Guido Latré:
Tyndale The Translator Meets Plantin The Printer

An Antwerp Exhibition on Dissident Typography for the English Market (1 October - 21 December 1994)

In the course of 1993, the City Council of Antwerp, presided by Lord Mayor Bob Cools, decided to concentrate its 1994 cultural activities around the theme “Van bevrijding tot vrijheid” (“From Liberation to Liberty”). A major event in this context was the opening of an exhibition, on 30 September, about Antwerp, Centre of Dissident Printing: The Role of the Antwerp Printers in the Wars of Religion in England (16th Century). Even if you have missed this exhibition, a visit to its venue remains a must. The Plantin-Moretus Printing House, now turned into a printing museum, is full of treasures for those interested in Tyndale and the role of printers in the spreading of Reformation and Counter-Reformation ideas.

During the exhibition, some major works by Tyndale were right underneath the Rubens portrait of print Plantin. The so-called arch-printer seemed to be looking wistfully at the portrait of the arch-translator[1] of the English Bible. He too had taken arms against a sea of religious troubles, but had done so in a way very much different from that of the man who would by opposing end them. It is difficult to decide which of the two men was nobler in mind. Plantin certainly was the more expedient of the two, keeping his sympathy for the Reformation will-hidden to the Spanish rulers, often even making a commercial virtue of religious necessity, and at his natural death leaving his successors a vast fortune. But it looks as if in spite of appearances, the Spanish King's architypographus had remained true to his convictions and instrumental to the protestant cause.

It is unlikely that the two men ever met in real life; Plantin (c. 1520-1589) was born near Tours, in France, more than a generation after Tyndale was born in England (c. 1494). He arrived in Antwerp in 1548 or 1549 and registered as an Antwerp citizen in 1550, (i.e. more than twenty years after Tyndale's arrival there (possibly in 1526 and certainly by 1528[2]), or at least a dozen years after Tyndale's death in Vilvoorde (1536). Nevertheless, it is interesting to compare the two, make them meet in the mind, so to speak, and to acquire a better idea of the context in which both of them were working (and working extremely hard certainly seems to be a feature they had in common).

The Antwerp Printers in Tyndale's Days
It is in the Low Countries that Caxton learnt his trade. In the medieval cloth industry, this area had developed much earlier than England — especially in historical Flanders, with Bruges (the ‘Venice of the North’), Ghent and Ypres as major cities. In the days of the Hundred Years War, Flanders was faced with a difficult choice between its allegiance to the French king, the feudal lord of the Flemish count, and its economic interests, which lay in England. The rough wool came from England, but the count had to obey France. Ultimately, the cloth industry deteriorated and to compensate other economic activities had to be found that required less bulky base materials. In the fifteenth century, Bruges was a major European centre for manuscript illumination; as Leuven art historians (Smeyers, Cardon) have recently shown, the Bruges artists later inspired the Flemish primitive painters (Van Eyck, Bouts, Memling). In spite of these on-going activities, Bruges was to lose its position as the leading port of the Low Countries in favour of Ghent and, in Tyndale's days, Antwerp. In the mean time, Leuven had started,in 1425, a major new centre of intellectual life — significantly enough in its former cloth hall; the University of Leuven (Louvain) was to remain the oldest in the Low Countries, and today claims to be the oldest Catholic University in the world. It is from this place that Tyndale's theological opponents would come during his trial in Vilvoorde.

Typography, like other prominent crafts in the Low Countries (lace-making, painting and tapestry) was a labour-intensive activity requiring a minimal amount of base materials. In Antwerp, it developed to perfection in the course of the sixteenth century. Both reformers and catholics made ample use of the expertise offered by the Antwerp printers. This is demonstrated very clearly in the catalogue of the above-mentioned exhibition.[3]

This book contains much more than entries describing the items on display. Seven full-length articles precede the actual descriptions. For Tyndale scholars, Francine De Nave's introduction to the exhibition and her survey of “Antwerp as a Dissident Typographical Centre in the 16th Century”[4] are to be strongly recommended. She points out that already in the incunabula-period (before Easter 1501), there were ten printers in Antwerp while Leuven had eleven. In the period between 1501 and 1540, Antwerp knew a spectacular economic expansion. Large ships from the North sea were able to reach its port, its river Schelde being comparable to the river Thames in London. They were transporting bales of cloth, books and other goods. At the end of this period, Antwerp was the most important typographical centre in the world after Venice and Paris. De Nave reminds us that at this stage, there were no less than 133 printers in the Low Countries, 66 of them being concentrated at Antwerp (at roughly the same time, London had only three). Still within this period of nearly 40 years, the Antwerp printers produced 2,254 works out of a sum total of 4,000 for the Low Countries. And like the quantity of the work, its quality was remarkably high.

For dissidents who wanted to get their work published and distributed, another main attraction of the town was its liberal atmosphere. The Town's Council realized that witch-hunting was obnoxious to trade, and furthered its commercial interests rather than the Roman-Catholic cause. Little attention was paid to the application of the papal bull Exsurge Domine (15 June 1520), or of Charles V's Edict of Worms (8 May 1521). As a result, Antwerp became a leading centre for the distribution of protestant writings and ideas, including those of William Tyndale, George Joye, John Frith, William Barlow, Simon Fish, William Roy and Miles Coverdale. Until 1545, more or less fifty percent of the protestant works in the Low Countries appeared here.

Still on De Nave's count, 40 of the 48 Lutheran Bible translations into Dutch before 1540 appeared in Antwerp. These translations started in 1523 with Adriaen van Berghen's Dutch translation of the Lutheran New Testament. In 1526, Jacob van Liesvelt made a beginning with Dutch renderings of the as yet incomplete Lutheran Old Testament; ten years later, he delivered the first complete Bible in Dutch in a Lutheran version.

Compared with English, Dutch was in those days a far more important European language than it is now. From the early sixteenth century onwards the Antwerp dialect began to dominate. After the “Fall of Antwerp” in 1585, emigrants from Antwerp moved to places like Amsterdam, where the mixture of Antwerp and more northern dialects became the basis of modern or standard Dutch. It is hard to imagine that a linguistic genius like Tyndale would have spent eight or ten years in Antwerp without acquiring a least some basic knowledge of the increasingly influential language spoken by his surroundings. To what extent he may have been influenced (if at all) by Lutheran Bible translations into Dutch, is currently under investigation at Leuven University.

Only a few miles further south but still in historical Brabant, Erasmus of Rotterdam had stayed in Leuven the decade before Tyndale's arrival in Antwerp. For a better understanding of the impact of humanism in Leuven or Antwerp, and more generally, on the intellectual exchanges between the Southern Low Countries and England, one may read, still in the same catalogue, Gilbert Tournoy's highly informed article on the subject. It is entitled “Humanists, Rulers and Reformers in the First Half of the Sixteenth Century”.[5] The overall impression one gets from Tournoy's survey is that in Antwerp, the English reformers were by no means remote from the important developments in humanism. An interesting case study of a less scholarly but immensely popular work published in Antwerp is offered by John Scattergood (Trinity College Dublin) in his article on Simon Fish's Supplication for Beggars[6] (1529). There is also a contribution on “William Tyndale in Antwerp” by myself[7]; unfortunately, I was not yet able to make use of David Daniell's recent Tyndale biography when writing it. And since this excellent book appeared just before the opening of the autumn exhibition on Dissident Typography, its author could not yet make use of the insights formed before and during the Antwerp event. The road remains open to a further combination of David Daniell's biography with the findings of Antwerp and Leuven scholars involved in preparing the exhibition.

When one takes the above considerations into account, Antwerp emerges as a city of immense commercial and intellectual opportunities. It may have been Tyndale's first choice as much as his last resort.

Plantin's Printing House and The Religious Controversy
With Christopher Plantin, we move on to the days when more and more catholic recusants arrive in Antwerp. The topic is dealt with extensively by Chris Coppens in “‘Challenge and Counterblast’: Books as Weapons Weapons in the English Controversy,”[8] article based on his doctoral dissertation recently presented at Leuven University. It is complemented by Jeanine De Landtsheer's case study of “The Relationship between Jan Moretus and Thomas Stapleton.”[9] It is useful, however, to look beforehand at a richly illustrated book written by Francine De Nave and Leon Voet entitled Plantin-Moretus Museum.[10] (translated from the Dutch). It deals with “The Plantin-Moretus Printing Dynasty and its History,” “The Plantin House and its Collection,” and with the same house as a “Centre of Humanism and a Tourist Attraction.”

When Christopher Plantin arrived in Antwerp (1548 or 1549), he first continued to do the job he already knew — that of a bookbinder. A secret religious sect called Huis der Liefde (the Family of Love) helped him set up his own printing business. It was led by the Dutch merchant Hendrik Niclaes, who is described by Leon Voet as “a visionary mystic who preached religious tolerance in an intolerant age.”[11] For the sake of appearances, however, Niclaes' followers had to join a recognized church community of their choice. Plantin therefore appeared to the Antwerp community as a Catholic. In March 1562, a Calvinist pamphlet was seized in his printing office. Fortunately, Plantin was away on business in Paris, and the employees who were caught red-handed claimed that their master had no knowledge of their actions. In spite of this, Plantin's possessions were sold at a public auction on 28 April 1562.

The financier Cornelis van Bomberghen offered him a second chance, and the Officina Plantiniana was set up in 1563. Business relations with the so-called heretics continued; three of his five partners declared themselves Calvinists during an iconoclastic outbreak in 1566. Urged on by these partners, Plantin had already helped to set up an anti-Spanish printing office in Vianen, near Utrecht. Later on, he would start another “protestant” printing house in Leiden, where he printed for the university. In the mean time, he wrote letters to people of influence “proclaiming at great length — and in somewhat panicky tones — his support for the Catholic Church and for Philip II.”[12] This again shows the difference between him and Tyndale, whose tone, in polemic works or glosses, remains much more overtly defiant. Plantin's magnum opus, a new edition of the polyglot Bible of Alcala (1514-1517) that was completed by 1572-73, should be seen in a context of keeping up appearances. Philip II appointed him architypographus, and Plantin acquired the “exclusive right to produce and sell missals, breviaries and books of hours for Spain.”[13]

In January 1568, there were five presses in Plantin's Officina; by early 1575, there were sixteen. When after the “Spanish Fury” of 1576 the lean years began, Plantin was again rescued by his friends in the camp of the Reformers. He started renting a large house at the Vrijdagmarkt in 1576, and bought the first of its allotments in 1579. It now forms part of the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

For fear of the Spanish Governor Alva, Plantin had left the Family of Love of Hendrik Niclaes in 1567, but joined the latter's disciple Barrefelt in 1579-80. Leon Voet writes that “for the rest of his life, Plantin was to be as ardent a Barrefeltist as he had been an enthusiastic follower of Niclaes.”[14] When the rebels against the Spanish Crown had lost Antwerp in 1585, the city never fully recovered. Neither did Plantin's business — although the activities of the Antwerp Printing House were carried on efficiently by Plantin's son-in-law Jan I Moretus and the Leiden one with equal zeal by another son-in-law, Frans Raphelengius (who had become a Calvinist).

It is the possessions of the Plantin-Moretus family plus many other acquisitions that one now admires in the huge Printing House at the Vrijdagmarkt. One can find in it rare manuscripts and printed books in large numbers. One of its herbals contains the oldest printed potato, couched in watercolour (Rariorum Plantorum Historia, printed by Jan I Moretus in 1601); its religious works include the already mentioned Polyglot Bible. In the introduction to the book on the Museum, Francine De Nave mentions with pride the priceless works of art, the gilded leather, the eighteen Rubens paintings (which is more than the Rubens House in Antwerp can boast of), the vast number of woodcuts and engravings, the old foundry (in the attic of all places) with “no less than 15,825 moulds and 4,477 punches capable of printing in some eighty different founts, all still in working order.”[15] The original workshop of the Officina with its row of presses is still there. Two of them date back to around 1600 (some parts of them precede this date), which makes them the oldest presses in the world. If you obtain special permission, Master Printer Guy Hutsebaut will give you, on a slightly less ancient press, an expert demonstration of how the compositing, printing, proof-reading and correcting used to be done.

Christopher Plantin, although himself a foreigner by origin, was a much more typical inhabitant of the Low Countries than William Tyndale. People living in historical Flanders or Brabant knew much better what it meant to live under foreign rulers than did the English, for whom paying the Danegeld was but a memory from the distant past. Plantin survived thanks to his shrewd expediency and his capitalist genius. He understood what he printed, was in many ways a self-taught humanist, and in his mind, his friendships and his ink preserved the dissident spirit of the Reformation. In spite of the many differences, Tyndale's mind was somehow cast in the same mould.

How to buy the books on The Museum and The Exhibition
* Museum Guide: De Nave and Voet, Museum Plantin-Moretus (Musea Nostra Series), 128 pp., colour illustrations: 595 Belgian Francs (appr. £12);
* Exhibition Catalogue: Imhof, De Nave and Tournoy (ed.) Antwerp, Centre of Dissident Printing: The Role of the Antwerp Printers in the Wars of Religion in England (16th Century), 187 pp., black-and-white illustrations: 950 Belgian Francs (appr. £19)

The books can be ordered directly from

Additional sum for postage and handling: 200 Belgian Francs (appr. £4).

References and Notes

  1. This was a large-size reproduction of the stained glass window in the Chapel of Hertford College. At the Oxford International Tyndale Conference (5-10 September 1994), J.B. Trapp (Warburg Institute, University of London) showed it to be in fact the portrait of John Knox.
  2. David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994, p. 155.hardbackpaperback
  3. I have not been able to make use of the English version, which, however should have appeared before the publication of this text. It will be very similar to the Dutch version, which is an illustrated large-size (28.5 x 23 cm) volume.
  4. Dirk Imhof, Gilbert Tournoy and Francine De Nave (ed.), Antwerpen Dissident drukkerscentrum: De rol van de Antwerpse drukkers in de godsdienststrijd in Engeland (16de eeuw), Antwerp: Stad Antwerpen, Museum Plantin-Moretus en Stedelijk Prentenkabinet, 1994 pp. 12-21.
  5. Ibid., pp. 22-32.
  6. Ibid., pp. 71-78.
  7. Ibid., pp. 59-70.
  8. Ibid., pp. 33-58.
  9. Ibid., pp. 79-88.
  10. Francine De Nave and Leon Voet, Plantin-Moretus Museum; Musea Nostra Series, Antwerp; 1989.
  11. Ibid., p. 11.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., p. 12.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., p. 6.

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