Book binding, writing, editing and typography were some of the early advancements in the print media industry during the period of the Renaissance. In most countries and regions of Europe, the Renaissance was a period of vigorous renewal and reconstruction of literally values as well as consolidation of literature. Thus, many writers, philosophers, and literally critics emerged and flourished helping enrich Europe’s cultural and literature diversity. France, like other countries, had some of the richest contributors to this era of knowledge and change including such renowned philosophers, writers and scientists as Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Locke, and others. Christophe Plantin was a pivotal personality in the French Renaissance in the 16th century in the field of book writing and binding; also, he made a personal contribution to the literally development of the time. This paper is about Christophe Plantin, his legacy, and contributions to French printing and literature in the 16th century.
Christophe Plantin was born in Tours, France, in 1514. He rose from humble beginnings as the son of a servant and showed interest in book binding as well as typography from the young age. He was apprenticed to Robert Mace II between 1535 and 1540 in Caen. Mace was a prominent prototypographer in Caen. Plantin was an avid student who learnt book printing and binding extensively within the short span of apprenticeship. Plantin soon moved to Antwerp, one of the largest cities in Europe and then started practicing book binding and printing. He incorporated a very unique blend of skills of making excellent engravings and beautiful bindings (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2015).
Christophe entered an industry that already had a lot of professionals in Antwerp and flourished becoming one of the top book binders in the city owing to his excellent ability to adapt, creative design of works, constancy, and hard work. He incorporated a strong slogan which he affixed on all his prints going forward called “Labore et Constantia” or “By Labor and Constancy”. This slogan and a logo earmarked Plantin’s dedication to lead the way in his profession, a value he held dearly throughout his career despite the numerous challenges (Wallau, 1911).
Challenges Plantin Faced
Generally, there were as many challenges in the book industry as in Plantin’s personal life during his career. It was his unique positive ability to face these challenges as well as his flexibility and creativity that made him a leader in this sector (“Plantin, Christopher,” 2015). Some of the challenges included:
Antwerp was one of the leading cities in the entire Europe during Plantin’s era, therefore, being a hub of the development in the print media. This fact further strengthened by the rapid development of the print industry following the rise of literal diversity and rejuvenation. It inspired the period of the Renaissance and saw the need for the publication of numerous volumes of works spanning all fields especially those of philosophy, science, culture, and arts. As would be expected, this demand for books and other print media was marked by a rapid increase of book writers, typographers, graphic designers, and binders; only the quality of work could guarantee and secure a book writer enough clients. Plantin’s strategy to overcome competition was the uniqueness of design. He is remembered as the first book developer to use copper engraving blocks while his competitors used wood. He is also remembered for developing one of the most beautiful prints in the time that enabled him to win the competition. His versatility and creativity were key elements of his success.
Christophe suffered a serious arm injury during criminals’ attack who mistook a consignage he was delivering for precious commodities. As a result, his arm became unusable for the purposes of book binding. At the time, book binding was largely a private skill that was dependent on the personal suitability of the expert; thus, a bad arm was obviously an instant handicap. To deal with this weakness, Plantin diversified his skills to book typing. Like book binding, typography was mainly a private skill, and key players in this sector developed their own font works and graphic plates. Plantin was able to overcome this crippling challenge owing to his constancy and hard work. Despite his physical disability, he managed to build a successful company.
Employees in Plantin’s firm published an erroneous pamphlet which led to seizing of most of his printing materials and machines in 1562. This was the time when Plantin came to total bankruptcy; however, the courtesy of his close associates helped him reestablish his business in Antwerp (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2015). By 1567, Plantin was back on his feet and could afford to set out independently again. He acquired a house in Antwerp which he called “De Gulden Passer” or the Golden Compass as a sign of his renewal and devotion to a lasting legacy of perfection, endurance, and hard work. Plantin followed this rule untill his last days.
In 1567, Spaniards burnt down most of the prominent buildings in Antwerp during an uprising devastating immeasurable wealth in the city. During the time, Plantin negotiated with the Spaniards for his press works paying huge amounts of money to have them spared. In this way, he survived most of his competitors who lost their works and capital. In addition, Plantin diversified his operations by opening a branch in Paris where political stability was better and soon securing a contact in Leiden University, Holland, for book typing. He still kept his old office to his nephews in Antwerp and returned to it later when achieved certain stability. Plantin’s ability to network and diversify into new regions helped him to mitigate the risk and remain profitable in times of political upheavals (Sancti Eiphanii and Physiologum, 2004).
Works of Christophe Plantin
Christophe Plantin published numerous works including more than 40 editions of high quality books. He made the greatest contribution into publishing religious material, but also did work on the side not related to religion. Some of the most prominent Plantin’s works included:
Plantin Polyglot (Biblia Regia – King’s Bible)
This was perhaps the most prominent, widely read, and known work of Plantin. The Bible was prepared and published during just five years (1569-1573) under the support of King Phillip II of Spain. The success of this work secured Plantin the contract to publish most Roman Catholic liturgical books, thereby greatly contributing to the printing industry and the Roman Catholic bank of publications in all regions under the king’s jurisdiction (Clair, 1960).
In 1562, Plantin published a multilingual dictionary called the Dictionarium Tetraglotton. The dictionary featured the Greek, Flemish, French, and Latin languages. This combination appealed to a wide audience in Europe, as the four languages it featured were among the most widely spoken after English in the Renaissance Europe during the 16th century.
Plantin was a leading figure in bringing the Bible to different societies. He printed its translations in various languages including Hebrew, Latin, and Dutch. These works were major as that time was a period of expansion of the Christian faith in many geographical directions not just Europe but most other Latin countries in the world. In addition, the Jewish dispersion in Europe was rapid, and the need for Hebrew texts was immediate (The Watchtower, 2006). Thus, through his translation of the Bible into various languages, Plantin helped shape the spread of Christian religion, which today is the largest religion in the world both by sheer number of believers and its geographical coverage (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2015).
Plantin’s other publications included jurisprudence, breviaries, the Proofs for King Phillip II, and the classics among others. In his entire career, Plantin published more than 1,600 works, mainly int the fields of religion and literature. Christophe Plantin, unlike many other book publishers of his time, was inspired by the ethical content of his works, not solely the financial gain. Near the end of the 19th century, the Plantin’s empire of book development was slowed by, among other factors, the decree by Spain that forbad the importation of foreign books. Besides, the popularity of science publishing, which had always formed a key pillar of Plantin’s work, decreased (Wallau, 1911). In addition, the initial demand for religious and scientific materials was changing constantly reducing Plantin’s popularity. The bulk of Plantin’s empire was turned into the Plantin Museum in Belgium under purchase of the government. Christophe Plantin Prize was established in 1968 for Belgian citizens in Diaspora with a marked contribution into the fields of science, culture, or arts.
Christophe Plantin was one of the most influential book publishers of the 16th century in Europe and made a great influence on the development of the Christian faith through his numerous publications on the Christian faith including bibles, liturgical books, and related materials. In addition, he was a key collaborator in advancing the agendas of King Phillip II during his reign. Plantin also demonstrated a unique outlook on the book binding and printing industry in which profitability was not the only driver, but where ethical attributes and personal conviction were equally important. His enduring slogan of hard work and constancy inspired the growth of a 300-year empire of book printing dominance.