To the Victor the Spoils

By Andrew Pettegree |

Throughout the history of print, the Bible was a perennial favourite of the industry.  This was the text with which Gutenberg chose to announce his great invention, and for centuries thereafter Bibles, New Testaments and psalm books formed the cornerstone of the collections of those who could afford books; and if households only owned a handful of books, these would invariably include a biblical text. But this was at the same time a challenging market, for purchasers and producers alike. Rival translations could stir controversy. So it was not surprising that in both England and the Dutch Republic, a commission of experts was tasked with producing an official translation. Writing by committee is seldom a happy experience, and in the Dutch Republic the production of the States Bible turned into a saga of battling egos, rivalries and greed.

Most of the roadblocks were erected by the printers. Almost as soon as the translation got underway, the printers protested that they faced financial disaster if their large stocks of earlier translations became suddenly redundant. They estimated this stock at 80,000 copies, an extraordinary witness to the vitality of the marketplace of scripture. Happily, the lengthy deliberations of the translators negated this problem, but as the work reached completion leading figures in the print industry began manoeuvring for the coveted commission to publish the book. It was clear that the Bible had to be printed in the university city of Leiden, where the translators had been given hospitality, so the major Leiden publishing houses were confident of success; until, that is, the printer to the States General, the widow Van Wouw, based in The Hague, established a Leiden subsidiary and carried away the coveted privilege by buying off the Leiden city magistrates and the translators.

This caused uproar both in Leiden and Amsterdam. Since every church and many private citizens would buy the new translation, the potential profit to Van Wouw was enormous. In Amsterdam, a number of printers came to an agreement to oppose the privilege granted to Van Wouw, and produce a local rival edition. This consortium was promptly supported by their local magistrates, eager to display their displeasure with the regents in The Hague and Leiden. This majestic edition (Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 345 G 6) is one of the fruits of this unseemly squabble, published with a title-page engraving displaying a harbour view of Amsterdam and proudly proclaiming the authenticity of their edition. In the end, the market was big enough to sustain publication in both Leiden and Amsterdam; the States Bible was popular with Mennonites and Lutherans as well as with the Reformed Church. It remained, with numerous New Testaments in various sizes, a cornerstone of the Dutch book trade for two centuries.

This blog post is published to celebrate the publication of Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, The Bookshop of the World. Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age, and our long-term collaboration with Proquest on their milestone Early European Books project. This is part of a number of thematic articles available on the EEB website.

Andrew Pettegree is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Universal Short Title Catalogue. He is the author of over a dozen books in the fields of Reformation history and the history of communication including Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (Cambridge University Press, 2005), The Book in the Renaissance (Yale University Press, 2010), The Invention of News (Yale University Press, 2014) and Brand Luther: 1517, Print and the Making of the Reformation (Penguin, 2015). His latest book, The Bookshop of the World. Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age (Yale University Press), co-authored with Arthur der Weduwen, was published in March 2019, and in Dutch with Atlas Contact.  His next projects are a study of book advertising in the Dutch Golden Age and The Library: A Fragile History, contracted to Profile for 2021.


Image courtesy of ProQuest.

%d bloggers like this: