One of the pages of the Atlas Maior, the biggest atlas ever, produced by the Amsterdam based printer Joan Blaeu, 1664. The atlas was published in Dutch, Latin, French, German and Spanish. After the Golden Age, first class cartography was taken over by the French.

Academic life as “cash cow” in the Dutch Golden Age

The Dutch Golden Age was an outstanding period for Dutch book production and trade. A historic study about this trade has been published recently and reveals that the people in the Republic owned more books than other Europeans. However, publishers generated most of their income producing dissertations and political pamphlets, the latter being considered as the forerunners of newspapers.

It may sound a little strange that Dutch people used to be the reading champions of Europe. However, to understand this we must go far back in time. Two historians from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland calculated that the inhabitants of the Dutch Republic during the golden Age (the late 16th and 17th century) possessed more books per capita than any other European country.

But this was not about literature. Most of the printed work served a practical goal. The bulk of it consisted of ‘medical’ handbooks, books for counting and accounting, political pamphlets, but also academic works, which proved to be a steady income for printers.

Freedom of press didn’t exist yet, but when a conflict arose between printers or publishers and the city or local administration, they were free to move elsewhere and continue their practices. Censorship was common, but not centrally organized.

From Frankfurt to Amsterdam

At the end of the 16th century, the international book trade was still dominated by publishers in Italy (Venice), France (Paris) and the southern Dutch Republic (Antwerp). The northern Dutch Republic was not represented well at the Buchmesse in Frankfurt, but this would change soon and Amsterdam would become the new centre for book making and trade.

The Golden Age was also the time of global exploration and colonialization and the first atlases were produced. One of the famous ones being the Atlas Maior, made by father and son Blaeu, containing hundreds of maps of the world – as far as it had been discovered. Less known are Blaeu’s detailed maps of coastal waters, indispensable for sailors.

The atlases of this family of printers, who had their firm in the centre of Amsterdam, were very expensive and often served as a status symbol. For most people, these books were generally out of reach (“the price of the complete atlas amounted to the annual income of a vicar”).


The production of dissertations was a steady source of income and a “goldmine”, according to the authors, Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen. They could trace around 15.000 titles but its  expected that another 15.000 are lost. The ones that did survive were well kept in university libraries, but their content is underestimated, according to the authors. It has a value as a potential source for showing us how fast academic theories were being replaced by new ideas in the 17th century.

The attitude of the Dutch book producers and tradesman is also severely criticised. The Dutch printing business was characterised by a lack of morals; anything was published, as long as it could be sold and provided a profit. The content could be of any political colour and even wise people were ‘attacked’. It seems a kind of Twitter avant la lettre.

This new publication really draws the reader into the world of books in the Golden Age, but also into the people’s world. The book gives ample descriptions and rich details to bring the reader closer to the history of print and publishing, which is to a high degree interconnected with political and social developments and the everyday life of people in this period of time.

The Bookshop of the World. Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age.
Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen. Yale University Press 2019. 496 pages, 70 color illustrations.
ISBN 9780300230079

De boekhandel van de wereld. Drukkers, boekverkopers en lezers in de Gouden Eeuw.
Translation by Frits van der Waa. Atlas Contact 2019. 624 pages. Color illustrations. 
ISBN 9789045034997

Annemieke van Roekel

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