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Low Countries Update: Surveying Academic Printing in the Early Modern Netherlands

Leiden University Libraries

By Arthur der Weduwen |

This week we present a major addition to the USTC, in the shape of a general update of our Low Countries data. This subsection of the resource has been heavily worked on for the past several years, and we are now in a position to present some additional 9,000 editions, raising the total documented output of the Netherlands before 1650 to 93,017 records.

The latest update incorporates a variety of new features, some of which will be highlighted in further reports on the website in the coming months. For the first time, the USTC includes a unique contemporary references section, which includes data on 32,000 books found in seventeenth-century book catalogues and newspaper advertisements. The Low Countries corpus has for the first time also been split between the Northern and Southern Netherlands, which allows one to chart the relative peaks and troughs of printing in both halves of the Low Countries before and after the Dutch Revolt. Thanks to the work of several of our postgraduate students and volunteers on the summer programme, the update also includes hundreds of previously undocumented almanacs and government broadsheets.

In this report, we reflect on one of the other categories of Netherlandish print on which we have made substantial progress: academic dissertations. Academic print is now the third largest subject classification of print known for the early modern Low Countries. We have documented 10,878 editions thus far, comprising 12% of the total Netherlandish corpus. These dissertations are overwhelmingly products of Northern Netherlandish presses (10,079). They make up 20% of all documented print for the Northern Netherlands up to 1650.

Rijksmuseum
The Conferring of a Degree at the University of Leiden about 1650. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, available under the Creative Commons Licence.

That academic printing is so prominent in the Dutch corpus is testament to the rich university culture of the Dutch Republic. By 1648, the Republic was home to five universities (Leiden, Franeker, Groningen, Utrecht and Harderwijk). At least 20,000 students were at one point matriculated in one or more of these universities during the seventeenth century. About half of this number took degrees, usually in medicine or jurisprudence. The Dutch Republic was also home to a dozen illustrious schools, institutes of higher education that did not have the power to confer doctoral degrees.

The work of these academic institutions generated a mass of work for printers. University print regularly made up 90% of the Latin publications produced in any given year in towns like Utrecht and Groningen. Apart from the routine work of semester schedules, notifications of upcoming graduation ceremonies and funeral announcements (as highlighted by Forrest Strickland two weeks ago), most lucrative of all was the printing of dissertations. All students taking degrees would first defend theses in a public ceremony: these were invariably printed, to be distributed gratis to those attending. In addition, throughout their university career, students undertook practice dissertations under the supervision of their professor. These were also printed. Sometimes a professor would conduct a series with a specific theme, often later gathered together for re-publication under the professor’s own name.

These dissertations were generally printed as quarto pamphlets, often no longer than one or two sheets of paper (eight or sixteen pages). Although thousands of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dissertations can be found today, these short works are amongst the most neglected of texts from the early modern period. This neglect is exacerbated by the poor survival of Dutch dissertations in the Netherlands. Although by the eighteenth century most universities ensured that at least one copy of all student dissertations were archived properly, this was rarely maintained for the first century after the universities’ foundation. As a result, there are as many Dutch dissertations surviving in a copy abroad, as there are in the Netherlands.

That we have been able to undertake this survey is largely thanks to the card index of early modern Dutch dissertations compiled by Professor Sape van der Woude, held at the Special Collections reading room of the University of Amsterdam. Over the past three years, we have worked to incorporate all entries in this card index for the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The card index, compiled in the 1960s and 1970s, is a monumental resource, including information on Dutch dissertations held at over 120 libraries around Europe. This we have supplemented with fieldwork of our own in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Ireland, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania and Hungary. We also benefitted hugely from the exhaustive bibliography of Franeker imprints by Ferenc Postma and Jacob van Sluis, published in 1995.[1]

Most dissertations that we have documented are extant only in a single copy. In the process of completing the survey, it became clear that many more do not survive at all. Luckily, academic print provides a variety of ways in which we can trace very accurately these lost books, and include them in the USTC nevertheless. Because many practice disputations formed part of a series, some of them were numbered: this serial numbering has also allowed us to reconstruct some extraordinary gaps in the survival of these student works. One example will suffice for many: in 1641, the professor Johannes Polyander à Kerckhoven presided over a series of disputations at Leiden entitled Disputationum theologicarum ordinariarum. Only three of these disputations survive today, all to be found in the National Library of Helsinki, in Finland. The survivals are numbered 35, 37 and 41.[2] In the same year, Polyander à Kerckhoven also held another theological series, entitled Secundæ concertationis anti-Socinianae disputatio. Only one example from this series survives, also in Helsinki, which is number 17.[3] Inferring the lost disputations for both series generates 62 lost academic disputations. We can continue this process for similar numbered series, at all universities and illustrious schools, and by this means recover at least 1,350 lost practice disputations for the seventeenth century.

Other lost disputations can be inferred even if they are not part of a numbered series. Many professors would publish the texts of the individual disputations in a scholarly compendium, under their own name. Some, however, would also include the names of the individual students who had defended the theses: scouring through these compendia, we can identify the parts of the disputations which would initially have been published as separate quarto pamphlets. In 1609, the Franeker professor Timaeus Faber published his Disputationes anniversariae ad IIII libros Institutionum imperialium, a compendium of disputations, over which he had recently presided. The text was composed of twenty-three disputations, of which only two survive in their separate printings.[4] This provides us with another twenty-one lost books.

Finally, we have also trawled through the album promotori of several Dutch universities, which list students who defended doctoral dissertations. The lists are based on a variety of sources: some university archives have a physical register of promotions, other promotions are listed in the resolutions of the Senate, and still others have come down to us only through the extant printed edition. By comparing these lists to extant examples, we documented 983 lost inaugural dissertations for the five universities between 1593 and 1650, most of which are from the oldest of the two universities, Leiden (607) and Franeker (282).

As we prepare a full survey of Dutch printing for the second half of the seventeenth century, it is clear that academic print continued to dominate as a publishing genre. We have catalogued over 14,000 academic imprints for the period between 1651 and 1700, representing close to 25% of the documented output of the Dutch Republic for that period. The presses of the Dutch Golden Age flourished in part thanks to the hard work of the thousands of students who enrolled at university, and the dedicated professors who prepared lengthy series of disputations. It is our pleasure to acknowledge this important contribution, so often ignored, with our latest addition to the USTC.


Arthur der Weduwen is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of St Andrews and the author of Dutch and Flemish Newspapers of the Seventeenth Century (2 vols., Brill, 2017) and The Bookshop of the World. Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age (co-authored with Andrew Pettegree) (Yale University Press, 2019). For the USTC he works predominantly on the print cultures of the Low Countries, Scandinavia and the Baltic.


[1] F. Postma and J. van Sluis, Auditorium Academiae Franekerensis. Bibliographe der Reden, Disputationen und Gelegenheitsdruckwerke der Universiät un des Athenäums in Franeker, 1585-1843 (Leeuwarden: Fryske Akademy, 1995).

[2] See USTC 1538515, 1538517 and 1538518.

[3] USTC 1538516.

[4] USTC 1524407.


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