Labor and Constancy: Christophe Plantin, Printer Extraordinaire

(The following is a post by Taru Spiegel, reference specialist, European Division.)

Today’s readers owe a debt of gratitude to the early European printers whose efforts made reading materials increasingly available, and thus furthered the spread of literacy and learning. Johann Gutenberg (d. 1468) is the best known of those printers because of his innovative moveable type, but there are many other printers in the 15th and 16th centuries who are still remembered today. One of these was Christophe Plantin (c. 1520-89), who arguably became the most highly regarded printer and publisher of his time, and whose family successfully continued his printing business for several generations. The Plantin-Moretus printing establishment in Antwerp, Belgium, became a museum, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Jan Moretus was the name of the particular Plantin son-in-law who took over the printing business in Antwerp.

Plantin was born near Tours, in west-central France.  As a youth, he learned to read and write, suggesting a level of ambition on the part of his family, since at that time most Europeans could do neither. While in Paris with his father, the teenage Christophe was apprenticed to a bookseller. He subsequently moved to Caen in Normandy, where he learned bookbinding in addition to bookselling. In 1545, Plantin and his wife, Jeanne Rivière, set up business in Paris using their respective skills in the book and textile trade. About 1549, looking for better prospects, the Plantin family moved to Antwerp—now in Belgium, but then part of the “Low Countries,” which included today’s Netherlands and Luxembourg, in addition to Belgium.

Image of Plantin from Félix van Hulst. “Chr. Plantin.” Liége [sic]: F. Oudart, 1846.

Antwerp was a flourishing cosmopolitan port city and commercial center with a thriving printing industry. Plantin initially established himself as a bookbinder and manufacturer of well-made, decorative caskets suitable for, e.g., jewelry, while his energetic wife traded in lace. In 1555, Plantin realized his dream of becoming a printer, issuing humanist Giovanni Bruto’s work, “La institutione di una fanciulla nata nobilmente” (The education of a young woman of noble birth). This book, despite the title, advised against educating women—ironic since Plantin’s hard-working daughters were remarkably well educated for their time, with a knowledge of reading, writing, and languages such as Greek and Latin.

Plantin lived in a time of religious warfare. The Low Countries were a battleground between Spanish Catholic interests in the south and those of the northern Protestant provinces, which eventually separated from Spain to form a Dutch Republic in 1579. Booksellers and printers were under constant scrutiny regarding the “correctness” of the material published, and heresy was severely punished. In Antwerp, any writings that appeared anti-Catholic would have been viewed as heresy by the Church. Plantin presented himself as a pious Catholic, but was actually a tolerant humanist with ties to a movement called “Family of Love,” with an approach to life possibly closest to today’s Quakers. To stay in business, Plantin charted a careful course between Catholic and Protestant interests. His successes commanded respect, especially considering the financial and other woes brought on by the turbulent times.

A 1572 Protestant victory resulted in blocking trade routes to and from Antwerp, and Plantin’s business suffered. In 1576, unpaid Spanish soldiers raged in Antwerp, burning, killing, and looting. Plantin’s printing business avoided destruction only by Plantin paying ransom to the troops. No longer young, and despite his avowed Catholic piety, in 1583, Plantin found himself looking for new business opportunities—now in the Protestant city of Leiden, as typographer for the new university (founded in 1575).

Biblia Sacra, Hebraice, Chaldaice, Graece, & Latine” (Sacred Bible in Hebraic, Chaldaic, Greek & Latin). Antverpiae, Ex officina Christophori Plantin, 1571. The Bible’s frontispiece depicts a “Peaceable Kingdom” with an ox, lion, lamb, and wolf peacefully together with a harbor and town in the background.

Plantin’s well-known printer’s mark from 1557 reads “Labore et Constantia” (Work and constancy), represented by a drawing compass, constancy being the stationary point, and work the moving one. True to his maxim, Plantin became Antwerp’s chief printer while also maintaining his book-selling and lace businesses.

The Library of Congress holds a number of other works printed by Plantin including his masterwork, a multilingual eight-volume Bible published 1569-72. This venture, supported by Philip II of Spain, presented Old and New Testament texts in a line-by-line comparison of the Hebrew, Chaldaic, Greek, and Latin texts, according to the latest biblical scholarship available, and was carefully scrutinized for possible heresy before it was released.

Between 1555 and 1562, Plantin’s publishing house (the “Officina Plantiniana”) issued 141 titles, a significant number in the early days of printing. The works were in Latin, French, Spanish, and Dutch, requiring a high level of proficiency in the proofreading that Plantin’s family and employees provided. In 1561, his business did so well that he renamed it “De Gulden Passer” (The Golden Compass). By 1566, Plantin had managed to acquire the astonishing number of seven printing presses, and employed 33 printers, compositors, and proof-readers. At its most successful, Plantin’s business had more than 20 presses and 150 employees. Although Plantin was down to 16 presses and 55 employees in 1574, the consistently excellent work of his print shop, his facility for making friends, and an astute understanding of political currents enabled him to survive despite the troubled times.  Ingeniously, Plantin managed to become both a Royal architypographer (chief printer) to the Catholic King of Spain in 1570, as well as printer to the States General, the government of the Protestant Dutch who revolted against Spain in 1578. Plantin eventually passed on his business to his two trusted sons-in-law, one in Antwerp and the other in Leiden.

Two of Christophe Plantin’s sons-in-law. On the left, Jan Moretus (1543-1610). The Moretus detail is based on a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1613-16, or some years after the death of Moretus. Theodore Low De Vinne. “Christopher Plantin, and the Plantin-Moretus Museum at Antwerp.” Illustrations by Joseph Pennell and others. New York: Printed for the Grolier Club, 1888 (pp. 25, 33).

on the right, Franciscus Raphelengius (1539-97). Moretus and Raphelengius ran the Antwerp and Leiden businesses, respectively. Theodore Low De Vinne. “Christopher Plantin, and the Plantin-Moretus Museum at Antwerp.” Illustrations by Joseph Pennell and others. New York: Printed for the Grolier Club, 1888 (pp. 25, 33).