Cambridge and the Low Countries (1) – Competition and Collaboration

Three volunteers, all retired librarians with many years’ expertise, currently assist the work of European Collections on a regular basis. Dr Jaap Harskamp, former Curator of the Dutch and Flemish Collections at the British Library, is engaged in a project to add the substantial early Dutch collections held at the Library to the Dutch Short Title Catalogue (STCN). In the process, he is making numerous amendments, corrections and additions to the library catalogue. At the request of European Collections, he assists in the selection of recently published books from the Netherlands. Being closely involved with the development, updating and extension of Lugt Online, Brill’s database of art sale catalogues up to 1901, he has added the Library’s relevant catalogues to the database. Their publication is imminent. Jaap Harskamp will contribute a number of posts on the theme of ‘Cambridge and the Low Countries’.

Competition and Collaboration


“Ḥamishah ḥumshe Torah”. Amstelodami: Bi-Vet Menasheh … ben Yiśraʼel, 1630. Classmark: 1.47.3

Cambridge University Library’s early Dutch collections comprise some 14,000 books either printed in the Netherlands before 1801 (in any language), or Dutch-language works printed abroad during the same period. These will be reported to the STCN, the Dutch retrospective bibliography for the period 1540-1800, making this important part of the collections more widely known to the international scholarly community. Around 15% of these holdings are estimated to be unique titles for the STCN, so the reporting of these holdings will greatly expand knowledge of book production in the Netherlands 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.

The extent of holdings of Dutch imprints in the Library represents the frenetic printing activity in the Netherlands during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There have been unsubstantiated suggestions that in the seventeenth century more books were printed in the Netherlands than in the rest of Europe put together. 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. 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 Jan Jacobsz Schipper and additional types may have been purchased from Dick Vosken’s widow. Both Presses (Oxford and Cambridge) profited from Low Country specialization in Hebrew, Greek and Oriental types which did so much to enrich scholarship at the universities.

The Library has an impressive collection of French-language material published in the Netherlands. The revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685 had 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 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 (U.1.4-7) with Reinier Leers in Amsterdam in 1697. 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 also holds a good collection of Hebrew materials (mainly Amsterdam imprints). The seventeenth-century struggle to have the ban lifted on Jewish immigration into Britain was largely organized from the Netherlands. Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel  had started the first Hebrew printing house in Amsterdam, enjoying a monopoly until about 1633 (he was the only Jew to take part in the Frankfurt book fair of 1634). Amsterdam of course was the only centre in Europe where it was possible to print Jewish books freely and almost undisturbed. He moved from Amsterdam to London in September 1655. In October, he submitted a seven-point petition to the Council of State requiring the readmission of Jews to England upon which Oliver Cromwell called the Whitehall Conference in December to discuss the matter. The conference failed, but Cromwell gave an oral guarantee allowing the freedom of practising Judaism in 1656.


Ames, William. “Conscience with the power and cases thereof”. [Leyden: W. Christiaens], 1639. Classmark: Syn.7.63.276

A sign of English interest in the book business in the Netherlands is a fine collection of book auction catalogues held in the Library (many of those annotated, with prices, and names of buyers). From those and other sources it appears that books in English printed during the seventeenth century were relatively few. 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, art and diplomacy, knowledge of English was an exception rather than the rule. The famous Elzevier dynasty published books in many languages, but not in English. There is one exception. Because of censorship at home, English Puritan book printing in the early seventeenth century, especially in the cities of Amsterdam and Leiden, was flourishing. Once produced by Dutch presses, the books were smuggled back to England. Some 350 Puritanical books printed in the Dutch Republic by Puritan printers in exile or by sympathetic Dutch printers have been recorded. Cambridge holds a significant number of such publications. During the 1650s the first members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) arrived in Amsterdam after being expelled from England. Ipswich-born William Ames was educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and one of those active in spreading the word amongst the local population by means of the printed word. From the beginning, there have been intimate relations between English Quakers and Dutch printer-publishers. The inclusion of their work in the STCN, and the possibility to search the database on the language of publication, will encourage further research into this fascinating aspect of Anglo-Dutch collaboration.

Guest author: Jaap Harskamp

This is the first of Jaap’s posts relating to Cambridge and the Low Countries. More will follow… 

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