In 1580 Lowys (Louis) Elzevier (Elsevir, Elzevir, Elsevier), a former apprentice of Christopher Plantin in Antwerp, moved from the Southern Netherlands to the Northern university town of Leiden where he set up his own book shop. Six years later, after working mainly as a bookbinder and bookseller, he was appointed beadle of the Academy.
The first Elzevier to run a printing office was Louis’ son Isaac (Leiden 1617), who also became university printer. Subsequently, the large family of Elzeviers ran major offices in Leiden (Abraham [I] and Bonaventura, later: Johannes and Daniel) and Amsterdam (Lodewijk [III] and Daniel), whilst the houses in Utrecht and The Hague (Lodewijk [II]) were of less importance.
Members of the Elzevier dynasty were known for their shrewd commercialism in the book business. They were among the foremost European publishers of their time for the number and variety of their publications (over 2,000 titles, excluding academic dissertations and disputations) at cheap prices. Subsequent collectors valued the books published for their perceived physical quality (type, ornament, paper).
Louis published his first book, Eutropius’ Historiae Romanae, in 1592 and, according to Alphonse Willems (the outstanding biographer/bibliographer of the Elzeviers), the last publication was printed in Leiden in 1702 (Willems bibliography, nr. 947) by Abraham Elzevier. After that year, until his death in 1712, Abraham only produced a number of dissertations. However, the most productive years of Elzevier printing must be located between 1620 and 1680.
The Elzevier output consists of a wide range of works in theology, philosophy and politics, law and medicine, French plays and belles lettres, not to mention a set of outstanding dictionaries or the overwhelming number of dissertations and disputations that were produced within the various faculties of Leiden University. Reissues of the Classics (Virgil, Seneca, Pliny, Caesar, Cicero) often with annotations by contemporary European/Dutch scholars, were widely sold. Virgil’s Opera omnia went through sixteen different editions. The commercial success of these reissues allowed for the publication of more recent work by various outstanding authors (Erasmus, Descartes, Galileo, Grotius, Charron) and for more ‘risky’ undertakings such as the publication of the philosophical works of Thomas Hobbes.
Several Elzevier volumes appeared without an imprint, or with a fictitious imprint. For Jansenist works, for example, the names of imaginary printers in Cologne or Liège were invented in order to protect the (French) authors from the accusation of being a Calvinist. When issuing controversial political works, the Elzeviers remained either anonymous or pseudonymous. Names used include those of Jean Sambix (Leiden), Jacques Le Jeune (Amsterdam), Pierre Du Marteau (Cologne). Pirated editions of French plays and other items of belles lettres (Scarron, Corneille, Molière, Quinault) were given the imprint ‘Jouxte’ or ‘Suivant la copie de Paris’. Amongst the group of fictitious imprints, those French works form by far the largest group.
The language of publication is mostly Latin, but there are also works in Greek, French, Italian (Aretino, Guarini, Boccaccio), an occasional one in Dutch or German, and in a number of Semitic languages – but none in English. Why this apparent ‘omission’ in the Elzevier output? Continental Europe during the 17th century neither spoke nor read English. As a consequence, few books in English can be traced in the stock catalogues of Continental booksellers at the time. In the 1634 stock list issued by Bonaventura Elzevier one finds no less than 500 titles in French on offer, 307 in Italian, 32 in Spanish and only seven in English. Daniel Elzevier’s renowned Amsterdam stock catalogue of 1674 (768 pages, some 20,000 items) lists only 19 titles in English.
Semitic languages, on the other hand, are well represented in the Elzevier output. The University of Leiden had established a Chair of Arabic at the beginning of the 17th century, and the study of Arabic and other Semitic languages in the Netherlands flourished throughout this century and the next under such figures as Thomas Erpenius (1584-1624), Jacobus Golius (1596-1667) and Albert Schultens (1686-1750), whose fame drew scholars from all over Europe to Leiden and gave the University a high reputation.
In 1625, Isaac Elzevier had acquired the Oriental printing press from the widow of Erpenius which guaranteed the continuation of books printed in Eastern languages. One could argue that the ability to print Oriental languages gave the Elzevier Press its real claim to distinction; certainly the Elzevier family itself, despite minimal profit margins, and the University of Leiden both thought so.
The Elzevier family combined the production of quality books with sound business practice. It made its sales catalogues widely available and explored every possible means of selling books. The firm was represented at book fairs where it deliberately tried to flood the market with its publications (the prices of books were kept relatively low), it was present at many of the auctions that flourished in the Northern Netherlands, it even sold books by a brokerage system where the firm also represented other publishers. In fact, Elzevier produced the first auction catalogue that has been identified, for the auction of the library of Marnix van Sint-Aldegonde, July 6th 1599 in Leiden.
There seemed to be no conflict between considerations of quality in either content or presentation on the one hand, and the concept of the book as an economic commodity on the other. The Elzeviers never compromised on either of these demands. Inevitably, their commercialism has been criticised. To some of those critics, their practices were unethical since they were familiar with all shady tricks and devices of bookselling. Their approach, nevertheless, opened up a whole new market for the book that was traditionally restricted to the elite of academics and theologians.
The format of the Elzeviers’ publications contributed to their success. Typically, many of their books are duodecimo volumes with approximate measurements of 12cm x 6cm (although they produced well over a hundred folios and some two hundred twenty-five octavos). Interestingly, Roget’s Thesaurus lists ‘Elsevier edition’ as one of the synonyms for littleness. The most striking example is the so-called Republics collection that was published between 1625 and 1649. This collection (not a series in the contemporary sense of the word) comprises 33 different texts in a total of 66 editions. Every single work deals with the geography of a country, its inhabitants, economy, governments and history. Originally, just a number of studies on Europe were planned, but soon Africa (as a whole) was added to the list and also separate studies on Asia (Persia, China, Japan). The collection of Republics became an instant success and a desired object for collectors. There was a clear publishing strategy as well. In the 1628 sales catalogue a number of republics are announced which would be published in the years to come.
The success of the Elzevier in small format brought out a considerable number of imitators. Not only format, but ornaments, spheres, etc. were reproduced with varying degrees of skill. There were competitors in Leiden, Amsterdam, Gouda and The Hague, and even in Paris or Rouen. The most talented amongst them was François Foppens, a leading printer in Brussels. The very fact that so many excellent printers followed in the footsteps of the Elzeviers reinforces the importance of their role in the history of the book.
By the end of the 17th century, Elzevier books were already widely collected and the interest in these publications never diminished. Apart from private collections, major holdings outside the Netherlands are to be found in Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen, Stockholm, the Baltic states, and even in St. Petersburg. Amongst book collectors, the Elzeviers were equally popular in the UK, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. Sales catalogues would specifically refer to Elzevier in their listings and – if there was a notable number on offer – the name was carried on the title page.
Although the Elzeviers did not publish in English, they were responsible for the Latin works of a number of English and Scottish authors. By the last quarter of the 17th century Elzevier books were widely available in England and such eminent figures as Sir Walter Raleigh, Robert Burton, Thomas Browne, John Milton and John Dryden had Elzeviers in their collections. As a consequence, excellent Elzevier holdings are to be found in, for example, the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. The rage for Elzevier publications in the UK is further reflected in the excellent holdings of the British Library (BL), all of which have been added to the Dutch retrospective bibliography (Short Title Catalogue Netherlands = STCN). This collection has now been complemented by an even more outstanding one held at Senate House Library (ULL), at which the French belles lettres are especially outstanding.
The origin of the ULL collection is rather obscure. From the few archival details that remain, it is clear that on 1 October 1900 the collection of Elzeviers was offered to the Guildhall Library by H.A. Beaumont (sometimes recorded as H.K. Beaumont – his identity remains a mystery although there was a C.W. Beaumont, bookseller, at 75 Charing Cross Road at the beginning of the century) at a price of £50. The Library Committee accepted the offer and the collection was housed in the Guildhall. The pressmarking of books was based upon Willems’ catalogue and a set of paper title slips accompanied the collection, but no catalogue was produced. On 3 June 1946 the then Librarian reported to the Library Committee that, due to a lack of storage space, the Elzevier collection should be housed elsewhere, either on permanent loan or as an outright gift. Subsequently, part of the collection was given to the University of London which was formally acknowledged by a letter from the Chairman of the University Court to the Librarian, dated 14 July 1950. A recent review (2001/2002) of Dutch collections in the London area, undertaken by Prof. R. Salverda at University College London, brought these important holdings into prominence.
Now, more than half a century after these Elzeviers were received at this university library, the entire collection has been made available, both through the ULL and the STCN catalogues, and also through COPAC, the combined catalogue of major British research libraries. If, as a consequence, one combines the Elzevier holdings in the BL with those of ULL, one can without exaggeration suggest that Central London has become a European Elzevier-centre par excellence.
Willems, Alphonse, Les Elzevier: histoire et annales typographiques (Bruxelles: Van Trigt, 1880; reprinted 1962, 1974, 1991).
Davies, D.W., The World of the Elseviers, 1580-1712 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1954)
Dommelmans, B.P.M. et al (eds.), Boekverkopers van Europa:het zeventiende-eeuwse Nederlandse uitgevershuis Elzevier (Zutphen: Walburg, 2000)