From the Archives: A Tale of Two Printers

POST BY MAllen

Lockdown and working from home has meant that I have not been able to continue with cataloguing the books in the Jesuit Antiquarian Book Collection.  However, I have been able to take a look in greater detail at some of the books already catalogued, especially those of which I had pictures on my camera roll.  This blog is the result of some of these researches, and focuses on just two of the nearly 1000 pre-1700 volumes in the Jesuit Antiquarian Book Collection.  

The collection includes quite a few books which are duplicate copies of the same work.  For example we have 10 copies of Robert Persons SJ’s Christian Directory, and at least five copies of Edward Campion SJ’s Decem Rationes.  This blog post is going to look at two copies of one text, published in different cities in Europe by different printers, and will highlight some of what we can learn from comparing them.

The work is Libellus Sodalitatis: Hoc est Christianarum Institutionum Libri Quinque, in gratiam sodalitatis B. Virginis Mariae, and it was written Frans Coster (1532-1619), a Flemish Jesuit.  He was successively Jesuit Provincial of the Belgian and the Rhine Provinces, and was a theologian and author who published at least 42 works including sermons, works on ascetical subjects and meditations on Marian themes.  He established two Sodalities (religious organisations for laypeople) the Sodality of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The Libellus Sodalitatis is aimed at members of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary to help them in their devotions.   Its contents include the document granted by Pope Gregory XIII confirming the Sodality, and prayers, meditations, songs and hymns to the Virgin Mary.

The catalogue numbers of the two copies of Coster’s Libellus Sodalitatis are A/214 and A/215.  They were published within 11 years of each other.  A/214 was published in 1588 in Ingolstadt by a printing house run by David Sartorius and A/215 was published in 1597 in Antwerp by John Moretus at the Plantin printing house.   

From the outside, the two volumes look very different.  A/215 has a limp vellum wrapper rather than a hard binding - this is the early modern equivalent of a paperback.  It had ties to keep it shut which are still present but are shorter than they were originally.  A/214 has a rather smart leather binding with deep tooling decoration, which retains some of its gilt.  It has metal clasps to keep it shut, although one of them is missing.  The covers are unusually thick and have a steep bevel to their edges.  

A/215, with its limp vellum cover, fits well into the Jesuit collection – many of the other books in the collection have similarly unpretentious and utilitarian wrappers.  The Jesuit library was built up as an aid to education and mission, rather than as a collection to impress or look smart in a grand library room, and many of the books in it today show clear signs of having been used as texts to study. Elaborate bindings were not a priority, instead the vellum wrappers were preferred as they were inexpensive, protected the books well enough, especially when the ties were used, and had the added advantage of being light and easier to carry. More extravagant bindings such as that on A/214 are unusual in the Jesuit collection, and are usually an indication that the volume previously belonged in another library with a larger binding budget.  In this respect, A/214 is no exception.

As well as the binding, there are other signs of the former owners of A/214.  There are inscriptions on the title page and elsewhere in the volume.  The two on the title page are both ownership inscriptions for the Augustinian Friary of Ratisbon (now Regensberg). Presumably it was the Augustinians who gave the book its fancy binding, or perhaps another owner.  There is no indication of how or when this book came from the library of the Augustinian Friars of Ratisbon to the Jesuits in London, or whether it has had other owners as well as the Friars and Jesuits.  

A/214 was printed in Ingolstadt, which had a university from 1472 and became an early centre for printing, with three known printing houses by 1490.  David Sartorius, who printed A/214, set up his office in 1571 and focussed on the university, publishing texts for students.  However, he also published devotional works such as this one.  Ingolstadt is only about 40 miles (60km) from Regensberg.  This copy didn’t move far from where it was made to its early home with the Augustinian Friars, and it may be that the Friars travelled to the university town with its related book makers and sellers in order to buy books for their library. 

The other copy of the book, A/215, was printed in Antwerp by the famous Plantin-Moretus printing establishment (now a printing museum and UNESCO World Heritage site). Plantin-Moretus was started by Christopher Plantin in or after 1555 and continued by his son Johann Moretus.  The company lasted until the nineteenth century and in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was one of the foremost printers in Europe.  

Unlike A/214, A/215 has no ownership marks other than a bookplate for the Jesuit Library at 114 Mount Street, London, so we know nothing about its history, and it is possible that it has been in Jesuit hands since it was published by Plantin.

The title pages of the two books are similar.  They mainly contain the same words, although one has a little more information than the other.  Both have a large image of the same subject, a seated Madonna holding a book in her right hand, with the Child in her left, and he in turn is holding a rosary in his left hand.  They are flanked by a pair of kneeling noblemen, the one on the left holding a rosary.  Under the feet of the Madonna is a serpent and above are a pair of angels holding a crown above the Madonna’s head.  She is seated on a raised dais and the noblemen are kneeling on the edge of this.  All are surrounded by clouds.  

However, these two prints are not the same.  The one in A/215 is an intaglio print, that is a print made by etching the image into a metal plate.  The print in A/214 is a woodblock, in which the image to be printed remains raised, and the areas to be left white being carved away.  The printing process is quite different for these two types of prints and the greater pressure needed to impress the intaglio print leaves an indentation in the paper, which can be seen on the title page of A/215.

We know that there are other versions of the same scene.  The Plantin-Moretus museum has digitised and made freely available its collection of 14,000 woodblocks and among them is a version of this image.  It is catalogue number is MPM.HB.00757 and there is a note on the back that it comes from the book by Coster printed in 1596.  This woodblock version of the scene was used by Plantin in an edition printed the year before the copy in the Jesuit Antiquarian Book collection, with the intaglio print. Plantin printed Latin editions of Coster’s book in 1586, twice in 1587, 1588, 1593, 1596, 1597, 1601 and 1607 (Plantin also printed editions of the book in French and Dutch).  Woodblocks get worn down with use and need to be replaced more often than metal plates or indeed type.  This explains why the different editions have different versions of the woodblock print on their title page.  

There is a copy of the 1586 Plantin edition which has yet another woodblock version of the title page scene, now in the possession of the University of Madrid.   The Plantin 1588 edition has been digitised by the Hathi Trust and has yet another version of the woodcut.  The 1597 edition had two issues, the first with a woodblock print on the title page, and the second with the intaglio seen in the copy in the Jesuit Collection, so we know that A/215 was from the second issue of the 1597 edition.  Presumably the woodblock of the first issue became so worn as to be unusable, and as the book was selling well the decision was made to make an engraving of the same scene.  This was a greater investment and must have been thought worthwhile at the time. Interestingly the 1603 and 1607 Latin editions were printed with woodcut prints rather than intaglios, as were the majority of the French and Dutch editions, although some copies of the Dutch 1604 edition used the intaglio. 

So to summarise, Plantin-Moretus, one of the foremost printing houses in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries printed multiple copies of this work, always with a very similar title page image.  This block was renewed several times and a metal version was engraved though not used very much.  At the same time, copies of the book were being printed elsewhere in Europe by other printers, including David Sartorius in Ingolstadt.  Presumably, an early edition of the Plantin version was used by other printers as an exemplar, and these printers would commission a local wood carver, or their in-house carver, to make the woodblock, which would inevitably have differences from the original.  The printers would set their type in a similar but not identical fashion to the exemplar.  This method of printing and copying books explains the differences between the two books in the Jesuit collection. 

Looking closely at early modern books reveals how different they are from modern books.  These two books in the Jesuit collection highlights three main areas of difference.  Firstly, there are variations within a print run.  If we buy two books today printed in the same run we would expect them to be identical.  Old books from the same edition can be different from each other because changes could be – and were – made during the print run.  In the case of these 2 books, A/215 was part of a print run which changed the actual medium of its title page image, from a woodblock to a metal intaglio print.  The second difference is that images could be made and remade from a common source without copyright or other restrictions.  The picture is recognisably the same but each version of it is different.  And thirdly, different volumes have changed in the intervening centuries, with annotations and binding choices made by successive owners. 

Only the title page and the bindings have been considered for this blog post, and have been subjected to close comparison.  With just this information we have been able to delve deeply into sixteenth century printing practices and networks of communication between printers, engravers and wood carvers, universities and religious organisations.

Lucy Vinten Mattich, Assistant Archivist