Utrecht incunabula and the history of book printing in Utrecht (circa 1466-1800)

In 2015 Utrecht University Library together with Utrecht and Amsterdam partners put the former printers and publishers from Utrecht literally and figuratively on the map. This was organised as part of the project Vroege Utrechtse drukkers op de kaart (1450-1800) (‘Early Utrecht printers on the map (1450-1800)’) which received a guarantee grant from the Fentener van Vlissingen Fonds SHV and the K.F.Hein Fonds. This project resulted in a geographical interface (out of maintenance; version Internet Archive 18 June 2022) visualizing the various locations of the former printers and publishers. Now the past of the Utrecht printers can be accessed via a spatial-temporal approach and an instrument has become available to analyse spatial developments. In the Northern Netherlands the city of Utrecht has been at the cradle of book printing. A chronological overview is presented with the most important incunabula and highlights from the Utrecht printers’ history.

Start of the art of book printing in Utrecht: Nicolaes Ketelaer en Gerard de Leempt, Historia scholastica (1473)

Petrus Comestor, 'Historia scholastica' (Utrecht : Nicolaes Ketelaer en Gerard de Leempt, 1473)

In the history of the art of book printing Utrecht has a fine scoop: the earliest dated print in the Dutch-speaking region was printed here in 1473: at that time Nicolaes Ketelaer and Gerard de Leempt (circa 1450-circa 1491) brought the Historia scholastica by Petrus Comestor to the market, a Biblical textbook about the history of the world, originally written in the 12th century. Of this edition, eleven copies are left, one of which is housed in Utrecht University Library, coming from the Utrecht Regulierenklooster. In the beginning these early editions were designed as manuscripts, with two columns and open spaces for red and/or blue ornamental letters that could be added by hand later.
In their colophon Ketelaer and De Leempt wrote: ‘impressa in traiecto [= Trajectum ad Rhenum = Utrecht] inferiori: per magistros Nycholaum keletaer et Gherardum de Leempt. .M.cccc.lxxiij’: printed in Utrecht by master printers Nicolaus Ketelaer and Gherard de Leempt.

Prototypographical editions circa 1466-1473

But maybe even as early as the period between 1466 and 1473 books were printed in Utrecht, the so-called prototypographical editions, editions with loose letters which cannot be dated and localised with certainty. Research showed that these editions could have been published in Utrecht, but in any case in the Dutch-speaking region. One of these prototypographical prints is the Speculum humanae salvationis, a catechetical work about the life of Jesus and Mary, which is dated around 1466-1467. Of this work several editions were published in Dutch (GW M43052, edition of 1479; edition of 1483 (GW M43050)) and in Latin (GW M 43002) (see the links to a Latin original and another Latin original). Another edition is the Doctrinale by Alexander de Villa Dei, a didactic poem in Latin about the language, also attributed to this so-called ‘printer of the Speculum humanae salvationis’ (GW 933-936, in particular 00936IXa with a link to the original). Based on the watermarks and the use of the Utrecht written language it may safely be said that the editions originated from Utrecht or from the diocese of Utrecht. Based on the major status of the Speculum in Burgundian circles it is even assumed that the Utrecht bishop (1455-1495) David of Burgundy commissioned the work.

Utrecht printers up to 1481

Werner Rolevinck, 'Fasciculus temporum [=] Dat boek dat men hiet Fasciculus temporum' (Utrecht : Johann Veldener, 1480)

A total of 64 editions were published in Utrecht up to the year 1481, not including the prototypographical editions, half of which the above mentioned Ketelaer and De Leempt put on the press. Ketelaer, born in a rich Utrecht family, acted as entrepreneur while letter cutter De Leempt was responsible for all practical matters. Besides Ketelaer and De Leempt four other printers were active in the city in the period until 1481, known as ‘printer of the Haneron’, ‘printer of the Alexander Magnus’ or ‘printer of the Monogram’ (we do not know their real names).
Only in a few cases we have a name, for instance Johann Veldener, who originally came from Würzburg, was first working as a letter cutter in Cologne, and then from 1473 onwards as a printer in Leuven and from 1477/1478 in Utrecht. Here in 1480 he printed, among other books, the famous world history Fasciculus temporum by Werner Rolevinck in a Dutch translation (the first edition in Latin appeared in 1474 in Cologne), containing many wood cuts. In the Utrecht edition a supplement has been added which describes the events from the youngest history of Utrecht (copies in Leiden University Library and München). Veldener also states his address here and the printing date: ‘by my volmaect Jan Veldenar woenende Tutrecht opten Dam int jaer Ons Heren 1480 op Sinte Valentijns dach op die vastelavont etc.’ (14 februari 1480). (accomplished by me Jan Veldenar, living in Utrecht on the Dam in the year of our Lord 1480 on St. Valentine’s Day on the continent etc.’ (14 February 1480).

Opening uit de 'Divinus Moribus', 1474

Jan Berntsz, three printing periods 1514-1526, 1530-1532, 1535-1542

After Johann Veldener had moved to Culemborg Utrecht book printing was interrupted for over three decades, until 1514. In that year Jan Berntsz began as a printer in Utrecht. Until 1530 he remained the only printer in Utrecht. It is assumed that at first he lived at the Ganzenmarkt achter dat ghevanghen vleyschuys’ (‘behind that prison meathouse’), nowadays Annastraat, where the meat hall had been turned into a prison in the 15th century. Here he printed a book by Suster Bertken, the convent name of Berta Jacobs (circa 1426/1427-1514), probably the illegitimate daughter of a provost of the Pieterskerk in Utrecht, who lived as a recluse for 57 years near the Buurkerk in Utrecht. Berntsz. also worked on ‘opden hoec van die Saelstraet’ (‘on the corner of the Zadelstraat’, circa 1518-circa 1522) and from circa 1523 to 1532 near the Maartens Bridge, under the Dom tower and under ‘onder Sint Maartenstoorn’ (‘under the tower of St. Maarten’), a name for the present Servetstraat. In 1536 he put in a colophon ‘Gheprent tot Vtrecht op dien hoec van sint Mertenstoorn in die gulden Leeuw’ (‘Printed in Utrecht on the corner of St. Maartens tower in the Golden Lion’).

Berntsz.’ book production can be divided into three periods, the first one running from 1514 to 1526. During this time 24 editions by his hand appeared of which ten in Dutch and fourteen in Latin, and, very notable, 22 spiritual works and two secular ones. In the very brief second period running from 1530 to 1532 six editions appeared of which five in Dutch and one in Latin, four spiritual editions and one secular edition. The proportions are the other way around. Also in the last period from 1535 to 1542 more Dutch (eleven) than Latin (six) editions were published of which six spiritual ones such as the lives of the saints and eleven secular ones. We can see a clear shift from the Latin to the vernacular and from spiritual to worldly literature.
Berntsz. printed a missive from Pope Adrianus VI (1459-1523) titled Brevia apostolica congratulatoria, dated after 1 May 1522. There is only one copy of this edition, which is housed in Utrecht University Library (Utrecht, UB, MAG: H oct 1196 Rariora). An entry from the inventory of the chapter archives of the Dom shows that 1600 copies were printed of this missive. The booklet, as is shown from the accompanying letter, was offered for 715 guilders in June 1958.

Berntsz. not only kept close relations with the spiritual leaders, but also with the secular ones. He also printed books commissioned by the government, such as booklets containing overviews of the exchange rates of coins, for instance Tollerancie ende permissie van d‘evaluacie, which was published in 1539 (Utrecht UB, MAG: L oct 528, dl. 2 (Rariora) (NK 2048).
The Utrecht copy was owned by the Utrecht canon Huybert Edmont van Buchell (1513-1599). After his death, this well-known book collector donated 9,000 guilders to the city of Utrecht, to help the poor. His collection of circa 2,000 volumes is now part of the collection of early prints in Utrecht University Library.

Around 1530 Jan van Doesborch (57 editions), a versatile and well-known printer moved from Antwerp to Utrecht, and became Berntsz.’ business partner. It is remarkable that, after Van Doesborch’s death in 1536, many texts rolled off the press at Jan Berntsz. which were printed earlier by Van Doesborch.

Drukkersmerk Jan Berntsz., 1539

Herman van Borculo, printer for the government and of humanist works

From 1538 onwards Herman van Borculo owned a book firm in Utrecht for over four decades. He came from the Van Borculo printer family which was very active in Utrecht in the 16th century. Van Borculo printed religious works, predictive works, ordinances issued by the authorities. He became especially known by printing humanist works. One of his editions was the play Bassarus, fabula festivissima (NK 3473) written in Latin by the Dutch humanist Georgius Macropedius (1487-1558) (digital copy Universität Regensburg; Utrecht MAG: X oct 525 (Rariora) vol. 4). In addition, he and others printed other Latin works (including Lazarus mendicus by Macropedius by Van Borculo, 1541; Medea, Euripidis fabula, Latina facta by Frisius, 1542; Adamus by Macropedius, 1552; Iesus Scholasticus byMacropedius by Van Borculo, 1556; Nebuale Aristophanis Latine by L. Hortensius by Van Borculo, 1557, turning Utrecht into the main city for spreading humanist works in the Dutch speaking region. Afterwards this position was taken over by Antwerp and in the neighbouring German area by Cologne.

Book printing as a political and administrative instrument

The last decades of the 16th century were characterized by the conflict with Spain, and that is also true for the art of book printing. Besides literary works and books on religious questions more and more ordinances and placards from the government and the city council were published, for instance from the city of Amersfoort in 1544, printed by Jan Henrickzoon in Utrecht (Utrecht, UB, L qu 305:3). After several provinces had united in the Union of Utrecht on 29 January 1579 an ordinance was published by the Republic of the Seven United Provinces which was valid as from 1 April 1579, and also an agreement about the reformed faith, published by the town magistrate. On 26 January 1581 Coenraet Hendricksz. printed an edict by the king. This is an interesting case because the city of Antwerp as place of publication is fictitious (Utrecht, UB, Rariora S oct. 1482:1). Furthermore, works were published with information from the government, for instance about levying taxes or about monetary units. Especially from the 1570s onwards there is a clear increase of the number of printed works (increasing from circa fourteen publications between 1561 and 1570 to circa sixty publications between 1581 and 1590 and 1591 and 1600). In addition there is a clear tendency to use printers to provide the population with information about political and governmental decisions and regulations. Book printers were the forerunners of newspapers and nowadays of the social media.

The founding and influence of the booksellers’ guild

Lof der Boekdrukkunst

An important moment in the history of the Utrecht printer is the founding of the independent bookprinters’ guild in 1599 which united the ‘Boeckprinters, Boeckbijnders ende Verlichters’ (‘Bookprinters, bookbinders and illustrators’). That was very early in the Republic. Only Middelburg (1590) was earlier than Utrecht. Bookprinters and administrators (masters) Salomon Aertsz. de Roy en Dirck Dircksz. Geduldigh played an important role in the early years of this guild. These men were not just anybody. De Roy combined this function with printer of the state council (1592-1636) and city council (1590-1595). Geduldigh took over the latter job. As a rule, the larger and richer booksellers were masters of the guild. In the beginning the guild counted fifteen members and this number had grown to 25 in 1663.

From the first ordinance of 1599 it is clear that the guild is aiming at limiting and protecting the book trade in the city. For instance, one had to acquire citizenship to be able to become a member of the guild. A stipulation which led to much indignation among the booksellers was that only special auctioneers were allowed to auction their books in the city. Strict rules were decreed for booksellers from outside Utrecht and the illegal sale on the streets was fought against. Outsiders were only allowed to sell books on Saturday, on free markets or on a rented stall in the Schoonhuis (the market hall). But also servants of their own guild and Utrecht school masters were forbidden to sell books. The latter group was sometimes known to run a lucrative business in school material. In 1607 a supplementary rule was made stipulating that local booksellers were not allowed to sell books to schoolmasters.

The division of labour was strictly arranged within the guild. In 1653 it was decreed that the so-called ‘afzetters’ (who were responsible for the colouring of maps and books) were not allowed to print and sell books. In the new 1663 ordinance, which was to hold valid until the end of the 18th century, members were forbidden to keep more than one shop or be hired by strangers.

Size and importance of the Utrecht book trade

Around 1500 Utrecht had circa 25,000 inhabitants, making it the largest city in the Netherlands. In the 17th and 18th century it lowered in rank. Around that time the number of inhabitants was around 30,000 and it was the sixth city after Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Haarlem, Leiden and The Hague. Yet the booksellers’ business expanded considerably during that period. For instance, around 1663 25 booksellers were active and around 1800 this number had increased to 45. Recent research into the Utrecht book trade shows that in the entire 17th century approximately 150 publishers-printers were active and in the next century around 180. The Utrecht book business mainly operated on a regional level, which is not to say that the business was not lucrative. The surrounding towns, villages and the countryside were reasonably affluent and people came to town regularly to buy luxury goods such as books. This central function was strengthened by the fact that the surrounding towns such as IJsselstein, Montfort, Woerden en Oudewater had no printers and booksellers of their own.

Grafiek ontwikkeling Utrechtse drukkers en uitgevers, 1450-1800

The founding of Utrecht University in 1636 acted as an important impulse for the local book trade, especially in the field of legal and theological editions. A close connection between the academic community and the book trade was formed. For instance, a special academic printer was appointed. As from 1685 it was also stipulated that catalogues of local book auctions had to be presented to the Rector Magnificus first. In 1688 it was decreed by the guild that the city library, the later university library, would receive a copy of all books printed in Utrecht.

The first academic printers with the exclusive right were Abraham van Herwijck, Hermannus Ribbius en Aegidius and Petrus Roman. However, after 1643 an extraordinary situation arose because from that time on every guild member could supply academic material. In 1685 the former situation was re-established and François Halma, who had been working in Utrecht from 1679 onwards, received the exclusive rights. Of course these academic printers produced many Latin texts, such as disputes and dissertations, and so they also served a supraregional market.
In addition to academic printers there were city and states council printers who took up a similar privileged position in the local book trade. It is no wonder that many booksellers tried to hand this lucrative position down to family members and children. Salomon Aertsz. de Roy wanted to claim this title for a family member and succeeded in favouring his nephew Amelis Jansz. van Paddenburgh, with this job. It was quite common, by the way, for booksellers to combine all kinds of official jobs. Van Paddenburgh was also a printer for the city council, a job he had inherited from his father Jan Amelisz. Van Paddenburg. The earlier mentioned François Halma was, besides academic printer, also master of the booksellers’ guild from 1681 onwards.

Ruimtelijke spreiding Utrechtse drukkers en uitgevers, 1450-1750

Books on the street

In addition to these established booksellers we have to take into consideration a group of suppliers who were not servicing the customers from a bookshop or printshop, but as stall holder, market salesman or pedlars. They are mostly called ambulant booksellers. It is no wonder that guild members took action against these street sellers, because they were seen as unfair competitors. For the 17th century we have little knowledge of this kind of street sellers. However, we have to keep in mind that official booksellers, although they were known to complain, often were involved themselves and profited from the legal or illegal street trade. For instance, the widow of Jurriaan van Poolsum had her apprentice typesetter deliver newspapers unlawfully in 1697.

For the 18th century we have slightly better sources. We know that in the period between 1730 and 1850 65 ambulant booksellers were active in Utrecht. In the last decades of the 18th century as many as a third of all Utrecht booksellers was ambulant. To the latter group also belonged the stall holders, even though the street sellers were closer to the booksellers. The bookseller Arend Stubbe for instance, already active from 1773, owned a bookshop on the Oudegracht near the Hamburgerbrug and also a bookstall (in 1789) on the year market. Sometimes, however, it concerned very poor Utrecht citizens who tried to gain some extra income with delivering books and papers. For instance, there was the 35-year-old widow Sara van Hattum who earned eleven penny’s a week by sowing. Her fourteen-year-old son earned twelve penny’s as brass-founder and her ten-year-old daughter earned six penny’s a week by delivering newspapers. The parish supplemented her income with two or three guilders a week.

Ambulante boekverkoper

Control and repression

Besides the city and internal regulations of the book business the booksellers had to deal with censorship and book bans. Although preventive censorship had almost entirely disappeared after 1650 in the Republic, there was certainly some repressive censorship of a more incidental nature in the 17th and 18th century. Influenced by the orthodox theologian Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676), who had been working in Utrecht since 1634, the city book production was more closely watched by the Calvinistic church council. In some cases they convinced the local administration to ban a book. But also on a regional level, whether or not under pressure of the provincial synod, the printing and spreading of controversial works was banned. For instance, the States of Utrecht decreed in 1692 that the blasphemous work De Betooverde Wereld (‘The Enchanted World’) by Balthasar Bekkers was not allowed to be sold in the province under penalty of 200 silver ducats.

The book trade at the end of the 18th century

Around 1800 nothing much had changed in the structure of the Utrecht book trade. There was still a division between a smaller group of rich and privileged booksellers, a large and diverse middle group and a third group of small booksellers and ambulant traders. At the top were the firms of Altheer, Muntendam, Van Paddenburg, Post and Van Terveen, booksellers who held important institutional jobs such as printers of the states and city council or academic printers. Only they could operate on a supraregional level. On a level below were booksellers’ families such as Blanché, Emenes, Kemink, Van Schoonhoven, Van der Schroeff and Visch. In the lowest group we come across the names of Cornelis van Brussel, Anthonie de Groot and Hendrik P(i)eterse, and salesmen Johannes Krul en Marie Hoijat.


Rita Schlusemann and Jeroen Salman
(Edited by Marco van Egmond, July 2020)


The project Vroege Utrechtse drukkers op de kaart (1450-1800) (‘Early Utrecht printers on the map (1450-1800)’), including this digital exhibition of Utrecht incunabula, could be realized thanks to a large subsidy from the K.F. Hein Fonds and the Fentener van Vlissingen Fonds SHV.