July 1

On this day in 1589 in Antwerp a man died of whom Thomas Frognall Dibdin wrote in his Bibliographical Decameron: “Of all the printers whose works have ever adorned the literary republic, none, I think, stand upon so broad and lofty a pedestal as Christopher Plantin Jenson and Robert Stephen had equal elegance, and Aldus and Froben equal zeal and learning, but take his smaller and his larger works together, his pocket Latin Bible and his Polyglot Bible, and you will hardly find anything to approach, certainly none to excel them.”

Plantin was born in Saint-Avertin, near Tours, in France, probably in 1520. As he lost his mother in early childhood, he was raised by the canon obedientiary of the Church of St. Just, who was his father’s employer. Thus Plantin received the beginnings of a classical education. At fifteen he was apprenticed to a bookbinder in Caen. Upon the completion of his indentures he went to Paris where he remained some three years, apparently learning the craft of printing, as by 1549 he was in Antwerp setting up a printing office. None of Plantin’s biographers have been able to determine exactly why he left Paris, where he had evidently made a number of friendships with the scholars, booksellers, and printers of the university quarter in which he lived and worked. Plantin, in a letter to Pope Gregory XIII, stated that he was drawn to Antwerp by the opportunities for his trade and by its proximity to Louvain University.

This would seem to be a reasonable explanation, but in actuality the atmosphere of Paris was not conducive to the freedom of the press. King Henry II was then making a vigorous attempt to eliminate heresy, and no printer felt really secure from the accusations of the clergy concerning the printing of supposedly subversive material. It was in 1546 that Etienne Dolet, the printer of Lyons, was burned at the stake with his books. Plantin was therefore not alone in leaving France, as many printers moved their businesses to other countries to escape the pressures against reform.

Plantin, once he had established himself in Antwerp, prospered, even though he again was confronted with the religious problems of his times. In 1555 the Netherlands came under the rule of the Spanish king, Philip II, who prohibited Protestant worship and set up the Office of the Inquisition. Plantin, who was mildly sympathetic to the Calvinists, lost his printing office, but by that time he had made many friends, with the result that his loss was not so severe as it might have been. He returned the following year and reestablished himself. Even under such trying conditions, Plantin became one of the great printers, producing scholarly books upon a variety of subjects. Measured against the establishments of his contemporaries, the Plantin printing office was a giant of its kind. It was not until the 19th century that any other printing offices became larger than that of the Antwerp printer. In 1563 he added a typefoundry for which he purchased punches from the widow of Claude Garamond and from the great punch-cutters—Le Bé of Paris and Granjon of Lyons.

Leave a Reply