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Did the Earliest Printers Know What Print Was? What a 15th Century Book from the Netherlands Can Tell Us About Culture and Innovation

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This is a guest post by Kluge Fellow Anna Dlabacova, Assistant Professor and postdoctoral researcher at Leiden University. She is researching a project titled “Inspiring, Innovative, and Influential: The Role of Gerard Leeu’s Incunabula in Late Medieval Spirituality and Devotional Practice.” She hopes to advance study on the role that incunabula from the Netherlands played in late medieval religious practice and visual culture, and their effect on devotional practices.

Imagine you have never seen a printed book. And yet you have a printing press at your disposal.

Figure 1: De Dion motor carriage #2, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The books you would produce would be dictated by what you know, just as the first mobile phones resembled conventional landline phones and the first cars were suspiciously reminiscent of carriages (fig. 1). The medium the first printers in the fifteenth century knew so well was the manuscript. Not surprisingly, their books reflected the design and features of books written by hand.

The (technical) invention of a new medium is followed by a period in which its users start to discover its possibilities and meaning. One could argue that the invention of printing with movable metal type by Johannes Gutenberg, which led to the publication of the famous Gutenberg Bible in 1455, was followed by the actual discovery of the printed book. This happened over a number of decades, if not centuries.

During this time printers, in interaction with readers and other actors involved in the book trade, explored the possibilities of the invention in order to realize its full potential in cultural, artistic, and economic ways, while fine-tuning it technically. They explored the nature of the texts that would sell and various ways of presenting information textually as well as visually.

An Early Mash-up? A Book Containing Two Books

A printed Netherlandish book held in the Rosenwald Collection at the Library of Congress effectively reveals the rootedness of the first printed books in manuscript culture. While many incunabula (books printed before 1501) no longer have their original binding, this book does. Because of this, it can be considered something of a time capsule. It tells a story about its origins, travels, and use. The beautiful fifteenth-century binding, for instance, suggests that the book was made for reading on a lectern (fig. 2).

Figure 2. Rosenwald 478a, Library of Congress Lessing J. Rosenwald collection. Photo by Eric Frazier.

But what about the contents of the book?

The front board boasts a title window with a handwritten (!) note in Dutch: ‘De spieghel des eewichs leuens met noch ander’ – literally: ‘The Mirror of Eternal Life with also something else’.

After a table of contents, the text starts with a blue initial letter decorated with red pen flourishes (fig. 3). Printed books at this time were, by modern eyes, unfinished. After the printing, process features such as paragraph marks, initials and other kinds of decoration were added by hand. Binding was another matter that buyers usually had to take care of themselves. The nature and sumptuousness of these features depended on the wishes, and of course the budget, of the buyer.

Pen work styles have been well studied for the Northern Low Countries, which enables researchers to locate the style of pen flourishes to a specific region. The pen work in the Rosenwald-book can be located to Utrecht. [1]

But while the decorated initials were added in Utrecht, the first two texts in the book, the Mirror of Eternal Life (Spiegel des eeuwigen levens) and a Book on confession (Boec van der biechten), were printed in Delft by Jacob Jacobszoon van der Meer, on 30 October 1480, almost 539 years ago. Three years prior van der Meer had been one of the printers of the famous ‘Delft Bible’ (1477), the first book printed in Dutch.

The book starts with the Mirror of Eternal Life – a dream vision that occurred to a man whose name was Heynric. One morning, he is in deep thought, pondering questions such as ‘What is Man? What is he made for?’ While thinking, he is approached by a beautiful woman who consoles him, and introduces herself as Sacred Scripture. What follows is a dialogue between Heynric and Lady Scripture (who is a personification of Holy Writ) about the knowledge Man needs in order to reach eternal life.

The second pen work initial in the book signals the start of another text that van der Meer included in the same edition, the so-called Book on confession (fig. 4). This text is introduced on the last leaf of the Mirror of Eternal Life: ‘And so that we may reach this holy city Jerusalem in the best possible way, so follows hereafter the Book of Confession, and teaches us how we should confess our sins and offences.’

The book, as the title window tells us, contains ‘also something else.’ The book combines the Delft texts with a text published in Gouda by the prolific printer Gerard Leeu: the Booklet on the office or service of the Mass (Boecxken van der officie ofte dienst der missen), printed on 20 July 1479. This is the first edition of this text, and the copy at the Library of Congress is the single extant witness of this edition. The Booklet provides readers with basic catechetical knowledge (the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, etc.) and an allegorical explanation of the Mass as the life and Passion of Christ.

Figure 3. Rosenwald 478a, Library of Congress Lessing J. Rosenwald collection. Photo by Eric Frazier.


The book is thus a Sammelband (composite volume) that contains three texts in two editions produced in Delft and Gouda. All three texts provide readers with the opportunity to deepen their spiritual life by way of reading in their own mother tongue. Who were these readers? On one of the flyleaves in front of the book we find a note:

‘Desen boeck salmen ten Refter lesen Na sijn / ordenachie ende es den xiijten inde taeffele’ (This book shall be read in the refectory, according to its arrangement and it is the 13th in the catalogue) (fig. 5).

Although the note does not mention a name or place, there are at least five extant Middle Dutch manuscripts now kept in London, Paris, Brussels, and Vienna with similar notes that mention the same catalogue. [2] Since these can be located in the Brussels community of Rooklooster (literally the red monastery), we can assume that this book was part of that same book collection kept in the refectory. The Augustinian canons would recite these books during mealtimes, supplementing their food with spiritual nurture.

Rooklooster also happens to be the monastery where the painter Hugo van der Goes (d. 1482) spent the last years of his life. The Portinari triptych, one of his most famous works, is now kept in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. According to the convent’s chronicle, Van der Goes suffered from melancholy or even psychosis. One of the reasons given for this condition is that he had spent a lot of time reading a Flemish book. [3] Maybe Van der Goes also held this very book in his hands, or at least heard it being read out loud?

What’s new? Skeuomorphism and Anchoring Innovation

Both the physical appearance of the book, as well as the way the book was created, by combining multiple different texts, still fits very much into medieval manuscript culture and the modes of customization of medieval manuscripts prevalent among late medieval readers. But while the book functioned within a profoundly medieval context, it was innovative.

The fact that it was a printed edition, rather than a manuscript, means that there were multiple copies produced of these texts. They were produced commercially for a market. And even though

Figure 4. Rosenwald 478a, Library of Congress Lessing J. Rosenwald collection. Photo by Eric Frazier.

the texts fit within medieval tradition – allegorical explanations of the Mass were a common manuscript genre – these specific texts were new. They were not previously circulated in manuscript and seem to have been composed for publication in print. The new medium thus disseminated novel texts in a pre-fabricated form.

The co-existence of profound innovation and tradition in the work of early printers such as Leeu can be explained through the concept of ‘anchoring innovation,’ recently introduced by Ineke Sluiter. [4]

Whereas we tend to think of the concepts of “traditional” and “innovative” as mutually exclusive, Sluiter argues that being in the grip of the past is an important feature of innovative societies. According to her, ‘innovations may become acceptable, understandable, and desirable when relevant societal groups can effectively integrate and accommodate them in their conceptual categories, values, beliefs and ambitions. This is the case when […] innovations are “anchored”.’

Gerard Leeu and his contemporaries anchored their use of print for Middle Dutch religious texts by integrating them within existing manuscript culture. The design of these early printed books could be compared to current skeuomorphic design, in which digital items are made to resemble their real-world counterparts and thus retain non-functional elements of these older designs. A case in point is the desktop design on PC’s, complete with manila folders and a calendar that retains the ornamental elements of book binding.

Figure 5. Rosenwald 478a, Library of Congress Lessing J. Rosenwald. Photo by Eric Frazier.

Printing books that resemble manuscripts might show that printers did not yet know what print was – or what it could become. But it can also be seen as an important anchoring strategy: it anchored the printed book in the world of books familiar to readers. This made the printed religious book recognizable, accepted, and successful, so that it in turn could become an anchoring device for new religious innovations. Recently, Andrew Pettegree has described Martin Luther’s successful employment of print during the Reformation in his book Brand Luther. Early printers such as Leeu and van der Meer seem to have paved the way for developments in the sixteenth century by accustoming readers to the use of printed books for religious instruction and knowledge.

Moreover, these fifteenth century books provide us 21st century humans with a mirror to look at our own interactions with new media. With regard to design, the new medium of the press became only slowly truly independent from handwritten books. The current, new media revolution shows a similar dependence on traditional, industrial design. An example can be found in e-readers, where a digital screen is made to look like a printed book, which, when you think of it, is not that different from an early printed book that essentially looks like a manuscript.


[1] I am grateful to Anne Korteweg for her help in locating the penwork.

[2] See Erik Kwakkel, Die Dietsche boeke die ons toebehoeren. De kartuizers van Herne en de productie van Middelnederlandse handschriften in de regio Brussel (1350-1400). Leuven: Peeters, 2002, pp. 29-30, esp. n. 77.

[3] Bernhard Ridderbos, De melancholie van de kunstenaar. Hugo van der Goes en de oudnederlandse schilderkunst. Den Haag: Sdu uitgeverij Koninginnegracht, 1991, p. 220.


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