Institute of English Studies research fellow, Dr Karen Attar, argues for wider recognition for the achievements of a giant of print.

Libraries worldwide commemorated the 500th anniversary of the death of the Italian scholar-printer Aldus Manutius with conferences and exhibitions in 2015. However, the 500th birthday of his contemporary, French printer and publisher Christophe Plantin, is creating less of a stir. 

Celebrating one of the pioneers of European printing

That we do not know a precise date of birth, only ‘approximately 1520’, is unhelpful for publicity purposes. But Plantin deserves to be celebrated. He and his heirs dominated northern European printing and publishing for more than 100 years. And he even has a typeface named after him.

The establishment he founded – the Officina Plantiniana – has survived as a printing house for more than 300 years. And millions of people across the world, who would not in the normal course of their lives engage with one of his books, know about him and his achievement from the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp. 

‘By Labour and Constancy’: beginnings and development of a printing business

Born in Tours, France, Plantin learned printing in Paris before moving to Antwerp in 1548/9 and commencing work as a bookbinder. He established the Officina Plantiniana there in 1555. Except for a brief spell in Leiden (1583–1585) arising from political and religious upheavals, he remained in Antwerp until his death in 1589. 

He published some 2,450 titles on a wide range of subjects: above all theological and liturgical books, but also Classics, history, law, medicine, science and mathematics, by ancient and mediaeval writers and by his contemporaries, mostly in Latin but also in vernacular tongues. 

At the height of his activity he operated 22 presses (as opposed to the customary two to six operated even by successful enterprises). He is remembered not merely for the quantity of his productions but for the attention he paid to their appearance. He employed the best French typecutters, Garamond and Granjon, and he produced a number of richly illustrated books for which he commissioned engravings rather than copying woodcuts. 

Friendships and partnerships: publishing Joannes Goropius

Plantin published the large folio volume (featured below) in 1580: one of 36 titles he issued in that year, although some of the others are merely placards or ordinances. It is the posthumous Opera Joan. Goropii Becani. The author, Joannes Goropius Becanus (Jan van Gorp, of Hilvarenbeek) was born in 1519, a year before Plantin. He was a linguist and a medical practitioner, who attended Plantin medically when he was injured shortly after arriving in Antwerp. 

Goropius joined Plantin as a partner in 1563 for four years, until leaving Antwerp 1567; he was also Plantin’s close friend. In 1569 Plantin published his Origines Antwerpianane, a massive folio in which Goropius argued for the supremacy of Flemish as the world’s oldest language, pre-dating Hebrew. Much as the theory was ridiculed, it drew attention to the antiquity of Germanic languages and initiated the study of comparative philology.

The Opera continued Goropius’s arguments in six parts. When Goropius died in 1573, he obtained a deathbed promise from his editor, the bishop and humanist Laevinus Torrentius, to publish his unprinted works. These were not all completed, and the delay in printing results from the fact that Plantin did not receive the full text until summer 1580. 

The printed text is dense, with few paragraph divisions, although numerous side notes facilitate orientation. The book is illustrated with a mixture of copper engravings and woodcuts, centred in Part Two, ‘Hierographyics’. They stand out for the unusual accuracy of the Egyptian figures depicted, drawn from original monuments.

The book did not sell. As part of his contract, Plantin had to give 50 copies to the heirs of Goropius, to whom he had owed money. He shifted only three further copies in 1580, and records show 11 copies remaining in stock as late as 1642. Twentieth-century academic libraries, by contrast, value it as a testimony to the famous printer more than the author. 

Preserving Plantin’s legacy at Senate House Library

For Senate House, Opera Joan. Goropii Becani joins further works by Plantin as material evidence of the inauguration of the Dutch Golden Age of printing/publishing. Plantin’s publications as a whole join the imprints of his Parisian contemporary Robert Estienne and the Elzevir publications which dominated 17-century southern Netherlandish printing as a record of early modern western European culture.

The Senate House Library copy formerly belonged to Henry Morley (1822–1894), an energetic Victorian whose achievements included popularising English literature and campaigning for women to gain degrees. Morley’s main connection with the University of London was as professor of English at University College London (1865–1889). 

Morley lived in Hampstead, and upon his death at least some of his books moved to Hampstead Public Libraries. In 1947 Hampstead Public Libraries gave about 1,000 of them, printed between the 16th and the 19th centuries and chiefly of literary interest, to the University of London. Goropius’ work was part of that gift and takes on new relevance with Christophe Plantin’s 500th anniversary.

Dr Karen Attar is a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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