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IFLANET home - International Federation of Library 
Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 051-132-E
Division Number: V.
Professional Group: Rare Books and Manuscripts
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 132.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Surreptitious printing in early modern Amsterdam :
A survey and analysis from the University of Illinois' collections

Barbara M. Jones
Chair, Special Collections Division
Rare Book and Special Collections Library
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Urbana, Illinois, USA
E-mail: jones5@uiuc.edu


Early Modern Amsterdam was an important center for surreptitious printing of English-language materials prohibited by English authorities because of their controversial religious or political content. This paper will use the holdings of the University of Illinois Rare Book and Special Collections Library as examples of such printing. Highlighted will be a group of Geneva Bibles and two editions of Hobbes' Leviathan. After a brief historical introduction to conditions in England and the Netherlands, the sets of books will be analyzed for bibliographical "clues" that they were surreptitiously printed.


A debt of gratitude goes to Professor Emeritus N. Frederick Nash, who identified the surreptitious printing examples from UIUC's collections.

In The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein links three key events-the Italian Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of modern science-to the expansion of "print culture" in early modern Europe. Until social and cultural historians embraced the history of books and reading in the 1970's, the study of the printing press and the book trade was often restricted to the highly specialized field of descriptive bibliography. This presentation hopefully blends the best from both the bibliographical and the historical worlds. Examination of the holdings of the University of Illinois Library convinced this researcher that such an approach sheds new light on the importance of the bustling business of clandestine publishing in early modern Amsterdam. It also shows that there is much exciting scholarly work left to be done.

Section One of this paper will survey the historical context for the early modern printing business. Section Two will demonstrate how to identify clandestine printing, applying the techniques of descriptive bibliography to copies of Stam's Geneva Bible and Hobbes' Leviathan. All examples can be found in the University of Illinois Library.


The Early Modern Period in Western Europe, here defined as 1500-1700, was marked by the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the rise of modern scientific thought, and the host of religious, intellectual, and governance issues arising from the above. This paper will focus on the impact of these and other events on England and the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. This section is but broad brush strokes, subject to careful historical analysis. But the purpose here is not to cover new ground, but to provide context and rationale for the brisk business in clandestine printing of English language books in seventeenth-century Amsterdam.

In Five Hundred Years of Printing, S.H. Steinberg notes that the seventeenth century is commonly acknowledged to be the "golden age" not only for overall Dutch economic and cultural prosperity, but also for their book trade. As most of the audience is aware, the liberation of the northern Netherlands from Spain was followed by a period of extraordinary growth in educational and publishing institutions, including the University of Leiden and the house of Elzevir, and a gradual movement of business activity from Antwerp in the south to Amsterdam in the north.

Printing historians' consensus is that Christophe Plantin was the first great Dutch printer, settling in Antwerp in 1549 and creating a publishing empire in a city already bustling with printing activity. Increasingly nervous about Spanish authorities discovering his secret conversion to Protestantism, Plantin moved to Leiden, where he became the university's printer before his eventual return to Antwerp. This was an extremely important era for the protestant University of Leiden, where new academic disciplines flourished and students and faculty from a variety of religious backgrounds and countries were admitted. The relatively tolerant attitude toward a diversity of ideas at Leiden is important background for understanding the successful business of clandestine printing in the Netherlands.

Louis Elzevir learned the trade in Plantin's shop but he, too, had concerns that his religious convictions might threaten his personal security. So in 1580 he settled in Leiden and inaugurated a series of classical texts that became his firm's stock in trade. By the time of his death in 1617, Elzevir had established a truly international network of readers and distributors.

Thus the Netherlands was well positioned economically and politically to take on the business of clandestine publishing. Its northern urban centers, including Amsterdam, were relatively tolerant of ideas clashing with Protestantism, but there was certainly a desire at the same time to capitalize on the prevalent anti-papist sentiment. Also, Holland's seafaring heyday had created the markets and infrastructure for vigorous overseas trading operations. As Eisenstein comments somewhat ironically:

Given the existence of profit-seeking printers outside the reach of Rome, Catholic censorship boomeranged in ways that could not be foreseen. Lists of passages to be expurgated, for example, directed readers to 'book, chapter, and line' where anti-Roman passages could be found; thus relieving Protestant propagandists of the need to make their own search for anti-Catholic citations drawn from eminent authors and respected works. 'Early copies of all the original Indexes found their way as soon as they were produced to Leiden, Amsterdam and Utrecht and were promptly utilized by the enterprising Dutch publisher as guides.' (p. 416, including quotations from G.H. Putnam's books on censorship)

In fact, as K.H.D. Haley notes in his The Dutch in the Seventeenth Century, there is some suggestion that in the seventeenth century more books were printed in the Netherlands than in all the rest of Europe put together. He goes on to say:

This is the kind of guess which is scarcely capable of statistical proof, but when the vast output, ranging from the thickest of folios to the most ephemeral pamphlet and news-sheet, is taken into consideration, it is not so wild as it seems. Foreigners brought their writings to be printed in the Dutch Republic to avoid the attention of their own censorship-notably in the reign of Charles I. Laud complained in 1632 that the Durch, printing more accurate texts on better paper and in clearer type, were able to sell Geneva Bibles in England eighteenpence cheaper than their English competitors. (p. 123)

Meanwhile, England's restrictive policies on printing were creating a market opportunity for the Netherlands. As M.E. Kronenberg pointed out in two essays in The Library, the Netherlands had been providing Protestant printed works in the English language surreptitiously since the 1520's, and the English had continually issued proclamations-one as early as 1526--against this practice.

What were some of the differences between the two countries, both regarding general history and the history of the printing trades? William Speck offers a general perspective in his essay, "Britain and the Dutch Republic," to complement Kronenberg's more specific comparisons between the two nation's printing trades. As might be expected, the Dutch printing trade and distribution networks at this time were far more developed than the English system, including the all-important university presses. The mix of revolutionary ideas in England was arguably more volatile and thus more threatening and vulnerable to censorship. The Puritan Revolution and two civil wars from 1642-1649 brought forth a complex spectrum of religious ideas that could not be tolerated either by the royalists or the Parliamentarians. As is evident in the life and writings of Hobbes, this was a tricky environment for a revolutionary thinker, let alone a traditional one! His De cive, published in 1642, was placed on the Roman index in 1654, even though four editions had previously been issued; and the Oxford University Press was ordered to burn it in 1683, after six editions had been published.

Second, England's printing trade had always been more controlled, perhaps due to the more centralized monarchical form of government compared to the loose Dutch United Provinces. The Stationers' Company had been organized since 1403, and in 1557 the printer-publishers received a royal charter so that they could better monitor heretical and seditious writings. In 1586 the Star Chamber decreed that printing would only be allowed in London, with exceptions made for the university presses at Oxford and Cambridge. In 1643 a Parliamentary ordinance restricting printers and booksellers moved John Milton to write his famous Areopagitica, one of Western civilization's most moving testaments to the power of free and open discussion of ideas. It was not until 1695 that the Licensing Law was abandoned in England.

Given the above historical context, what were the "mechanics" of clandestine printing?
Most scholars believe that the most common subterfuge was a falsified imprint. Examples will be shown in Section Two of this lecture. Sometimes the place of publication was falsified; sometimes the name of the printer. Protestant Dutch printers seemed less afraid of getting in trouble with Dutch authorities than determined to get their books-packed in tubs with more ordinary wares--past the authorities in the English ports. And, as Steinberg notes, no Dutch printers using false imprints were burned at the stake.

It should be noted here that various terms are used for the practice and bibliographic evidence of the above type of printing: "counterfeit," "clandestine", "fictitious imprints," and "surreptitious" are but four, and in some instances there are important distinctions. This paper's examples best fit the definition in Woodfield's Surreptitious Printing in England: " . . . a fictitious printer's name or imprint and no location or a false location; . . . no printer's name or imprint and no location or a false location; . . . the actual printer's name completely translated and no location or a false location." (p. vii)

UIUC has dozens of examples of this type of surreptitious English language printing from Amsterdam during the early modern period. The types of books range are mostly political or religious in subject, and this paper is a work in progress. Professor Nash continues to work on his important "bibliography file" which documents, by subject, such special titles as "fictitious imprints." His file will illustrate, from UIUC's collections, all the definitions in Carter/Barker's ABC for Book Collectors. I hope by the next IFLA I will be able to announce its completion! The examples presented today are from a set of Geneva Bibles and from Hobbes' Leviathan. We continue to work on John Milton; Illinois holds the second largest collection of his works in the world.

UIUC has collected suppressed literature for over fifty years, due to Dean of the Library Robert Downs' interest in this topic. The University of Illinois Rare Book and Special Collections Library holds the Baskette Freedom of Expression collection, which contains everything from papal indexes to Madonna's Sex. Suppressed or censored literature not contained in the Baskette collection will eventually be cross-referenced.