Interview with Andrew Pettegree: “We seldom go to an archive without finding something sensational”
In anticipation of Andrew Pettegree’s fellowship in Utrecht, PhD candidate Andrea van Leerdam (UCMS, UCEMS) asked him about his latest research project.
Your new research delves into the book trade in the Dutch Golden Age. What kinds of books did people read in that time?
Well, that’s really the core of the work we’re doing. The book I am writing with Arthur Der Weduwen is trying to get to the bottom of how the Dutch came to dominate the booktrade – much as they did many other forms of trading in this period – and what special skills they brought into trading in books, and who were their market. Any scholarly attention that has been given to the 17th-century book trade in the Dutch Republic has really been focused on the masterpieces of design and innovation: the Blaeu atlases, the Elsevier classic editions in small formats, and so on. But the real heart of the trade is selling into the domestic market: bibles and psalm books, devotional literature, and then work for state institutions and for universities.
Now the problem is that what we find in our project does not correspond with what has been preserved in library collections. The books that were collected in the 17th century tend to be books that made their ways into libraries very early, and they often survived because they’re not much used at all. Whereas books that are popular and well-used, tend to be used to death: almanacs, self-help books, psalm books, New Testaments, cheap devotional books.
A core part of our project, and this is where it’s been methodologically innovative, has been to try and reconstruct books which we know to have been published, but which aren’t now well represented in library catalogues. Many of the books that we’ve looked at, survive in only a single copy. That means we know for a fact that many more must have been lost altogether. The Short Title Catalogue of the Netherlands, the national database of editions published between 1540 and 1800, probably only contains about 20% of what was once published. By looking at publishers’ stock catalogues and at auction catalogues, we were able to recover a large number of editions which, although they were published, simply don’t appear in the library collections today. We’ve also done a lot of work in archives, because if you’re going to find some of these very fugitive genres like forms, passports, receipts for taxes, they’re going to be in archives.
Can you tell a bit more about your personal experiences during this project? Did you have a eureka-moment at any point, or did you find something that really surprised you?
It’s been constant surprises for me. Just because we’re spending so much time going where scholars have never gone before, each eureka-moment follows closely on the last. We seldom go to an archive without finding something sensational. To give you an example: last week, in Rotterdam, we found a printed broadsheet of the VOC which was basically saying: “employees do not steal from the Company.” It included an order that this broadsheet must be exhibited on every VOC ship, and if the captain failed to carry out this order he would be docked three months’ pay. Further copies were to be exhibited publicly at the Cape Colony. We’ve had no evidence before of any print in the Cape, so this was great. If a copy was damaged by weather or taken down, a new copy would have to be posted up. So a whole bunch of these would have to go down.
Another example is what we found in the archive in Arnhem last December. We came across 134 copies of the same edict. It’s not unknown for the remaining copies of an edict to sit in the archive, but 134 is a big number. They are A3 size, carefully folded in fours. What was extraordinary about this, was that it was not a local production. It was printed in Brussels, and it was one of Alva’s tax edicts. Instead of distributing it as required, it seems that the good people of Arnhem simply got one of their officials to fold them all into quarters and there they sat. They’re all in pretty mint condition. If you’re looking for a sort of silent resistance, maybe that’s what we found there.
We also found the instructions to the Haarlem ‘stadsaanplakker’, the person who had to stick up all the ordinances, which was very interesting: he was required to attend twice a day at the town hall to see if there’s anything for him to stick up. And that was not just town ordinances: no citizen of Haarlem was allowed to stick up their own notices. So if you had a house for sale, or a missing child, and you wanted a notice to go up, you had to take it into the town hall, pay a fee, and give it to the ‘stadsaanplakker’ – perhaps you would also have to give a little bribe to him to make sure he gave it a good position. These are just fascinating examples of the way Dutch people communicate with each other.
Do you see any parallels between the 17th-century book trade and book trade in our digital age? Do you think present-day booksellers or traders could learn something from 17th-century practices?
I’ve been very lucky in my career: I’ve been talking about media transformation, the transformation from manuscript to print, in an age of media transformation from print to digital. What I’ve learned from that particularly, is that all media change is accompanied by a blizzard of false prediction. In the manuscript age people heralded the book as a new civilization, darkness turned into light, but in fact the manuscripts continued their merry way without being extinguished. On the eve of the French Revolution in the late 18th century, the most reliable news you could get in France was manuscript newsbooks sold commercially.
And I see this now: when I started in the profession, people said “books are dead”, and yet I would say that only about 5% of copies of my books are bought electronically. People still want the printed artefact. It’s really useful to have a digital copy, but when you have the text here and the footnotes 200 pages away... you can’t really read scholarly books online, and so people don’t. Generally speaking, the prophecies of doom are from people who have invested heavily in new technology and want to make people believe it’s inevitable.
What I see about the 17th-century Dutch Republic is that it was the conservative genres that made money. People were still very religious. And so the Dutch basically refine existing markets extremely effectively. If you look at the newspapers you see lots of advertisements for New Testaments, and they say: You can have this in all kinds of different formats, with or without musical notes, with or without marginal annotations. They’re basically persuading people who already own bibles, New Testaments and psalters by saying that they need to get another. And people do!
Another interesting example recently came up, and this was a nugget dug up by my friend Paul Hoftijzer of Leiden University, of a woman who is in church and she’s holding her psalm book the wrong way up. She clearly can’t read it at all, but it’s a mark of literacy to carry your psalmbook to church. And here she is, unmasked by the woman sitting next to her, “that’s the wrong way up!” It shows that people have books for lots of other reasons than reading. And that’s also a strength of the market.