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  • The Secrets of Success:Microinventions and Bookselling in the Seventeenth-Century Netherlands
  • Laura Cruz (bio)

Dutch innovation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries largely took the form of what Joel Mokyr calls microinventions, "small, incremental steps that improve, adapt, and streamline existing techniques already in use, reducing costs, improving form and function, increasing durability, and reducing energy and raw material requirements."1 The key to success with such innovations, argues Mokyr, is a social and economic context that is receptive to their application. The early modern Netherlands provided just such a nurturing environment. The cluster of microinventions that characterized their Golden Age were not as celebrated as the grand macroinventions that characterized the later industrial revolutions, such as the steam engine or electricity, but collectively they catapulted the tiny republic into economic predominance in seventeenth-century Europe. The Leiden printers' guild was the vehicle through which one such innovation, the book-sale auction catalogue, was pioneered and disseminated, facilitating Dutch dominance of one segment of the European book market.

The seventeenth century brought a host of new economic challenges to various sectors of the Dutch economy. By the middle of the century, Dutch wages were relatively high, and international prices for goods tended to weaken after the protracted period of price inflation during the long sixteenth century. This combination put pressure on Dutch industries to reduce costs and to open new markets for their goods.2

The book-sale catalogue and auction, as developed by Dutch printers' guilds, is an illustration of a response to the price squeeze. In keeping with Mokyr's definition of microinvention, this innovation was certainly neither spectacular nor original. The Dutch certainly did not invent auctions or even book auctions. The constituent parts had been developed and used [End Page 1] long before the seventeenth century. Auctions had been regularly practiced both in ancient Rome and in the Islamic world;3 the word auction itself is derived from the Latin word auctio, an increasing.4 There is some evidence that the Burgundian rulers in the Low Countries introduced Roman auction forms to their territories in the late Middle Ages.5 Though several Dutch historians have suggested that book auctions were a Dutch (i.e., northern provinces) innovation, even this has proven to be inaccurate.6 Researchers have recently unearthed inventories for fifteenth-century book auctions in the Flemish (i.e., southern provinces) towns of Courtrai, Mechelen, and Saint-Omer.7

Nor did the Dutch invent book catalogues. Private owners' catalogues, often used for accounting or limited distribution to interested parties, and probate inventories with books listed were both common by the Middle Ages.8 Libraries, universities, and monasteries might have their collections catalogued, although printed versions of these do not predate the late sixteenth century. Leiden was the first university known to have a comprehensive list of its holdings published, in 1595.9 Stock catalogues, or lists of the holdings of printers and booksellers, appeared nearly concurrently with the birth of printing in the fifteenth century. The Dutch did not even pioneer book-sale catalogues (inventories with prices), sometimes referred to as mart catalogues, which had been used at the great sixteenth-century international book fairs in both Frankfurt and Leipzig.10

So what did the Dutch do? They streamlined a combination of these techniques, to paraphrase Mokyr's definition, and found new commercial applications for them. Before the advent of the book-sale auction, books were usually auctioned off as just another part of a deceased person's estate. Records show a handful of separate book auctions in sixteenth-century Antwerp and Leuven.11 There were very few of these, however, largely because almost no one owned enough books to warrant a sale separate from the other goods in the estate. The most famous of these early book auctions was of the library of the cartographer Abraham Ortelius, sold in Antwerp after his death in 1598.12 It is not surprising that the Dutch innovations came from immigrants who had lived and worked in Antwerp and may have had experience with these types of sales.

The Dutch printers' innovation was not book catalogues, book-sale catalogues, nor book auctions but rather printing book-sale...


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