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Cambridge University Library holds some 12,500 early Dutch books either printed in the Netherlands before 1801 (in any language), or Dutch-language works printed abroad during the same period. The holdings of Dutch imprints in the Library largely represent the frenetic printing activity in the Netherlands during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The collection also reflects the nature of early Anglo-Dutch relationships, both in the domain of economic and colonial competition, and in that of academic rivalry. Immigrants from the Netherlands have made their presence felt at Cambridge University. In 1534, for instance, bookbinder Nicholas Spierinck (d. 1545) who originated from the Low Countries was appointed stationer and printer to Cambridge University together with Garret Godfrey and Segar Nicholson. One peculiarity of Cambridge binders, and particularly of Spierinck, was their use of a pink pigment smeared over the whole cover on some of their bindings. A number of Spierinck’s bindings survive and have been identified. 

In the Netherlands, books were printed in a variety of languages dominated by Dutch, Latin and French. The Dutch were masters in early Oriental and Arabic printing. In this area, there was an element of rivalry between the universities of Leiden and Cambridge. On 16 December 1597, Hebrew and Arabic scholar Philip Ferdinand (1556–1599) matriculated at Peterhouse, Cambridge. That English and Dutch universities had become central to European intellectual life is clear from the short career of this Polish-born academic of Jewish parentage. About 1585 he had converted to Catholicism, converting once again to Protestantism whilst in England and taking the oath of loyalty to the Queen and University on 21 June 1596. He did not stay for long in Cambridge. Joseph Justus Scaliger persuaded him to come to Leiden University where he was appointed to the newly founded chair of Arabic, one of the first central European Jews to settle in the Northern Netherlands bringing an area of knowledge which was altogether new to the scholars in Leiden. A century later, in 1696, Cornelius Cornefelt [Crownfield] was appointed manager of the newly established Cambridge University Press. He selected types that probably came from a foundry in Delft run by the widow of JanJacobsz Schipper and additional types may have been purchased from Dick Vosken’s widow. By the early eighteenth century, the Press owned the best collection of Van Dijk’s Romans and Italians. Both Presses (Oxford and Cambridge) profited from the Low Country specialization in Hebrew, Greek and Oriental types which did so much to enrich scholarship at the universities.

Books in English printed during the seventeenth century were relatively few (even though a number of English printers crossed the Channel to learn their art in Amsterdam, Leiden, or elsewhere). The age, as far as the Continent was concerned, did not speak English. Amongst the learned classes in the Low Countries, in spite of the many contacts through trade, travel and diplomacy, knowledge of English was an exception rather than the rule. A reading public for English books did not exist. The famous dynasty of Elzevier publishers did print books in many languages, but not in English. English was not taught at schools. The Dutch firmly believed that their culture was superior to that of England. It was up to the English to make themselves familiar with Dutch. A sign of English interest in the book business in the Netherlands is the fine collection of book auction catalogues held in the Library (many of those annotated, with prices, and sometimes with names of the buyers).

The Library has an impressive collection of French-language material published in the Netherlands. The revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685 forced many Huguenot scholars, publishers and printers out of France. They settled in Holland and England. The number of English books translated into French increased sharply. Dutch printing presses played an important part in this ‘internationalizing’ process, publishing works in translation by John Locke (1710), John Law, Isaac Newton (both 1720), Richard Cumberland (1744), David Hume (1754), and others, thus contributing to the exchange of ideas, so crucial for the spread of the Enlightenment. An outstanding example is the work of Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) who was educated at Geneva and Toulouse but who spent most of his life in Holland as the leading member of an active intellectual community in Rotterdam. He published the first edition of his astonishing Dictionnaire historique et critique(1697) with Reinier Leers in Amsterdam. English translations were issued in 1709 and 1734/41. This work has been called the ‘Arsenal of the Enlightenment’ and had a European wide appeal. In England, Bayle was greatly admired by Hume. Refugee printing and publishing lies at the very heart of European religious and intellectual history.

The Library holds a good collection of Hebrew materials (Amsterdam imprints). The seventeenth-century struggle to have the ban lifted on Jewish immigration into Britain was largely organized from the Low Countries. Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel (1604–1657) moved from Amsterdam to London in September 1655. In October, he submitted a seven-point petition to the Council of State calling for the readmission of Jews to England upon which Oliver Cromwell called the Whitehall Conference in December to discuss the matter. When in Amsterdam, Menasseh ben Israel had started the city’s first Hebrew printing house, enjoying a monopoly until about 1633, and continuing to publish books until he left for England (he was the only Jew to take part in the Frankfurt bookfair of 1634 ). Amsterdam of course was the only centre in Europe where it was possible to print Jewish books freely and almost undisturbed. Following the failed Whitehall Conference, Cromwell gave an oral guarantee allowing the freedom of practising Judaism in 1656. 

Dr Jaap Harskamp

Project to report early printed Dutch books to the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands (STCN)

The Library is currently undertaking a project to report its holdings of early printed Dutch books to the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands (STCN), the Dutch retrospective bibliography for the period 1540–1800. At least 10% of our holdings are estimated to be unique titles for the STCN, so the reporting of our collections will greatly expand knowledge of book production in the Netherlands and abroad in the early modern period. The fact that so many (potentially unique) copies of books survive only outside the country in which they were printed illustrates the importance of international collaboration in this field of research. As of September 2017, more than 8000 titles have been reported to STCN, of which 815 are unique.