Editor Printers

Editor Printers

Image of an early sixteenth-century printing press on the title page of Worth’s copy of Hector Boece’s Episcoporum Murthlacen[sis], & Aberdonen[sis]. Per Hectorem Boetium Vitae (Paris, 1522).

The Estienne family clearly had more than one printing press. The decision of Robert I (1503-59) to flee to Geneva ensured two loci of production and the sheer output of the Estiennes reflects the fact that they increased their means of production over the years. Elizabeth Armstrong, in her biography of Robert I, estimated that he controlled five or six printing presses even before he left Paris in 1550 and from the legacy he left to his son in Geneva, we can tell he had around four there.[1] This is an extraordinary number, especially when compared with the average number of presses owned by Genevan printers at the time (usually ranging between one and two). Evidently the Estienne printing firms were influential players in the Parisian and Genevan book world.

Dictionarium, seu Latinæ linguæ Thesaurus, non singulas modo dictiones continens, sed integras quoque Latinè & loquendi. & scribendi formulas ex optimis quibusque authoribus, ea quidem nunc accessione, vt nihil propemodum obseruatu dignum sit apud Oratores, Historicos, Poetas, omnis denique generis scriptores, quod hic non promptum paratúmque habeat (Paris, 1543), p. 936 : Corrections.

What ensured the success of the Estienne printing dynasty was their committment to high standards in typographical design and rigorous scholarly editing. The Estiennes made their names as editor printers in much the same way as Aldus Manutius (c.1449/50-1515) had created the Aldine press of Venice to be the pre-eminent humanist press. Robert I lead the way in this regard and evidently inculcated his editorial values in his sons. Worth’s copy of Robert I’s Dictionarium, seu Latinæ linguæ Thesaurus (Paris, 1543), reflects this concern with exactitude in the above image. The Estienne drive for perfection was likewise reflected  in their choice of material. Many of the family relied on paper produced by H. de Troyes, who was famous for the quality of his paper. De Troyes’ paper is easily recognized by his watermark, a ‘P’ in a gothic font before 1540, after which a crown was added. The length of every single sheet did not change over the years and thus makes their books easily recognizable.

Dionysii Alex. et Pomp. Melæ Situs orbis descriptio. Aethici Cosmographia. C. I. Solini Polyistor. In Dionysii poematium commentarii Evstathii: Interpretatio eiusdem poematii ad verbum ab Henr. Stephano scripta: necnon Annotationes eius in idem, & quorundam aliorum. In Melam Annotationes Ioannis Olivarii; in Aethicum Scholia Iosiae Simleri; in Solinum Emendationes Martini Antonii Delrio (Geneva, 1577), p. 106 : corrections.

Most Estienne printers took their role as editor printers very seriously but none were as committed to the perfection of the editorial process as Henri II (1528-98). He understood that corrections were not only erasures of what had been done but that such mistakes needed to be contextualized as part of the historic record.[2] These concerns are on display in Henri II’s edition of Dionysius Periegetes’ and Pomponius Mela’s Situs orbis descriptio (Geneva, 1577).

 [Anthologia diaphoron Epigrammaton palion eis hepta Biblia dieremene: Florilegium diuersorum epigrammatum veterum, in septem libros diuisum, magno epigrammatu[m], numero & duobus indicibus auctu[m]. Henri. Steph. de hac sua editione disticho[n] pristinus à mendis fuerat lepor antè fugatus: nunc profugæ menæ, nunc lepor ille redit (Geneva, 1566), Sig. *1v : Henri II’s use of signs.

By 1557 Henri II was already in charge of his own printing house in Geneva and was able to explore new approaches to printing. He was critical of the standard of printing in Geneva at the time and became a keen advocate of printing innovation. His output demonstrates that he was particularly interested in perfecting typography and he was responsible for the introduction of characters which were not in common use. We know, for example, that he developed some very specialised Greek types. Until the end of the nineteenth century, he remained famous for his work on layout, punctuation, and choice of signs. He championed the importance of precision in printing in many of the forewords and introductions he included in the books he printed. Kecskeméti, Boudou and Cazes point to the fact that his approach went beyond typographical concerns : ‘Henri insiste sur les effets du sens de la mise en page. La police des caractères, le format du papier, l’insertion d’ornements relèvent alors de choix critiques et littéraires’.[3] They point to the fact that Henri II’s insistence on correctness also encompassed form and order.

De vera pronuntiatione Gr. et Latinæ linguae, Commentarii doctiss. virorvm: Quorum primus, qui est de pronuntiatione Græcæ linguæ, Theod. Bezam autorem habet. His non pauca ad harum linguarum cognitionem pertinentia inspersa sunt (Geneva, 1587), title page.

Henri II went beyond ordinary typographical interventions and became deeply committed to a philological approach. His philological preoccupations are on full display in Worth’s collection of Estiennes. In books such the De vera pronuntiatione Gr. et Latinæ linguae (Geneva, 1587), the focus was on the correct pronunciation of Greek and Latin. In others he used his editorial skills to write scholarly commentaries on classical works, many of which may be found in the Worth Library and which continued to be re-printed for decades after his death. For example, Worth not only owned Henri II’s famous 1566 edition of the Histories of Herodotus, which included his commentary on the author. He also purchased the 1679 edition printed by Edward Horton and James Grover for a consortium of London booksellers which was based on this iconic work. Equally, Worth’s copy of the Poetæ minores Græci (Cambridge, 1661) was based on an earlier edition produced by Henri II in 1566.

The fact that the Estienne family was in charge of the entire printing process gave them a freedom that few authors could afford. Henri II made the most of this freedom and he used his ability to choose how to use space in a very personal way. In his [Maximou Tyriou philosophou Platönikou Logoi má]: Maximi Tyrii philosophi Platonici Sermones sive Disputationes XLI. Græcè nunc primùm editæ ([Geneva], 1557) he wrote: ‘Nous avions pratiquement fini l’impression de celivres, ne restaient que ces trois pages auxquelles je devais quelque chose; faute de quoi elles seraient restées blanches’.[4]

Image of sixteenth-century printers in Jost Amman’s Das Ständebuch (Frankfurt am Main, 1568).

However, it is crucial not to see the Estienne business as a small printing house where the head printer was in charge of everything. It might have been true of the earlier period in the family, but we know that by 1552 Robert I Estienne had several business  premises for he mentions them in his ‘Lettre de rémission et de mainlevée’ of that year. This document suggests that he owned several presses in the provinces. The stunning volumes produced by the Estienne presses should not make us lose sight of the fact that they were adept business men (and women)! His brother Charles Estienne’s famous La guide des chemins de France (Paris, 1552), describes, in a very detailed way, every road and river that could be used by merchants in order to travel for commercial purposes.[5] Perhaps this was from personal experience, perhaps not, but what is clear is that many of the Estiennes were successful entrepreneurs as well as remarkably talented editor printers.


Armstrong, Elizabeth, Robert Estienne, Royal printer (Cambridge, 1954).

Estienne, Charles, La Guide des chemins (Paris, 1552).

Kecskeméti, Judith, Boudou, Bénédicte & Cazes, Hélène, La France des humanistes: Henri II Estienne, éditeur et écrivain (Brepols, 2003).

Quicherat, Jules, ‘Lettre de Rémission et de mainlevée en faveur des enfants mineurs de Robert Estienne’ in Bibliothèque de l’École des chartes, i (1840), 565-573.



[1]Armstrong, Elizabeth, Robert Estienne, Royal printer (Cambridge, 1954), pp 46-47.

[2] Kecskeméti, Judith, Boudou, Bénédicte & Cazes, Hélène, La France des humanistes: Henri II Estienne, éditeur et écrivain (Brepols, 2003), p. xxxi.

[3] Ibid., pp. xxix-xxx. Translation : ‘Henri insists on the effects of the sense of the layout. The font, the format of the paper, the insertion of ornaments are therefore critical and literary choices’.

[4] Ibid., p. xlvi. Kecskeméti et al. provide the French translation of the original Latin, which may be translated as follows: ’We had almost finished printing this book, there were only those three pages to which I owed something; otherwise they would have remained blank’.

[5] Unfortunately this work was not collected by Worth.