Leading women in early modern book printing – Report on Gewina’s fall members’ day

Michiel Bron (gepubliceerd op Shells & Pebbles op 6 november 2023)

Why do early modern title pages regularly mention women’s businesses as the site of production? With this question in mind, we, the attendees of Gewina’s fall members’ day, rushed swiftly through beautiful Antwerp. It was one of the last sunny and warm days of the year and the many outdoor cafes were already filling up at noon. A tempting sight. However, we had a more interesting goal this day: a day of intellectual engagement at Museum Plantin-Moretus with an introduction to the role of women in the book printing circuits of early modern Antwerp. Traditionally, the early modern printing world has been characterized as a man’s world. The new technology of the printing press, due to its start-up costs and associations with skilled work, literacy and learned men, has often been regarded as work only men were involved in. Today, however, the lectures, archival visits and museum tour would teach us otherwise.

On Friday, October 6, Museum Plantin-Moretus welcomed the members and interested participants of the Belgian-Dutch Society for Science and University Historians Gewina for its fall meeting. Twice a year, Gewina organizes its members’ day. This day is open to all interested parties and aims to strengthen the mutual community of historians of science and universities in the Low Countries by offering an interesting program with in-depth content on a relevant theme. Last spring, the meeting was organized at the House of the Book, guided by a preview of the then still-to-be-published, magnificent Flora Batava. This fall’s membership day, in turn, focused on early modern women and their role in Antwerp’s intellectual elite and book printing environment. The museum itself is housed in the original residence and in the impressive printing house of the Plantin-Moretus publishing family, which has earned it a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List. From 1576, the family lived and worked in these buildings on the Vrijdagmarkt for three hundred years. The Antwerp printing trade was not an exclusively male affair. The daughters of Christopher Plantin – Margaretha, Martine, Catharina, Magdalena and Henrica – were educated and actively involved in the family’s trading activities. The museum is therefore an appropriate base from which to discuss the role of early modern women in intellectual circles.

The day was introduced with a lecture by Heleen Wyffels. Her dissertation, titled At the Sign of the Moon: Family, Woman and Work in Early Modern Printing Houses (Antwerp, Leuven and Douai, 1500-1700) (2021), challenges traditional book-historical narratives that focus on men and often portray women merely as helpers to a master printer or as absentee owners. In her lecture, Wyffels expands on this point by focusing on the printing house of the Plantin-Moretus family. In doing so, it quickly becomes apparent that the printing house must be understood as “a productive space in which texts, as well as the physical books that supported them were created”. In this creative breeding ground, “a place where texts transform”, many diverse socioeconomic activities took place. Although there was a distinction between the roles played by men and women, women too played an essential and underappreciated role in these activities. Using correspondence from Christopher Plantin and various household books from his wife and daughters, Jean Rivière, and Margaretha, Martine, Catharina, Magdalena and Henrica Plantin, Wyffels convincingly showed that from the second generation onward, women were trained from an early age to take on the company’s bookkeeping and to help proofread texts in different languages.

Following this lecture, we were taken by Zanna van Loon, curator of Old Prints and Manuscripts, to the museum’s reading room to delve into the physical legacy of women’s diverse involvement in early modern book production. Their roles ranged from female authors to illustrators and from poets to coverers, but later also the owners and managers of the printing houses. Several women left a distinct, but too often forgotten, mark on the vestiges of this history. We examined the famous works of Anna Bijns, the prints of Barbara Ogier, as well as several colored maps, beautiful engravings and a sonnet by Anna Soemers before arriving at the Polyglot Bible. This Bible, the most important work published by Christophe Plantin, was proofread by his daughter Magdalena Plantin, who was reported to have aided her father in proofreading the Biblia Regia in five different languages.  Seeing this Polygloth Bible once again revealed the overarching point of Heleen Wyffels’ lecture. Although often made invisible in the material vestiges, various women left an indelible imprint on Antwerp’s printing culture.

The day ended with a visit to the museum’s collection. The interactive museum not only houses the oldest printing presses in the world, but also houses an extensive collection of lead letters, a beautiful print room and several old prints that together tell the story of the development of printing in Antwerp. Because the printing house in which the museum is housed was also the home of the family owning the house, the various rooms in which the texts were worked on merge into living areas with an enviable library and a number of magnificent portraits by Peter Paul Rubens. This setting allows you to imagine yourself for a moment in early modern Antwerp and experience the place where so many women worked as an integral and essential part of the transformation process that the texts underwent in this place.

The organizing members of Gewina, and Alexia Coussement in particular, put together a very interesting program and the Plantin-Moretus museum provided us with warm welcome. We definitely learned about and experienced the impression that women left on early modern printing culture, both on the economics of the printing house by keeping the books, and on the printing process itself by proofreading. What remains, however, is the impression that additional interesting, and underappreciated, details about this history remain hidden in the museum’s extensive archival collection. An impression confirmed by both Heleen Wyffels and Zanna van Loon with the cordial invitation to come and make use of the collections and archives for all those interested in science and university history.

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