About the conference

In 1969 Léon Voet, the then curator of the Plantin-Moretus Museum, published the first volume of his seminal study The Golden Compasses. It deals with the Officina Plantiniana, the Antwerp printing house founded by Christopher Plantin in 1555 and continued until the nineteenth century by his heirs, the Moretus family. While the first volume of this erudite study focuses on the family and their social context, the second volume (published 1972) offers an analysis of the management of this international firm.

Never before a more thorough and wide analysis had ever been published about this first-rank, European publishing house of the Early Modern Period, as it was based on the unparalleled holdings of the museum, its library and, last but not least, its almost complete series of business documents and other papers, today rightly recognised as UNESCO world heritage. The aim of this conference is to reflect on the impact of Voet’s masterpiece on book historical scholarship and to evaluate it in the light of 50 years of continued research about the Officina Plantiniana. In addition, by gathering international experts from different countries – with all of which the Antwerp publishing house established and maintained firm ties – we seek to identify productive research questions left, completely or in part, unexplored by Voet.

Through the invitation of eminent scholars who are very familiar with the sources and related scholarship, we wish to re-evaluate Voet’s monumental work on the one hand, and to explore thusfar in part neglected research questions on the other hand. By doing so, this conference aims at the formulation of new, productive hypotheses, and the identification of new research questions.

Impact on Book History

Voet’s seminal study of the holdings of the Plantin-Moretus Museum has had an enormous impact on book historical scholarship. In many ways, it established a research agenda for book historians and functioned as a bench mark for other scholars. Fifty years later, it is time for a re-evaluation of this work and to bring to the attention themes which have been neglected or only dealt with in part.

The programme put together is creative and exemplary in its composition, as it visits or revisits a number of important issues that can inspire future research. They include the personal network of Plantin in Paris (discussed by Denis Pallier), the position of Plantin’s wife, Jeanne Rivière (studied by Heleen Wyffels), the importance of Balthasar Moretus II’s strategic instructions for future generations (Kristof Selleslach), the controversial reception by two scholars of the Biblia Regia or Polyglot Bible (Antonio Davila Perez), the untapped potential of crucial business documents for the economic history of the book (Renaud Milazzo), and the role of the Officina as a hub with China in Europe (Noël Golvers). The eminent scholar Prof. David McKitterick (Trinity College, Cambridge) will conclude the conference by drawing a parallel with Cambridge University Press, a comparison which will spark many insights and questions.

Through this programme, we propose new avenues of research, which include a more global approach, a more economic approach, and pay more attention to the role of women in the trade.

Scientific importance

The holdings of the Plantin-Moretus Museum are unparalleled and so is Voet’s Herculean study based upon them. Because The Golden Compasses was published in English, the scholarly monument had and still has an enormous impact on book historical research of the Early Modern period conducted anywhere in the world, whether it deals with questions of book production, distribution, or consumption. The position of the archives of the Officina Plantiniana is a very special one, because it is nearly complete, covers a very long period (1555–1869), and has ramifications in England, Spain, France, the Dutch Republic, and Germany, where the firm has been an active participant of the semestrial Frankfurt Fairs, and where it engaged in the book trade with hundreds of international businessmen active in dozens of different regions.

As time goes by, scholars come to understand different problems and opportunities related to the archives and the way in which they have been analysed by Voet. A first set of problems springs from the unparalleled position of the Officina Plantiniana and of the specific nature of the holdings. By want of other publishers’ archives, scholars have often taken The Golden Compasses and the documents this study is based upon, as a base for comparison. However, it has become increasingly clear that this is to some degree problematic and sometimes even deceiving.

A second point this conference will address, is the fact that Voet’s study is limited to the approach and questions book historians were interested in fifty years ago. Although much of what is published by Voet still stands when it comes to the facts and specific context of the Officina Plantiniana, much also has remained untouched or was treated in the light of a then prevailing paradigm.