‘The Paradox of Prosperity’ – Selling books in early modern Leiden

The booksellers of early modern Leiden prospered despite being regulated by a guild. In fact, they petitioned for and received permission to set up a guild as late as 1652 when other trades tried to get rid of the tight constraints such an institution imposed (p. 14). For, contrary to a widespread belief among economic historians, traditional guilds helped printers and booksellers in Leiden to adapt to a changing market and thrive. This is ‘The Paradox of Prosperity’ Laura Cruz talks about in her book on the printing scene in early modern Leiden published by Oak Knoll (2009).

The Leiden booksellers survived on an increasingly competitive market because they found a new way to make money in the trade with second-hand books. In particular, they specialised in auctioning the libraries of deceased scholars of which the local university seemed to produce a never-ending supply (p. 57). Their customers were, of course, (foreign) students out for a bargain (p. 222) but also the great and the good who wanted to furnish their libraries with scholarly works (p. 214).

In five well-researched and clearly written chapters on ‘Guilds’, ‘The Academy Printers’, ‘Auctions’, ‘Social Structure’ and ‘Demand’ Cruz tells us about the organisation and regulation of printing in Leiden, the relationship between the budding publishing industry and the famous University of Leiden, the evolution of the second-hand book market, the social status of people in the business, and about the buyers and readers of printed matter. All this is conscientiously done with the help of lists and tables and tax registers, and a lot of numbers. I skimmed most of those because I really wanted to know how far the experience of Leiden printers and booksellers was typical for the United Provinces as a whole and how the book trade developed over the course of the early modern period. And, of course, after the first few tables my ADHD set in. Don’t get me wrong, the tables add a lot of scholarly substance to the study. But as a historian of ideas I’m more interested in the how and why than in the how much and how long.

Laura Cruz has set herself a difficult task aiming to bridge the gap between economic and cultural history, and she will probably find a lot of readers looking either for the one or the other. For someone unfamiliar with Dutch history, moreover, the sections that contextualize the situation in Leiden with the print cultures of England, France and Germany are most valuable. But they are few and far between.

It gets interesting, for instance, when Cruz tells us about the influx of printers and booksellers from the southern Netherlands after the northern states declared independence from Spain in 1572 (p. 65ff). Yet, she doesn’t explain the religious component of their move or how these newcomers to Leiden changed the character of the city’s printing industry. As someone interested in early modern republicanism I also wonder how printing and bookselling were influenced by the political structure of the country. Cruz contrasts the ‘proactive’ regulation of the press in England (p. 204) and the government-run print shops in the Catholic world (pp. 201/2) with the situation in the Dutch republic, but leaves the significance of centralised institutions and the royal elephant in the room. Responses to censorship (or the lack of it), the political inclinations of printers – I would like to know more about it all.

Overall, however, The Paradox of Prosperity is a very informative book that tells us a lot about the business of printing and publishing in early modern Leiden and the social structures it was operating in. I found at least one error to irritate the stickler in me (the splitting of ‘bookshops’ into ‘books-hops’ on p. 213), and I would have found a few more footnotes very helpful. But I put down the book thinking that I had learnt a lot from it.

Laura Cruz, The Paradox of Prosperity: The Leiden Booksellers’ Guild and the Distribution of Books in Early Modern Europe (New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2009).


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

1 comment

  1. I sought this book out based on this review. And very accurate the review was, too! A useful book but sadly let down by lots of distracting copy-editing errors. That said, it’s provided lots of leads for other sources. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

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