Catholic Print in the Dutch Republic: A Low Countries Enterprise

Elise WatsonElise Watson, PhD Candidate University of St Andrews, received an ALCS grant to visit a number of archives in Antwerp. She reports on her research.

“In March 2020, I set out on a tour of Dutch archives in order to study a group of people whose activities outside of home and in public spaces were increasingly restricted, leading to the development of a wide variety of media to be consumed at home, made in order to take the place of public activities that were no longer possible. Sound familiar?

While this connection may be tenuous, COVID-19 has not stopped me from pursuing my doctoral thesis, researching printing for the Roman Catholic community in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. In this period, Catholics made up a substantial proportion of the population in the Northern Netherlands, but were forced to subsist in the margins, as any form of public worship was banned and they were disallowed from holding public office or using public funds.

However, they maintained a robust print culture, either printing or importing everything the community needed, from single-sheet devotional prints to Vulgate Bibles. My project aims to document how the Catholic community obtained and used this print, and how it impacted their experience as a religious subculture. As much of the Catholic print in the North was imported from the Southern Netherlands, and many residents of the Dutch Republic still saw themselves as part of a unified Belgium, this is very much a project that involves the Low Countries as a whole.

My research has taken me both to archives and libraries. Last year, I received generous funding from the ALCS to visit several archives in Antwerp in order to investigate the trade in Catholic books between the Northern and Southern Netherlands. Though COVID-19 forced me to cancel my trip halfway through, I have been able to continue this research thanks to the digitisation projects carried out at institutions like the Plantin-Moretus Museum and the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, and the advice of archivists and librarians who have been extremely generous with their time and resources.

Rekening-courant van Catharina Maria Kiel voor Balthasar II Moretus
Rekening-courant van Catharina Maria Kiel voor Balthasar II Moretus

These digital investigations have already yielded fascinating results. The personal and familial relationships between printers and booksellers in Antwerp and the Dutch Republic, especially Amsterdam, have long been known to be strong. Members of the trade collaborated, corresponded, loaned each other money, and set up their children to marry to ensure the union of their dynasties. Records from the archives at the Plantin-Moretus Museum have shown that their professional relationships, too, were fruitful. Receipts and ledgers inform us that thousands of Catholic books were imported from Antwerp to every province in the Dutch Republic, and Dutch books were even sent back to be resold in Antwerp. A remarkable number of female printers and booksellers, like Catharina Kiel (shown here), participated in this family trade as well.

While I very much look forward to seeing this material in person, it is remarkable what kinds of research ambitious digitisation has made possible. Researchers owe a great debt to the work of archivists and librarians, for their guidance and diligence in ensuring this kind of inquiry can still take place during a pandemic. I owe many thanks, too, to the ALCS for their generous support of my research at such a turbulent time, and look forward to sharing more of my findings in the future!”

Image courtesy of the Museum Plantin-Moretus and the City of Antwerp.