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Blaeu’s commercial leanings stimulated seventeenth century science

03 April 2012

Great scholars such as Vossius, Barlaeus and Hugo de Groot thought he was money hungry and called him ‘as slow as a tortoise’. However, Willem Jansz Blaeu, known in particular for his Blaeu Atlases, was more than just a skilled cartographer and clever publisher. He was a liberal thinker. And the fact that he published such attractive editions is partly why he exerted such a great influence on the academic debate of the seventeenth century. This is shown by research for which Djoeke van Netten will be awarded a PhD on 12 April 2012 by the University of Groningen.

Willem Jansz Blaeu is best known for the impressive atlases that he published during his career, which culminated in publication of the Atlas Maior, the most expensive book to appear in the seventeenth century. But Blaeu also published other works ranging from mariner’s guides to the revolutionary writings of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. In her thesis Djoeke van Netten throws new light on the life and work of this influential printer, publisher and mathematician. She shows that it was actually because he was commercially minded that he was able to influence the academic debate.

The best edition?

In her thesis Van Netten compares different editions of Nicolaus Copernicus’s revolutionary De revolutionibus, the work describing how it was not the sun that revolved round the earth but the earth that revolved round the sun. Blaeu’s 1617 edition of Copernicus’s work is often called ‘the best of the early editions’. Van Netten’s research shows that improvements on earlier versions from 1543 and 1566 primarily were to the form rather than the content. Van Netten says, ‘Although Blaeu was a mathematician and astronomer himself, obvious errors remained in the text. He did, however, make De revolutionibus a much more attractive book by choosing a handier format, using clearer illustrations and adding an index.’  

Liberal but opportunistic

Van Netten sees a remarkable contradiction in Blaeu’s work. On the one hand he was a liberal thinker: in 1613 Blaeu was the second Dutchman after Simon Stevin to voice his open support of Copernicus’s work. On the other hand, Blaeu was an opportunist: even after the publication of De revolutionibus , he continued to publish mariner’s guides that stated that the sun revolved around the earth. And although he was probably a member of the Mennonite (Baptist) Church, he still published large numbers of Catholic books. Van Netten says, ‘The scholars who had their work published by Blaeu complained until they were blue in the face. In a letter Vossius called him “as slow as a tortoise”. He thought that Blaeu spent too much time on commercial jobs and paid too little attention to academic publications.'  

Form over content

However, Blaeu’s commercial leanings did actually have a favourable effect upon the academic debate. Blaeu’s Copernicus edition appeared just when it was in great demand, as previous editions had sold out. Great thinkers such as Newton and Descartes probably became familiar with the work of Copernicus through the Blaeu edition. Van Netten says, ‘Of course it is about the content in science, but when it comes down to it, how influential an academic work becomes does depend on the form. And the commercially minded Blaeu paid a great deal of attention to form in particular.’  

Blaeu’s influence underestimated

The scholars who had their work published by Blaeu failed to realize how important the role of a publisher was in spreading their knowledge, Van Netten claims in her thesis. And she believes that this aspect is overlooked to this day, ‘Blaeu was more than just a skilled cartographer, as he is often described. He was very important to the dissemination of knowledge. Many historians are primarily interested in the content of old publications. Just how crucial the aspect of form was for the influence these publications had is often overlooked.’  

Curriculum vitae

Djoeke van Netten (Meppel, 1980) studied history at the University of Groningen. She did her PhD at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Groningen. Her supervisors were Prof. K. van Berkel and Prof. G Vanpaemel. Van Netten is currently working as a lecturer in New History at the University of Amsterdam. A commercial edition of her thesis ‘Merchant in knowledge. The publisher Willem Jansz Blaeu (1571-1638) in the scholarly world of his time’ (Koopman in kennis. De uitgever Willem Jansz Blaeu (1571-1638) in de geleerde wereld van zijn tijd ) will be published by Walburg Pers, Zutphen.

More information

Djoeke van Netten,  d.h.vannetten@uva.nl , + 31 20 525 44 89 (work)

Last modified:10 January 2018 2.59 p.m.
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