoration under Queen Mary. With the 1559 Act of Supremacy in which Elizabeth declared herself Supreme Governor of the Church of England came an Oath of Supremacy, requiring anyone taking public or church office to swear allegiance to the monarch as head of the Church and state. Anyone refusing to take the Oath could be charged with treason. Between 1559 and 1561 a continuous drift of academics and intellectuals to the Low Countries can be observed. The Elizabethan purge of the universities created a remarkable Catholic diaspora in the Southern Netherlands. During the first decade of her reign more than a hundred senior members of the University of Oxford alone left for Louvain and Douai.


English Catholicism in exile not only survived in the Low Countries, but also found a more distinct and polemical voice. In December 1425, John IV of Burgundy was allowed by papal bull to establish a university in Louvain, the capital of the Duchy of Brabant. The new university had three faculties: law, medicine and the arts. The faculty of theology was added in 1432. It developed into a bastion of conservatism and hence intolerance. Louvain accused Luther of heresy even before the Pope did. The faculty was actively involved in the battle against Protestantism and in listing books that on the index. In 1559, Philip II established the University of Douai in Flanders with the purpose of preserving the purity of the Catholic faith from the errors of the Reformation. Soon there were English, Scottish and Irish colleges and the university became the chief centre for exiles, including many young men from Oxford and Cambridge who remained loyal to the old faith.


Next to Louvain and its famous university, Douai became the most important recusant centre on the European mainland. Catholics leaving Britain tended to settle in English monastic foundations in the Southern Netherlands where there were over twenty such islands of refuge representing all important orders. It was here that John Heigham started life in exile. The latter had been involved with the shadowy Catholic book trade in London at the close of the sixteenth century before moving to Douai first and later to St Omer, where he commissioned numerous devotional works for an English Catholic audience. His collaborations with printers in the Low Countries made him the most productive Catholic publisher of his day after the English College press. A notable publication was the Venerable Bede’s Historie of the Church of England (St Omer, first edition 1622; the second dates from 1626).


Students at the English College at Douai (founded by William Allen in 1568) were groomed to undertake missionary work at home. English refugees in Louvain and Douai constituted for the Catholic authorities in Rome and Spain a potential recruitment force. Hence their financial support to those who had fled their country of origin and who found themselves isolated. Only a few English exiles managed to integrate. Refugees made no contribution to the economic or artistic life in the Low Countries. They were a displaced group of people waiting to return home, deliberately avoiding mixing with locals. Integration and tolerance were the last concept that came to the minds of these displaced exiles. A similar observation can be made for Protestant refugees in the Netherlands.


In 1608, a group of separatists, who would later become known as the Pilgrims, fled prosecution in England and settled in Amsterdam. In 1609 the Pilgrims moved to Leiden where they stayed until 1620. One of the separatist leaders there, William Brewster returned to England in 1617 helping to make arrangements for the Pilgrim migration to America. In 1620 he and his 120 followers of the Leiden congregation set sail on the Speedwell for Plymouth from where 102 passengers embarked on the Mayflower to undertake the long journey to Virginia. It was because of the anxiety of losing their English identity, the fear that their children would become assimilated in Dutch society, and of course because of the threat of war with Spain, that these Puritans decided to sail for America.


Protestantism has prided itself as being a liberating creed. Yet, it has to face the fact that its founding fathers believed in stamping out the beliefs of nontrinitarians. Toleration was condemned for encouraging erroneous beliefs – the persecuted advocating persecution. The case for conciliation was first made by English separatists who had fled to the Low Countries. The ideal of toleration was born in exile. In 1606, Leonard Busher fled to the Netherlands where he embraced Baptism. This particular tradition had grown out of the merging of English separatism and Dutch religious tenets during the first decade of the seventeenth century. Primary to this development was the figure of physician John Smyth while he was in Holland between 1608 and 1612. Having joined the so-called Ancient Church in Amsterdam, he was in close contact with local Mennonites, followers of Frisian Anabaptist Menno Simons. His flock were given space to hold their services at the ‘cake house’ of sympathizer Jan Munter. Thus the first English Baptist church was born on foreign soil. In 1614 Busher published his classic Religious Peace, or, A Reconciliation between Princes & Peoples, & Nations in Amsterdam. Addressed to James I and the English parliament, the book is a eloquently argued case for religious toleration, resting on the principle that no sovereign or bishop can compel conscience or command faith.


Baptist leader Thomas Helwys sailed to the Netherlands in 1608, having been a key figure in organizing the emigration to Amsterdam and Leiden of the separatists led by John Smyth, Richard Clifton and John Robinson. In A Short and Plaine Proof (1611) he developed his radical ideas arguing for total religious toleration (he approved of the freedoms allowed by Dutch secular authorities). In his Mystery of Iniquity (printed in Amsterdam, 1612) he opposed all compulsion, even of Roman Catholics and non-Christians, in matter of conscience: ‘Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least’. He bluntly warned King James that he was ‘a mortal man and not God, and therefore hath no power over ye immortal souls of his subjects’. Earlier he had published A Declaration of Faith of the English People Remaining in Amsterdam (1611), it being the first such confession of an English Baptist church. Amsterdam was the chosen place of refuge for English dissenters during the seventeenth century. Such was the Amsterdam tolerant policy towards faith that the phrase ‘an Amsterdam of religions’ became almost proverbial in English. Independent minister and printer John Canne arrived in the Dutch capital in 1632, soon after becoming the leader of the English Brownist refugees there. In 1634 he published his most important book in Amsterdam, entitled A Necessitie of Separation from the Church of England in which he called for a break with the Anglican Church. Canne remained in Amsterdam until at least 1645 where he ran his own printing press bearing the Richt Right impress. It was at this time that dissident thinking started to make an impact. The 1640s are considered a key decade during which the impetus behind tolerationist ideas came from radical Puritanism. London-born Roger Williams is traditionally seen as opening the debate in 1644 when his call for toleration went as far as embracing heretics, blasphemers, Catholics, Muslims and pagans. Tolerationists provided a principled opposition to religious persecution whilst pleading for the peaceful co-existence of a plurality of religions.


The 1689 Toleration Act was a landmark in this struggle for religious toleration although its idealistic purpose should not be exaggerated. Cromwell did not strive to create a liberal society in which divergent religious opinions were openly tolerated. Both his re-admission of Jews into England and William III’s Act of Tolerance were politically motivated manoeuvres rather than statements of principle. Theirs was a ‘qualified tolerance’. But toleration that calls for exceptions, freedom for some and not for others, is no tolerance at all. Persecution hides around the corner. As indeed was the case. Atheism, blasphemy, idolatry and adultery were excluded from toleration, because they were regarded as contrary to natural reason and public order. As, for many commentators, was Catholicism. Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, and the Levellers were remarkable voices in the toleration debate. During the period of their greatest influence, Levellers were willing to extend toleration to Catholics. They were the real champions of religious freedom voicing the idea of a constitution in which the state has no religious role.


Even John Locke did not go as far. He published some of his early works in Holland, including the famous Epistola de tolerantia (Gouda, 1689), a plea for toleration in matters of belief. The text was translated in Dutch the same year and published in Rotterdam as Brief aangaande de verdraagzaamheid. Locke was one of several proponents of religious toleration who made an exception for Catholics (including Cromwell and Milton). They were objected to on two main grounds: Catholics were idolaters and disloyal subjects owing allegiance to a hostile foreign prince, the Pope.


Piazza della Signoria (Florence)


Piazza della Signoria is an L-shaped square in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (Florence’s town hall) which is located near Ponte Vecchio and Piazza del Duomo. It is the focal point of the origin of the Florentine Republic. The Signoria was the government of medieval and Renaissance Florence which consisted of nine members, the Priori, who were chosen from the ranks of the guilds of the city. The piazza was already a central square in the original Roman town Florentia, surrounded by a theatre, public baths and a workshop for dyeing textiles. The Piazza has been painted on numerous occasions. Canaletto’s and Bernardo Belotto’s depictions are among the most famous ones.


Art historians have associated cultural splendour with economic prosperity. Athens in its golden age from about 500 BC promoted architecture and art, and witnessed the birth of theatre, politics, and philosophy. What was the catalyst of such an explosion of creative energy? Athens was a cosmopolitan city, open to various outside influences. Military dominance enabled it to exact tributes from its colonies that funded programs of public art. Democracy gave the pride of freedom to its citizens.


By 1460 Antwerp was one of the largest cities in Europe with a total population of some 100,000 citizens. Of all those inhabitants, just twenty were accounted for as professional painters. A century later, as many as 300 master painters in the city were registered as official members of the Guild of St Luke who were running their independent work-shops and instructing apprentices.

What was the driving force behind this cultural eruption? In the course of the fourteenth century Antwerp had grown into Western Europe’s dominant trade and financial centre. In parallel to economic prosperity, an explosive cultural activity developed within the walls of the city. By the sixteenth century art, weaving and printing had reached unparalleled levels of perfection. Enlightened humanism created a mental atmosphere that proved conducive to the pursuit of art and science. Antwerp became the most vibrant cultural city in Europe. If the arts were initially stimulated by commissions from the Church and gentry, increasingly works of art were created on spec, in other words, they were produced for the open market rather than on order or commission. The Guild of St Luke took a pragmatic approach to this commercialization of art, which itself was a direct result of the ever increasing demand for luxury goods.


Artistic innovation has always been propelled by urban energies. Athens promoted intellectual endeavour, Antwerp stimulated printing and tapestry-weaving, Florence revitalized the fine arts, and London flowered from Elizabethan times through drama and theatre. During the seventeenth century freethinking Amsterdam dominated all other cities in banking, industry and science, supporting (and exporting) a density of artists who were painting for wealthy burgher clients.


After 1800, Vienna came to the fore in musical renewal first, and subsequently witnessed an outburst of energy in avant-garde painting. Later, Paris ruled the arts. In the early twentieth century, Weimar Berlin led the way in cinema. What makes a particular city innovative in a specific field? And why does that creativity blaze for a short period and then die down? If such ‘golden’ ages are rare, by what alchemy do they occur? All cities mentioned above flourished economically which led historians like Robert Vaughan in The Age of Great Cities (1843) to conclude that ‘society becomes possessed of the beautiful in art, only as cities become prosperous and great’.


John Maynard Keynes, in A Treatise on Money, boldly remarked that, as a nation, England was in an economic position ‘to afford Shakespeare at the moment when he presented himself’. Great artists flourish in an urban atmosphere of buoyancy and freedom from economic restraints. They tend to work in cities that are cosmopolitan, outward looking, and in the throes of social change. The theory has been repeated time and again. It would be naïve, however, to link artistic innovation exclusively to prosperity. Wealth in our age is everywhere, but creative talent is hard to find. Financial reward has little to do with artistic achievement – ‘Muse and Mammon cannot be worshipped at the same altar’, as Martin Archer Shee observed in his Elements of Art (1808). What makes an innovative milieu is not affluence itself, but the concentration of talent that it may engender. A culture benefits from the presence of ambitious artists scrambling to eke out a living in a competitive environment. It is a principle the Medicis fully understood when they assembled an array of competing talent to embellish the old city.


Florence prospered through its booming textile industry, trade and banking. The Florentine gold florin was the standard coinage throughout Europe and Tuscan bankers established branches in such important cities as London, Geneva en Bruges. Florence was central to the Renaissance thanks to the funding provided by the Medici dynasty who wanted their city-state to be an awe-inspiring urban centre. Art was an expression of civic pride. Around a hundred palaces were built in Florence in the fifteenth century alone. In a city with a population of some 60,000 that is a staggering number. Talented artists and architects, painters and sculptors, were attracted to Florence and rewarded handsomely for their work. These individuals included geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi, making Florence the centre of gravity in the Italian Renaissance. Its military power boosted the image of being heir to the Roman Republic. Its cultural pride attracted intellectuals and artists from all over the peninsula and from abroad. Florence was a cosmopolitan place where foreigners shared in the pride of the city.


One of those immigrants was Bruges-born painter Jan van der Straet, better known as Stradanus, who spent most of his career in Italy. Having joined Antwerp’s Guild of St Luke around 1545, he left for Italy via Lyons. After six months in Venice, Stradanus settled in Florence, designing tapestry-cartoons for Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici. From 1550 to 1553, he was probably in Rome, first collaborating on the Belvedere gallery in the Vatican and later assisting Francesco Salviati, whose style influenced him greatly. Back in Florence, Stradanus worked under Giorgio Vasari on frescoes and tapestry cartoons for the Palazzo Vecchio, an activity he continued as an independent artist in the 1570s.


Stradanus’s themes and manner of representation became an inherent part of the decorative tradition of the Medici court. In Florence, he developed a descriptive style for the iconography of nobility connected to his Flemish roots in depicting animals, nature, and scenes of every day life. Central to his activity as designer was his fine draughtsmanship. Cosimo I employed Stradanus to design tapestries with hunting scenes which turned out to be popular and inspired him to start producing prints of a similar nature. In collaboration with the renowned Antwerp printmakers, Hieronymus Cock and the Galle family, he produced a vast number of prints using the buyant Antwerp art market as a base for the distribution of his work. He also contributed two paintings to Francesco I de Medici’s famous ‘Studiolo’ in the Palazzo Vecchio (which includes ‘The alchemist’s studio’), a small private room in which the eccentric Duke kept his private museum of paintings and a collection of precious objects. It was also a place where this strange man would find seclusion from his wife, family, and court. Not long after Francesco’s death, the Studiolo was dismantled (only to be partially reconstructed in the twentieth century as a Medici-oddity).


Stradanus created some stunning views of Florence in the 1550s, images of the Via Larga, Ponte a Sante Trinita, Piazza del Mercato, Piazza de Duomo, or Piazza San Giovanni that reflect the tremendous pride Florentines took in the splendour of their city. Highlight is his 1598 fresco of ‘Firework at the Piazza della Signoria’. In their quest to stay close to the public, Renaissance rulers adopted the old trick of entertaining the masses. Impressive displays were part of various festivities. Even though the Chinese had invented fireworks, Europe surpassed them in pyrotechnic development in the fourteenth century, which coincides with the time the gun was invented. Shot and gunpowder for military use was made by skilled tradesmen who also produced fireworks for peace or victory celebrations. During the Renaissance, these became a true art form, when sculptors, craftsmen, and pyrotechnicists worked together to create miniature castles adorned with fountains and wheels that would spray brilliant orange sparks, or spin so quickly that the viewer witnessed a spectacular ‘ring of fire’ during a nighttime display. Italians in particular were known for their elaborate exhibits. The link between the military and pyrotechnics was maintained for some considerable time. By the mid-seventeenth century fireworks were used for entertainment on an unprecedented scale in Europe, being popular at pleasure resorts and public gardens.


In his Pyrotechnia, or a Discourse of Artificiall Fire-Works for Pleasure (1635), the first treatise in English to deal exclusively with the subject of display fireworks, John Babington, Master of his Majesties Ordnance for Charles I, provided directions for making rockets, stars, wheels, and ground-wheels that were more explicit than any offered by previous writers. He was at his best when describing the complex devices and intricate displays in which his age delighted.

When beauty becomes dislodged from functionality, when urban splendour is celebrated for its own sake without consideration of purpose, when wealth and material interests overshadow spritual concerns, then preachers of doom never fail to turn up, pointing out that every metropolis is destined to become a necropolis.


In Florence it was Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola who raised his voice and finger to warn his fellow citizens of imminent ruin. Having ousted the Medicis from the city, he installed a reign of religious tyranny. He packed out Brunelleschi‘s Santa Maria del Fiore, famous for its massive dome, where he delivered rousing sermons against the extravagance of Florentines. He protested against the wealth of the church and preached against the accumulation of worldly possessions. Savonarola declared that the syphilis epidemic sweeping Italy was God’s punishment upon transgressors. He decreed that obesity was a sign of the deadly sin of gluttony. Obese people were set upon by his supporters with sticks and whips. Savonarola called for a ‘bonfire of vanities’ in which people were to burn ‘sinful’ paintings and luxuries (mirrors, cosmetics, musical instruments, manuscripts of secular songs, playing cards, books by Ovid, Petrarch, Boccaccio and others). A huge pyramid of ‘vanities’ was built in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria. The bonfire was lit on Shrove Tuesday (7 February). As the entire Signoria assembled from the balcony of the Palazzo Veccio, flames reached over sixty feet high with the crowds singing a Te Deum.


After a while Florentines began to ridicule his puritanical edicts. His crusade against the abuses of the church would lead to his downfall. Pope Alexander VI restricted Savonarola from preaching and when he refused to do so, he was excommunicated. His reign would not come to an end until 1498 when he was accused of sedition and uttering false prophesies. He was jailed in the Bargello and tortured for several days, but never recanted his words. On 23 May 1498, in front of the fountain of Neptune, he was hanged together with two of his loyal disciples, Silvestro Maruffi and Domenico de Pescia, from a huge cross and burned until nothing but ashes remained. After Savonarola’s execution Florence rapidly recovered from the trauma and continued to thrive. Only a month after his death, on the festival of San Giovanni, the Florentines were entertained by the spectacular sight of a set piece of fireworks representing a giant, a pig, and some dogs. These were allegorical figures of the giant Francesco Valori (Gonfaloniere = leader of the Signoria under Savonarola), the pig Savonarola, and the dogs were the followers of the preacher. It must have been some party.

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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.

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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.

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.


Danse Macabre

19 octobre - Art du Moyen Âge - Danse macabre de la Chaise-Dieu (vers 1480)

Death was everywhere in the Middle-Ages. The ‘danse macabre’ is a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death, produced with the intention to remind people of the vanity of our earthly life. No matter one’s social position, the dance of death unites all. It was a warning for the mighty, a comfort to the poor, and an invitation to lead a Christian life. The dance consists of death personified leading a row of figures from all walks of life to the grave, typically with the skeletons of an emperor, king, youngster, and beautiful girl. The deathly horrors of the fourteenth century, famine, war, the plague, were culturally digested throughout Europe. The omnipresent possibility of death increased the religious desire for penitence, but it also evoked a desire for relief, a last dance as cold comfort. The ‘danse macabre’ combines both desires. The earliest examples of such plays, which consisted of short dialogues between Death and each of its victims, can be found in the direct aftermath of the Black Death in Germany (where it was known as the ‘Totentanz’). Both the play and the evolving paintings were ostensive penitential sermons aimed at the illiterate. The class distinction is neutralized by Death as the ultimate equalizer, so that a socio-critical element is subtly introduced. The earliest artistic examples date from 1424 and can be found in the cemetery of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris. Most famous in European art history are the woodcuts designed by Hans Holbein the younger and executed by Hans Lützelburger (1538). The pictures here show less known historiated initials, used by the Zurich printer Christoff Froschauer.