Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)

Identifier: nl_1570


Commentary on the Ordinance concerning Printers

Marius Buning

University of Oslo, Norway

PI of the ERC project Before Copyright: Printing privileges and the politics of knowledge in early modern Europe. Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.


Please cite as:

Buning, M. (2022) ‘Commentary on the Ordinance concerning Printers’, in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer,


1. Full Title

2. Abstract

3. Censorship and Authorship

4. Regulations and Control

5. References



1. Full title

Ordinance / Statute and Provisional Commandment of our Lord the King, Concerning the Printers, Booksellers and Schoolmasters. Brussels: M. van Hamont, 1570. 


2. Abstract

Throughout the sixteenth century, Roman Catholic rulers had difficulties curbing the success of the Reformation and there were repeated attempts to bring ‘heresy’ under control by means of printing regulations. An important example in this regard, with particular relevance to the Low Countries, was the Ordinance concerning the Printers, Booksellers and Schoolmasters issued by Philip II in 1570. This commentary will situate the Ordinance in its context and show how it related to the introduction of the Tridentine Index in the Habsburg Netherlands. It was because of the Index that the attribution of literary works to a specific person became ever more important. This would be an important step towards stabilising the concept of individual authorship that became central to later copyright regimes.  

3. Censorship and Authorship

The system of printing privileges in the Habsburg Netherlands came into effect at a time when the authorities were having difficulties constraining the flow of new religious ideas. As early as 1515 some printers of religious works were required to submit their work to ‘the parishioner and aldermen’ of the city where they lived, in order to qualify for a printing privilege.1 The term ‘heresy’ first appeared in the official documents in 1519, not coincidentally shortly after the Leipzig Debate (1519) and the condemnation of Martin Luther’s views by the theological faculty of Leuven (1519).2 As in other areas of Europe, the system of printing privileges in the Habsburg Netherlands soon began to merge with a desire to control the production of knowledge. Ruling authorities thus enacted numerous laws regarding the (relatively new) printing industry in the hope of stopping the spread of ideas. Especially famous is the Edict of Worms (1521), which mandated a privilege for publishing religious publications.3


Attempts to curb heresy in the Habsburg Netherlands through printing regulations were recurrent.4 An important example was the Ordinance concerning the Printers, Booksellers and Schoolmasters, a document printed (under privilege) in 1570 by the Brussels printer Michiel de Hamont, and directly related to the introduction of the Roman Index in the Habsburg Netherlands.5 Previous Indexes in the region had been prepared by the University of Leuven and were thus more of a local affair.6 In contrast, the first Index to claim validity for all of Christendom was compiled in Rome in 1557, under the direction of Paul IV. It would take years for this Roman Index – which was continuously updated and amended – to gain acceptance in different parts of the Catholic world.7 An important milestone in this regard was the introduction of the 1564 Index, which was the direct result of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). This so-called Tridentine Index was widely circulated and was the first Roman Index to be accepted in the Burgundian domains.


The 1570 Ordinance repeatedly referred to the Council of Trent (Preamble, Articles XVII, XXIIII, XXVII, XXVIII), whose rules were to be scrupulously observed.8 Of particular importance for the examination of writings was Article XVII, which stated that:

The examination and approval of the book or manuscript to be printed, first signed by the author, will be done by the bishop or others, appointed by him, and the inquisitor. And furthermore it will be underwritten by himself, according to what has been decreed by the aforementioned holy council of Trent, with attestation whether it is the same good, and does not contain any error or scandal, or any other matter that may offend anyone.9

The Ordinance obliged authors to sign their writings before submitting them to the bishop and inquisitor for examination. Thus, by its very nature, the system emphasized the activities of individual authors; knowing their identity was important in order to punish them if necessary. As Michel Foucault has argued, in that sense the attribution of literary and artistic works to specific individuals became more important with the intensification of inquisitorial practices.10 In time, the increased emphasis on individual authorship would provide an important element for further regulations in the field of copyright law (even if, of course, at that time there was no connection between the efforts made by authors and ownership theories).


4. Regulations and Control

The 1570 Ordinance was issued in the name of Philip II, who wanted to issue a warning to those who continued to spread ‘errors and heresies’ in spite of earlier regulations aimed at streamlining religious beliefs according to Roman criteria.11

Indeed, the 1570 Ordinance was not an isolated document; as early as 1561, the governor of the Netherlands Margaret of Parma had called upon the Council of Brabant to adopt similar legislation, since ‘the placards […] relating to printing are not maintained as they are supposed to be.’12 This earlier piece of legislation had made it obligatory for printers to include the details of a privilege in either the front or back matter of a printed work and it warned printers not to add ‘dedicatory epistles, prologues, marginal additions or similar things in any way [after the privilege was granted].’13 Furthermore, every printer was expected to request a privilege on his own behalf, even if the book had been printed previously under another privilege, and printers were obliged to deliver a bound copy of each book to the aldermen of their residence. Here too, one can see that the ‘traceability’ of literary works to a specific person became more important as a consequence of censorship measures.14

It was all about controlling the new technology of print that could cause disruptions within existing power equilibria. Thus, as part of the 1570 Ordinance, Philip II had also appointed a so-called ‘Pthe Ordincance nt r and two appoeccomendation of Governor and Captain General the Duke of ALva well. It seems that the ebied ongrotypograph’ who was supposed to exercise control over his fellow printers as well as their employees. The first person to fill this important position was the prominent Antwerp printer Christophe Plantin (1520-1589).15 The Ordinance laid down his duties in detail. Among other things, he was to examine those who wanted to work in the printing business and grant them admission privileges if they proved to be of good repute. Furthermore, the Pthe Ordincance nt r and two appoeccomendation of Governor and Captain General the Duke of ALva well. It seems that the ebied ongrotypograph had to keep a proper register of all works that appeared in print, whether they were texts or images ‘carved or engraved in copper or wood.’16 Whether the rules laid down in the Ordinance were indeed effective in countering Protestantism and other revolutionary ideas is debatable. But it undoubtedly determined the further development of printing in the Habsburg Netherlands and beyond.


5. References

Baelde, M. “De Toekenning van Drukkersoctrooien Door de Geheime Raad in de Zestiendende Eeuw.” De Gulden Passer 40 (1962): 19–58.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, Revised ed., 113–38. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Hollander, Aurelius Augustinus den. Verboden Bijbels: Bijbelcensuur in de Nederlanden in de Eerste Helft van de Zestiende Eeuw. Amsterdam: Vossiuspers UvA, 2003.

King of Spain, Philip II, ed. Ordinancie, Statuyt Ende Gebot Prouisionnael Onss Heeren Des Conincx Aengaende de Printers, Boeckvercoopers Ende Schoelmeesters. Brussels: Michiel van Hamont, 1570.

Machiels, J. Privilège, censure et index dans les Pays-Bas méridionaux jusqu’au début du XVIIIe siècle. Bruxelles: Archives générales du Royaume, 1997.

Rombouts, Philppe. Certificats délivrés aux Imprimeurs des Pays-Bas. Antwerpen: Buschmann, 1881.

Roobaert, Edmond. “Michiel van Hamont.  Hellebaardier van de Keizer, Rederijker En Drukker van de Koninklijke Ordonnanties En Plakkaten.” In Miscellanea in Memoriam Pierre Cockshaw (1938-2008), edited by Frank Daelemans and Ann Kelders, 2:465–85. Brussels: Archives et Bibliothèques de Belgique, 2009.

Terlinden, Charles, and Jacques Bolsée, eds. Recueil Des Ordonnances Des Pays-Bas: Deuxième Série, 1506-1700. Vol. 8. 10 vols. Bruxelles: Ministère de la Justice, 1978.

Verheyden, P. “Drukkersoctrooien in de 16de Eeuw.” Tijdschrift Voor Boek- En Bibliotheekwezen 8 (1910): 203–26 and 269–86.

Voet, Léon. The Golden Compasses: Christophe Plantin and the Moretuses. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Amsterdam: Van Gendt, 1969.

[1] “[…] ierst ende voer al parochiaen ende wethouderen vanden plaetsen, dear onder de selve supplant zal zyn geseten, gethoent zullen werdden, om die te oversien ende visiteren.” Verheyden, “Drukkersoctrooien,” 204.

[2] In 1519, the prominent printer Jan Thibault was asked to submit his publication “in order to find out whether these [writings] are authentic, probable, and permitted, and whether they contain any heresy or not” (om te wetene oft die auctentyck, probabel ende geoirloft syn, ende oft dair inne ennige heresie begrepen es oft nyet). Verheyden, 205. The implementation of the censorship measures was initially not so strict, however. Baelde claimed that books for which a privilege was requested were hardly examined up until 1521, which explains as well how some Lutheran writings could initially appear with privilege. Baelde, “Drukkersoctrooien,” 37.

[3] Probably, in order to implement the Edict of Worms, a special decree drawn up in Dutch and French was issued for the Habsburg Netherlands (8 May 1521). Hollander, Verboden Bijbels, 6.

[4] New edicts relating to printing of religious material were issued, for instance, in 1521, 1526, 1529, 1531, 1540 and 1544. An excellent overview can be found in Machiels, Privilège, censure et index, 59–122.

[5] The privilege, issued by the Secret Council on 21 May 1570, at the request of Michiel de Hamont, was not limited in time; it merely indicated that De Hamont was the only one in the Burgundian Netherlands who could print, sell and distribute the document because it pleased the King that "its intention be known by all among the subjects of the State: so that no one may pretend ignorance of it" (son intention soit cogneue par tout entre les subiects depardeca: Afin que nul n'en puist pretende ignorance). Others printers who would print the work would be punished by means of an undefined “correctional sentence and arbitrary fine” (peine de correction et amende arbitraire). King of Spain, Ordinancie, A1v. [nl_1570]. On the activities of Van Hamont, see Roobaert, “Michiel van Hamont.”

[6] Charles V had introduced the first index in the Habsburg Netherlands in 1546, calling upon the faculty of Louvain University to set up a list of suspicious books. For an excellent overview of the different Indexes in the Habsburg Netherlands, see Machiels, Privilège, censure et index, 123–55.

[7] The Index of 1557 would only be published in 1559. Machiels, 133.

[8] The Ordinance referred to “the holy Council in the city of Trent, … the decrees of which were sharply to be kept and observed” (t’heylich concilium generael binnen der Stadt van Trente gehouden, T’welck wy willen, verstaen ende beuelen scerpelijcken onderhouden ende geobserueert te worden). King of Spain, Ordinancie, A2v. [nl_1570]

[9] “D’examinatie ende approbatie vanden boeck oft scriftuere die gedruct ende geprint sal worden, eerst geteeckent zijnde byden autheur, sal gedaen worden byden Bisscop oft anderen, by hem daertoe gestelt, ende den inquisiteur. Ende sal voirts byden seluen ondergescreuen worden, volgende t’gene dat by t’voirseyde heylich concilium van Trente geordineert is geweest, mit attestatie oft t’selfde goet is, ende geen dwalinge oft schandael inhoudt, oft andere zake die eenichsins foude mogen offenseren.” King of Spain, A2v. [nl_1570]

[10] Foucault, “What Is an Author?,” 124. One of the novelties of the Roman index had been the introduction of categories of forbidden books, such as ‘magic’, ‘immoral works’ and ‘heresies’. Another important aspect was the emphasis placed on the person rather than the works of a person. The Roman Index no longer listed only “forbidden books” (Catalogue librorum reprobatum...), but equated books and authors (Index auctorum et librorum...). Machiels, Privilège, censure et index, 133.

[11] “[…] dwalingen en heresijen […]”. King of Spain, Ordinancie, A2. [nl_1570]

[12] “[…] de placcaten [...] op sturk van der printerije, nyet wel onderhouden en worden [...].” Terlinden and Bolsée, Recueil Des Ordonnances, 8:260.

[13] “epistelen dedicatoire, prologen, marginale additien oft andere gelijcke dingen in wat manieren dattet zij [...].” Ibid., 261.

[14] Perhaps that these regulations resonated in the back of the mind of the Governor of the Netherlands, the Duke of Alva (1507-1582), when he gave instruction in 1573 to deliver two copies of each printed book to the so-called prototypograph in Antwerp; one destined for censorship authorities and one copy for the Escorial Library in Spain. Machiels, Privilège, censure et index, 112. This was a distant precursor to the idea of a legal deposit; the idea of delivering a copy to the authorities had existed since the 14th century; instead, the obligation to deposit a sample for the censorship was new. Ibid., 24.

[15] The office of prototypograph had first been established on 19 May 1562. Plantin was, however, the first to actually take up office in 1570. Plantin undoubtedly used his position to extend his leverage in the world of printers. He granted more than 60 certificates of competence shortly after his appointment in 1570. Rombouts, Certificats délivrés aux Imprimeurs des Pays-Bas. The office was abolished again in 1576. On Plantin as a prototypopgraphus, see also Voet, The Golden Compasses, 1:68–71.

[16] “Ende aengaende de ghene die de vormen van beelden in coper oft in houdt snijden oft graueren, t’welck een ambacht op hem seluen is, gelijckende nochtands genoech t’stuck van printerije.” King of Spain, Ordinancie, B2 (article 26). [nl_1570]