Commentary on:
Printer Joachim Wielandt's Privilege for Popular Chapbooks, Denmark–Norway (1721)

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Commentary on Printer Joachim Wielandt's Privilege for Popular Chapbooks

Magne Klasson
Division of Book History, University of Lund, SE

Please cite asKlasson, Magne (2023) ‘Commentary on Printer Joachim Wielandt's Privilege for Popular Chapbooks', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer,

Commentary on Printer Joachim Wielandt's Privilege for Popular Chapbooks

Since the introduction of absolutism in the 1660s, the government of Denmark-Norway had grappled for better control over the printed market by enforcing the comprehensive “book policy”, already formulated in the pre-absolutist period that included bureaucratic measures such as privileges, censorship, and centralization (most printers were based in Copenhagen). With these measures in place, the state sought to streamline the production and circulation of printed matter to provide a bulwark against political strife, religious dissent, and popular disaffection.[1] Meanwhile, the printed market expanded considerably in Denmark-Norway during the eighteenth century, encompassing both qualitative and quantitative changes. A large body of literature on the market, including chapbooks and other types of cheap print, was perceived as unwanted, useless, or even “evil” by religious and secular authorities alike, but enjoyed simultaneously great popularity among commoners and the lower classes. Wielandt’s petition reveals the dynamic between royal policies and market realities.

After a brief stint as an administrator within the Royal Danish Chancellery, the Copenhagen-based Joachim Wielandt (1690-1730) received royal permission to print, bind and sell books on 22 May 1719. His first privileges for printed materials were granted in 1720, for a newspaper in French and a 20-year exclusive right to print a pharmacopoeia and a Danish liturgy. If granted, his 1721 petition for 97 books would have entailed a substantial expansion of his business as well as securing him against unlawful re-prints and sales. Revealing Wielandt’s acute awareness of the composition of the book market, the petition is roughly composed of three sections, each of which contains a list of books and an explanation. The first 15 books had already been printed or are currently being printed. These 15 books and the next 43, mentioned in the second section, were not protected by privilege or their privilege had expired, making them either “expensive or rare”. They spanned from the first book printed in Danish (“Danish Rhyme Chronicle”) and the King’s Law of 1665 to baroque poetry and geography. 

The last 39 books were categorized by Wielandt as “small histories” (historietter) and were clearly the most controversial of the bulk presented in the petition, as revealed by the Chancellery’s later decision. In contrast to the books mentioned in the two preceding sections, “small histories” were playful and immensely popular stories circulating primarily among the lower classes. Many of the chapbooks mentioned in his petition had been printed since the sixteenth century and many remained in print well into the nineteenth century, for example the story of the “seven wise masters” (De 7 vise Mestere), a chapbook found in the inventory of a Danish peddler in 1591 and last printed in Danish in 1821.[2] For printers, books binders, and peddlers all over Europe these chapbooks formed the staple of their trade throughout the early modern period – and a continued headache for social reformers and authorities, who saw in them nothing but the commoners’ propensities for mindless recreation. 

For Wielandt, the production of the 58 books mentioned in the first two sections was economically predicated on the chapbooks, as they provided him with the necessary funding. This petition therefore reveals fundamental aspects relating to the book market as well as commercial and practical sides of printing in the early modern period in general and the eighteenth-century Denmark-Norway in particular. Beyond the printing of sizeable books, printers were more often occupied with job-work (or “jobbing”, “small jobs”, or “jobbing-printing”). Job-work entailed chapbooks (like those mentioned in the petition) but also pamphlets, broadsides, proclamations and notices, bureaucratic forms and documents, and so on. All held the prospect of financial gains for the printer, in contrast to the undercapitalized book trade.[3] Chapbooks, for example, were for the most part already translated and could easily be reissued with only minor changes. Few were embellished with woodcuts or etchings, which would have costed more. They were also in great demand: Some chapbooks were printed in up to twenty different editions throughout the early modern period, suggesting their continued popularity. Furthermore, adding to their feasibility, they were small and short in length, thus requiring fewer resources and less time, as well as being printed on cheap paper. Due to their ephemerality, collating exact numbers of how much material like this was printed is difficult. But studies of probate records from early modern Norway corroborate Wielandt’s own claims that this type of printed matter had truly “become common” in the dual kingdom.[4] Consequently, the economic potential in the trade of chapbooks or similar cheap print was substantial indeed. 

In turn, as the petition states straightforwardly, the revenues from such job-work could underwrite the production of larger and more specialized books, such as the ones mentioned in the first two sections of the petition, which took more time to print and often involved greater financial risk. Demand for such books was limited to particular social groups or specialized professions, as Wielandt must have known. Printer-publishers like him took a great risk when publishing these types of books as the potentially slow returns from sales were not always compatible with the high investments necessary. Indeed, as James Raven argues, the difficulties in managing credit and securing a regular revenue made job-work crucial for printers.[5] By pursuing the privilege for the 39 chapbooks, Wielandt sought to obtain a monopoly over the production of the most constant and, from a printer’s point of view, most high-yielding printed materials offered on the market. The privilege was in this case a wholly commercial asset, in Wielandt’s favor: It could establish an even more stable and profitable foundation for his printing enterprises, while mitigating the risks associated with producing “genuine and quality books”. Printing books with privileges reduced the influence of market fluctuations on prices as well, as the printer did not need to consider the prices offered by other printers of the same material. 

Wielandt’s petition was presented to the Royal Chancellery, where it was resolved that a declaration from the Consistory was necessary as a basis for a further decision. The Consistory was a counsel of faculty members at the University of Copenhagen which voiced its opinion and reported back to the Chancellery. Once their declaration was available, after some time had passed the matter was brought before the Chancellery again, and their resolution followed the recommendation of the Consistory. Wielandt was denied his request. 

The Consistory’s report is a sober item-by-item review of every book mentioned in the petition, revealing the extensive overview the authorities had of books, the market and printers, both present-day and historically. In a very haphazard manner, it also gives a glimpse of their own reasoning behind granting privileges. Responding indirectly to Wielandt’s claim that many books had become rare or expensive, the Consistory claimed that, on the contrary, a privilege was neither helpful nor necessary for some of the books, which were deemed to have “no value”, had recently been printed, or booksellers still had them in stock (see comments on books 11, 14, 19, 25, 54, 55, for example). Other books had been printed a long time in the past, and the lack of demand was interpreted by the Consistory as a reason for not granting a privilege. As they write about book 23, for example: “There would be no great danger in publishing it without privilege” (see also comments on books 27, 31, 35, 36, 37, 51, 53). Some books had never even been printed, contrary to what Wielandt had claimed. Contemporary politics between Denmark-Norway and Sweden also played its part, especially as peace between the two states had just been negotiated after eleven years of war (the Great Northern War). Two of the books on the list, 41 and 76, were assessed as insults to Sweden, and their printing could cause inconveniences within the Scandinavian region. 

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the chapbooks received the harshest treatment. Unsurprisingly because endorsing the “useless comedies, novels and unworthy, irrational fables” with the king’s name and privilege clearly contradicted the state’s book policy. To substantiate the link between the chapbooks and the lower classes, the report also commented on the ways in which such material was spread and used: Boys advertised them on the streets, and the buyers bought them to “amuse themselves by the rocking chair or in company”. A royal ordinance of 1638 had prohibited the sale of “useless books and writings” – i.e. chapbooks – in or near Churches, and similar measures were pursued by the state to mitigate their circulation.[6]  

Privileges were not intended to support the continuous proliferation of chapbooks, but to underpin the state-led circulation of productive and useful reading matter. Wielandt’s petition revealed the state’s predicament regarding their own policies: The “noble name” of the king could not be associated with such printed matter, thus making it impossible for the administrators to grant Wielandt a privilege. However, granting a privilege would not only entail stricter control over the one printer with a monopoly but also significantly restrict the potential production of chapbooks overall, considering that these titles were previously not protected by any privileges and therefore printable by any printer. Studies of Wielandt’s stocks later in the 1730s proves that a lack of privilege clearly did not stop him from producing this type of printed matter.[7] This was no surprise, however, as a lack of privilege did not legally prevent him from printing these chapbooks; it simply meant that he had to compete with other printers for a market share. 

The petition allows us to observe the printers’ difficulties in navigating the printed market, in which the economic promises involved in job-printing outranked the more accredited book trade. Moreover, the petition also shows that applying for privileges could be an instrument at the printers’ disposal to grapple for profitability in their businesses. Profitability for a printer like Wielandt involved production of chapbooks (and other cheap print), endeavors incompatible with the policies promulgated by the state, which, in turn, explains their rejection of his petition. This case spells out the complex dynamic between the state and the printing industry, between official policies regarding “useful” books and the necessary recourse to job-printing among printers.


[1] Charlotte Appel, Læsning og bogmarked i 1600-tallets Danmark (København: Museum Tusculanum Forlag, 2001).

[2] Henrik Horstbøll, Menigmands medie: det folkelige bogtryk i Danmark 1500-1840: en kulturhistorisk undersøgelse (Købehavn: Museum Tusculanums forlag, 1999), 465–77.

[3] On jobbing, see Peter Stallybrass, ‘“Little Jobs”: Broadsides and the Printing Revolution’, in Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, ed. Sabrina Alcorn Baron, Eric N. Lindquist, and Eleanor F. Shevlin (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 315–41. On editions and developments in Danish chapbooks, see Horstbøll, Menigmands medie.

[4] Jostein Fet, Lesande bønder: litterær kultur i norske allmugesamfunn før 1840 (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1995).

[5] James Raven, Publishing Business in Eighteenth-Century England (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2014), 46ff.

[6] Werlauff, Historiske Antegnelser Til Ludvig Holbergs Atten Første Lystspil, 143. The rescript mentioned «Unyttige Bøger og Skrifter, som Ulspil og deslige, saa og letfærdige Boleviser og andre utienlige Viser, Digt, Fabel, Eventyr og ublue Kierlighedsbøger.» See also Donald K. Watkins, ‘Commercialism and the Chapbook : The Printing History of Den Beyerske Robinson’, Scandinavian Studies 44, no. 2 (1972): 224–31.

[7] Horstbøll, Menigmands medie, 468–71.



Appel, Charlotte. Læsning og bogmarked i 1600-tallets Danmark. København: Museum Tusculanum Forlag, 2001.

Fet, Jostein. Lesande bønder: litterær kultur i norske allmugesamfunn før 1840. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1995.

Horstbøll, Henrik. Menigmands medie: det folkelige bogtryk i Danmark 1500-1840 : en kulturhistorisk undersøgelse. Købehavn: Museum Tusculanums forlag, 1999.

Raven, James. Publishing Business in Eighteenth-Century England. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2014.

Stallybrass, Peter. ‘“Little Jobs”: Broadsides and the Printing Revolution’. In Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, edited by Sabrina Alcorn Baron, Eric N. Lindquist, and Eleanor F. Shevlin, 315–41. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.

Watkins, Donald K. ‘Commercialism and the Chapbook : The Printing History of Den Beyerske Robinson’. Scandinavian Studies 44, no. 2 (1972): 224–31.

Werlauff, E.C. Historiske Antegnelser Til Ludvig Holbergs Atten Første Lystspil. Kjøbenhavn: Thiele, 1858.


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