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Dutch printed books from the BPH

Dutch printed books from the BPH

Dutch printed books from the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica described for the national cataloguing project STCN

The national project to provide an inventory of all books printed in the Netherlands (or books printed in Dutch) between 1540-1800 was completed in 2009. To give an idea of this gigantic project, which was coordinated by the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (KB), a few figures first: in the past twenty years more than half a million books were examined in more than twenty large and smaller libraries, resulting in over 200,000 descriptions, compiled according to the latest bibliographical and scholarly insights. The records can be accessed online free of charge via the  Short-Title Catalogue Netherlands website (

Together, these 200,000 printed books offer a representative survey of the book production of the Netherlands between 1540-1800, although it is very likely that not a single copy has survived of a (large?) part of the printed output. It means they are not to be found in the STCN, which is based on the physical description of actual copies in participating libraries.

The collection of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (BPH) was one of the last libraries to have been described. The STCN team first targeted the largest collections in the Netherlands, those of the KB and the university libraries, on the assumption that their collections were representative and would cover the majority of the book production in the Netherlands. Smaller collections, it was thought, would mainly yield copies of editions already described. However, this is not the case for small specialized libraries such as the BPH. The STCN team therefore hoped that the BPH collection, which is mainly focussed on ‘contrary thought’, would bring to light new books unknown to the STCN. Nor were they proved wrong: of over 825 recorded Dutch printed books, more than 100 proved to be unique, or 12,5%, a relatively large percentage. Rare books curator José Bouman has compiled an exhibition focussing on these unique copies under the title ‘Divine Matter’ (15 June – 16 November 2009). In spite of the European scope of its collecting areas, the BPH is a major source for Dutch cultural heritage which is not to be found anywhere else in the Netherlands.

Goddelijke stoffe

Dutch book production in the 17th and 18th centuries flourished, a fact which was recorded by foreign visitors to the Republic, who marvelled at the large number of bookshops in Dutch towns and the wide range of books on offer. In terms of the actual population, book production in this country was unsurpassed: the Netherlands was ‘the bookshop of the world’. On the one hand there was the burgeoning domestic market: already at the time, Dutch society was highly urbanized and literate. That there were many readers, and that they read a variety of books, is obvious from the numerous inventories which also feature lists of books. Transport of goods – including books – was also highly organized, an important factor for efficient distribution. It must also not be forgotten that a substantial part of the book production was geared towards the international market: the quality of especially academic publishing was highly esteemed, both in terms of text reliability and book production (good quality paper, fine illustrations, clear typography).

Freedom of religion and freedom of press were also major agents in the success of the Dutch book trade. There were, however, restrictions to that freedom: in the Republic, too, books were banned and authors and printers were persecuted by law. A well-known case is that of Spinoza, whose major work Tractatus theologico-politicus was prohibited four years after it was first published by the States of Holland (1674) who gave in to pressure from the theologians. The author and the publisher were well aware that they might run into trouble and had taken the precaution of remaining ‘invisible’: the work was published anonymously with a fictitious imprint, a practice often resorted to in the case of books of a controversial nature (another case in point are the books by the 16th-century spiritualist David Joris, which are also to be found in the exhibition). Spinoza’s friend, the freethinker Adriaen Koerbagh, paid with his life for his ideas, which he boldly expressed in his Een ligt schijnende in duystere plaatsen (A light shining in dark places, 1668). He died in prison a year after an extremely severe punishment had been imposed on him. (More on Koerbagh in Libertas philosophandi. Spinoza als gids voor een vrije wereld, or in the English-language exhibition guide). Book prohibitions, censorship, fines and confiscation of books, house searches, prison sentences, corporal punishment and the exiling of printers, booksellers and authors: it also happened in the reputedly tolerant Republic. In view of the flow of ‘forbidden books’ that have nevertheless survived we ought to conclude that many managed succesfully to dodge the rules and prohibitions, and that some magistrates were prepared to look the other way, rather than according the authorities at the time with a place in the history of toleration they do not really deserve…

The completion of the STCN project has been (and is till being) celebrated in a number of ways: the official ceremony took place on 25 June 2009 with a conference in the KB in The Hague, where a volume of essays was launched:  Boekenwijsheid. Drie eeuwen kennis en cultuur in 30 bijzondere boeken. The UB Leiden showed an exhibition (5 June-27 July) under the title Vreemdigheden en rariteyten, featuring unique copies yielded by the STCN project (as in the BPH). A large exhibition has recently opened in Museum Meermanno in The Hague under the title Boekenwijsheid. Drie eeuwen Nederlandse boekdrukkunst 1540-1800 (3 October 2009-10 January 2010). The STCN website will be hosting mini exhibitions of participating libraries, including a contribution by the BPH.

The BPH’s participation in this national project leads to greater public exposure and greater digital accessibility of the collection. Earlier, 80 medieval manuscripts in the BPH collection were included in a comprehensive database (MMDC: Medieval Manuscripts in Dutch Collections; The 300 incunables (books printed before 1500) in the BPH were recorded in the ISTC (Incunable Short Title Catalogue), a project run by the British Library in London ( The ca 825 Dutch printed books in the BPH collection have now also become available via the national STCN database. The complete catalogue of printed books in the BPH is accessible online via the website.

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