Tuesday, June 15th, 2010...5:43 pm

The Sertenas Group: Printers and Publishers, Paris, 1540-1570

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[This post written by Christopher H. Walker, a member of the cataloging faculty at Penn State University Libraries, and a Katherine F. Pantzer Jr. Fellow, 2010]

FC5.L1515.556d Binding

The fact that French publishers of the mid-16th century formed partnerships to share printing expenses and co-distribute books is well known; but the shifting membership of these project-based partnerships has been little studied. The Houghton holds one of the largest collections of Parisian mid-century imprints, so is an ideal laboratory to study the work of a notable group, a fluid cartel, of printer-distributors I am calling the Sertenas group, after Vincent Sertenas (d. 1562), a prominent bookseller whose partner relationships form a key network among the Paris bookmen of the Valois era. The study of the presswork, colophons, privilèges, printer’s marks, and other details in the books they printed and sold will facilitate a much better understanding of the Parisian book industry of the 16th century.

My project focuses on the work patterns of a loosely-connected group of printers and booksellers involved in the Paris book trade during the middle decades of the 1500’s.  In the hand press period a manuscript coming into a printer’s shop presented a series of tasks. An estimate of the expense of producing it (primarily the paper stock it was going to require, but also the time and labor represented by its complexity) might influence the number of partners that would be recruited to help distribute it. Any need for specialized type fonts or for illustrations could determine whether the shopkeeper would print the book himself, or outsource the print job. The language of the text, or the subject, might require editors or proofreaders with specialized skills. Government paperwork would need to be filed, if the project warranted seeking a privilège (not exactly equivalent to a modern copyright; it protected the publishers’ investment by prohibiting pirated editions of the book).

Traditional depictions of the French publishing industry imply that long-lasting partnerships were founded for these enterprises. Such corporate relationships did exist, and may have been typical in smaller publishing centers; but the profusion of small businessmen involved in various aspects of the publishing trade in Paris (or Lyon) created the opportunity for more flexible project planning, book by book. Almost no documents about such matters survive from the era I am investigating, so the methodology requires close examination of books and pamphlets by the printers and booksellers under consideration. Sometimes dates mentioned in the privilège, in prefatory matter, and in the colophon offer evidence for the pace at which projects moved through the press. Woodblocks, especially the illustrated initials used at the beginnings of chapters or other sections, can be followed from book to book, seen to endure wear and tear, or even leap from shop to shop by loan or inheritance. As more and more books are examined, patterns emerge that suggest the specialized expertise, contact network, and equipment of the various partners.

Bibliographers already know that many books of the era were simultaneously released with varying title pages for the booksellers who were going to co-distribute them; two to four are common. Less familiar to scholarship are patterns of shared or loaned decorative woodblocks. Here are the title pages of two books with unrelated content.

FC5.M3375H.1558 Title PageFC5.D9289.558ce Title page

Here are the dedication pages from two books with no surface relation to each other. But notice that not only is the ornamental header decorating the pages identical; so is the initial “M,” the woodcut a work of art in its own right. These blocks were part of the working stock of a printer who was a key member of the Sertenas group, Benoit Prevost.

FC5.B4186.553od DedicationFC5.M3375H.1558 Dedication

FC.M5715.556d Back boardThe Sertenas group published many kinds of books:  de luxe editions of literary titles for a wealthy clientele, sometimes also printing cheaper editions of the same books in smaller page formats. Two of them did a brisk sideline printing government edicts. The Houghton owns a remarkable copy of a fortune-teller’s manual they printed, with a leather pouch sewn to the binding, for holding the dice that came with the book:

The depth of the Houghton’s collections has provided clues about the rhythm of joint projects, some hints about the way books were marketed, and evidence about the way patronage was sought and cultivated by the writers and translators whose work was published by the Sertenas group.  Future directions for this project will include a detailed look at the evolution of the printer’s privilege during the Valois period; a look at the role of women publishers involved in the Sertenas cartel, and, ultimately, a detailed elucidation of the facts on the ground in the book trade that help to explain why the first edition of one of the great monuments of the French literary canon, the Heptameron of Marguerite de Navarre, originally brought into print by the Sertenas group, failed in the marketplace.

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