500 years of military book culture in the Netherlands
Exhibition from 16 june through 15 september 2013
Room 1: Gunpowder versus printing
Printed books have been a continuous presence in the military world from the introduction of printing down to the present day. Since the end of the 15th century, books have played a key role in the development and dissemination of military knowledge and information.
The output of military publications originating from Italy related to changes in the art of warfare. More in particular, they focused on the race for more advanced artillery on the one hand, and better fortifications on the other. To put it simply, as cannons became more powerful, fortresses became stronger, and vice versa. All this stemmed from the development of gunpowder, a factor that dominated the art of warfare well into the 18th century.
Printing was invented in Mainz around 1450 by Johannes Gensfleisch, better known as Gutenberg (c.1397-1468). This revolutionary new technology was soon being disseminated by the consequences of war. For when the city of Mainz was sacked in 1462, an event that cost hundreds of lives and sent hundreds fleeing to places of safety, some of the refugees – including compositors who had learned the craft from Gutenberg – ended up in Italy.
Printing was introduced to Italy shortly before 1465. Although printers also spread to other countries in the period 1462-1471, the centre of gravity of this technology settled in Italy around 1480. The majority of the oldest printed military works, dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, were either written or published by Italians or in Italy, or were produced at least in part as a result of Italian influence.
It is not difficult to explain the success of printed books on the art of warfare in Italy in this era. The peninsula was afflicted by countless armed conflicts, known collectively as the Italian Wars (1494-1559). These worked as catalysts, reinvigorating the region’s ancient martial culture. Other key factors included the blossoming of science and the financial boom that accompanied the Renaissance and the prominent presence of printers.
Room 2: Military books in the Netherlands
In the Dutch Republic, the first military publications appeared at the end of the 16th century, during the Dutch Revolt (1568-1640). The arrival of the Duke of Alva with his Spanish troops and the subsequent war served in the Netherlands, as in Italy, as a catalyst. The Dutch military benefited from the numerous books on the art of warfare that had already been published in Italy. This had disseminated a great deal of new knowledge and to a large extent determined the form and function of military literature. For the genres had already subdivided into several sub-genres: instruction manuals, research, and theoretical treatises on the art of warfare such as the famous work by Machiavelli. These developments did much to solidify the foundations of the military profession. For anyone active in this profession needs to possess knowledge, expertise, and technical skills in order to carry out a particular task or order. Many Italian books also found their way to the Netherlands. To illustrate this point: of the military books in the library of the Orange-Nassau family (who owned a great deal of such literature, since the stadholders performed a range of military positions) one-third was Italian.
In 1579, the first book written against the background of the Dutch Revolt was published in Antwerp. It was a French treatise on fortifications by the Italian military engineer Marco Aurelio da Pasino (1510-1584), who was in the service of the Dutch. William of Orange had probably persuaded him to write it; and the book bears a dedication to William.
Numerous military innovations, especially after 1590, were recorded in printed form. The Dutch military regulations are therefore described as dating from 1590, since that was the year that saw the first publication of an important set of disciplinary rules or articles of war, at the behest of the States-General. Besides regulations and manuals such as those by De Pasino and Simon Stevin, some of the works written in the last two decades of the 16th century by the Brabant humanist Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) can also be linked to war and military affairs in the Low Countries.
Room 3: The Dutch Republic as an international producer of military literature
The prominent position that the Republic occupied in the world of books during the Golden Age is also reflected in the military literature of that age. Many first editions of foreign works appeared in the Netherlands. These included numerous important works, some of which became true classics. One example is Artis magnae artilleriae pars prima, published in Amsterdam in 1650, a book on the art of artillery by the Lithuanian military engineer Casimir Siemienowicz (c.1600-c.1651).
This work by Siemienowicz is interesting for several reasons. First, because it exemplifies the Dutch Republic’s key role in publishing books on the art of warfare by foreign authors. In addition, the combination − a Latin book by a Lithuanian published in the Low Countries – is noteworthy. More importantly perhaps, Siemienowicz’s book was immensely successful, and it is still a major source for researchers today. After the first Latin edition in 1650, three translations appeared in three countries, in four editions, in the period 1651-1730.
The military as readers
Until the 19th century, aside from printed regulations and suchlike for common soldiers, military books were written almost exclusively for officers. Indeed, most common soldiers were illiterate, and important regulations were therefore read out to them. Around the end of the 17th century, a new rule was introduced: everyone from the rank of corporal upwards had to be able to read and write, so that they could read lists of names, keep records, and read out written instructions to common soldiers.
Professional military knowledge in book form was very important for officers under the ancien regime; prospective officers were expected to devote a great deal of time to studying. They had plenty of choice, given the abundance of military literature that appeared between 1472 and 1800. This year marks a definite watershed; the military literature published after 1800 consisted mainly of official works published by the army itself or commissioned by it from publishing companies, some of which specialised in the genre.
Research into book purchases by Dutch military men in the 19th century reveals that they not only read a great deal, but that they displayed wide-ranging interests. Those with the rank of captain bought most books. Higher-ranking officers also frequently purchased books that were probably intended for their wives and children. In short, professional literature aside, they displayed the same patterns of consumption as civilians. With the introduction of compulsory military service in 1814, these patterns converged further. As books became more widely disseminated in the course of the 19th century, the military readership too rapidly expanded. Reading instruction was introduced for common soldiers, soldiers’ libraries were set up, and books specifically catering for soldiers’ interests started to be marketed.
Room 4: The professionalisation of the Dutch army
In the time of the Dutch Republic, as we have seen, numerous military works were published by non-military authors, and many works by foreign authors were published in the Netherlands. In the early decades of the 19th century, in contrast, many of the military regulations and textbooks that were published were based on French works dating from the time in which the Netherlands had been under French rule and later annexed to France (until 1813). Only later in the 19th century was there a resurgence of ‘pure’ Dutch military publications, written by and for members of the Dutch armed forces. This development was closely related, it should be said, to the attention paid to military education at all levels of the army during the reign of Napoleon’s brother, Louis Napoleon. The precursor of the Royal Military Academy and the first manual for common soldiers date from that period, as do the country’s first specialist military publishing house and bookshop. The 19th century saw a great expansion in education for common soldiers. Important decisions were taken in this respect as early as 1815, following the introduction of compulsory military service. The records show that many tens of thousands of soldiers were instructed in the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic during their time in military service. In addition, new opportunities were created for soldiers to ascend the ranks and become officers, and many did so. In the latter half of the 19th century, it is estimated that the Dutch army had several hundred libraries at battalion level.
Room 5: Military literature by and for the Dutch military
The 19th century saw the publication of more and more military books written by and for Dutch soldiers, and witnessed the birth of what may be called the Dutch military media. Displayed in this room are reproductions of portraits of 14 military authors, with the titles of the books they published.
Room 6: Military books for bibliophiles and books of military entertainment
Handsome editions and unique copies of military books, most notably in terms of binding and hand-coloured illustrations, have been produced in all ages. A splendidly bound or magnificent copy of a military book belongs in the same category as a pair of 17th-century ivory pistols or a fancy snuff box beautifully painted with a general’s portrait. There have always been officers who like to surround themselves with magnificent objects of this kind. Indeed, some wealthy civilians also took an interest in such collectors’ items. This applied especially in periods of armed conflict that disrupted society and greatly affected the population at large, such as the Dutch Revolt (1568-1648), the Year of Disaster (1672) and the Belgian Revolution (1830-1831).
In the second half of the 19th century, however, more and more military literature appeared in editions so handsome as to attract the attention of bibliophiles. In this period, the primary emphasis in military literature shifted to the production of magnificent editions by and for the military. This period also saw the birth of a new genre, in the form of books of military entertainment.