Crossing borders: France and the Low Countries – introduction

By 1470 there were a dozen or so active presses in towns in Germany and Italy, but none in France. And when a team from Germany did set up the first press in Paris in that year it was not as their own commercial venture, but in response to an invitation.

Unlike Germany and Italy, France was becoming a unified country by that date, under one ruler – Louis XI – and centrally administered from Paris. This centralisation shows itself in the printing statistics. By 1500, rather more than 5000 editions had been printed in France, two-thirds of them in Paris, and almost all the rest in Lyons – already a great commercial centre. Other cities contributed very few.

Printed leaves from France are sparse in my collection. If we exclude the work of expatriate Frenchmen such as Nicolaus Jenson, Christophe Plantin, and a number who settled in London, then I have early examples from just three Parisian presses, and one in Lyons. A later example, a Bible leaf printed in Rouen for the English market, will appear elsewhere on this site.

(One other French town, Avignon, earns a footnote in the annals of printing. Records show that ten years before the Gutenberg Bible, a man called Procopius Waldvogel from Poland was there and undertook to provide 'steel alphabets ... and other items pertaining to the art of mechanical writing'. Just what he was up to, we shall probably never know.)

Like France, the Low Countries (mainly present-day Holland and Belgium) had been important producers of manuscript books, particularly splendidly decorated ones created in Ghent and Bruges for the top end of the international market. Presses sprang up in this region from about 1473, but were small-scale enterprises that did not always last. By the middle of the following century, one city, Antwerp dominated the printing trade in the Low Countries, and it is from the renowned press of Christophe Plantin that my only examples come.