Printing and Religion

Printing and Religion

Though the Estiennes’ focus was not primarily on religious content they were heavily influenced by the religious upheaval of their time and their religious publications were seminal. It is for this reason that some of the theological texts printed by members of the family were collected by Edward Worth, a collector not known for an abiding interest in theological texts.

Biblia: Hebraea, Chaldæa, Græca & Latina nomina virorum, mulierum, populorum, idolorum, vrbium, fluuiorum, montium, cæterorúmque locorum quæ in Bibliis leguntur, restituta, cum Latina interpretatione. Locorum descriptio è Cosmographis. Index præterea rerum & sententiarum quæ in iisdem Bibliis continentur. His accesserunt schemata Tabernaculi Mosaici, & Templi Salomonis, quæ praeeunte Francisco Vatablo Hebraicarum literarum Regio professore doctissimo, summa arte & fide expressa sunt (Paris, 1540), fol. 17r. An image of the seven-branched candlestick.

It is almost impossible to consider religion and the Estienne family without thinking about Robert Estienne I’s eleven full editions of the Bible. Worth managed to buy his 1540 edition, the only illustrated Bible produced by Robert I, which proved to be a highly influential edition.[1] Robert I (1503-59) was also responsible for producing no less that twelve editions of the New Testament (in Greek, Latin and French).[2] Worth duly bought two of them : [Tes Kaines Diathekes hapanta}: Nouum Testamentum. Ex bibliotheca Regia (Paris, 1546) and his [Tes kaines diathekes hapanta. Evangelion. Kata Matthaion. Kata Markon. Kata Loukan. Kata Ioannen. Praweis ton apostolon]: Nouum Iesu Christi D.N. Testamentum. Ex Bibliotheca Regia (Paris, 1550). He clearly prized the latter as it is bound in a fine binding with Estienne’s name and the date of publication on the spine.

 [Tes kaines diathekes hapanta. Evangelion. Kata Matthaion. Kata Markon. Kata Loukan. Kata Ioannen. Praweis ton apostolon]: Nouum Iesu Christi D.N. Testamentum. Ex Bibliotheca Regia (Paris, 1550), Table E of the Eusebian canons within architectural frames and with woodcut cherubs.

Although Robert encountered opposition from the conservative members of the Sorbonne, his Bibles sold well. This not only reflected their low price but also the fact that they provided an excellent list of sources, index, commentary, glossary, etc. As Robert’s talent and fame grew at the Parisian court, he came to the notice of dominant printers, such as Jean Petit (fl. 1483-1530), who was responsible for around 10% of Parisian printing in the early sixteenth century, and humanist scholars such as Guillaume Budé (1467-1540). In addition, Robert I attracted patrons such as Pierre DuChâtel (d. 1552), King François I’s librarian, and Cardinal Jean Du Bellay (1492-1560), a French diplomat. DuChâtel was not only an important node in humanist circles at court, he was also Bishop of Mâcon. Tangible proof of Robert I’s connection with both may be seen in Worth’s copy of a work by the poet Jean Salmon Macrin (1490-1557), whose odes in honour of both men were printed by Robert I in 1546.

Salmonii Macrini Ivliodunensis Odarum libri tres: ad P. Castellanum Pontificem Matisconum. Io. Bellaii Cardinalis amplissimi Poemata aliquot elegantissima ad eundem Matisconum Pontificem (Paris, 1546), title page bearing the signature of the French historiographer Etienne Baluze (1630-1718).

This scholarly friendship circle undoubtedly played a role in his elevation to the position of King’s Printer in 1539. He was now one of the official printers of the court. We know that he presented one of his works in person to King François I (1494-1547): ‘[…] je m’en allays à la court du Roy François […]. Après avoir présenté au Roy un volume grec d’Eusebe’ (1546)[3] which can be translated as ‘[…] I went to the court of King François […]. After presenting to the King a Greek volume of Eusebius’.

Despite his position as Royal Printer, the King did not intervene in Robert I’s battles with the Sorbonne, who claimed a right of censorship over all printed works. The intransigence of the Sorbonne, combined with the death of Robert I’s protector (François I) placed him in a very difficult position. Between Henri Estienne I’s death in 1520 and the beginning of his son’s career, the act of publishing a book without first receiving the agreement of the censor from the Sorbone, or publishing a book that already have been refused by them, had been declared illegal.[4] This decision had been taken in order to offer Parisian students good quality texts but inevitably this power quickly turned into a tool of religious censorship. The Estiennes witnessed the very concrete effects of this censorship when printing houses in their locality were burned, along with their output.

The pressure proved too much for Robert I who decided to flee to Geneva in 1550 – his children later joined him there. This exile is very clearly demonstrated in Worth’s collections of texts printed by the Estiennes (and Robert I in particular), for the brutal change from Paris to Geneva is clearly evident. Once in Geneva, Robert I’s publications were supportive of protestant theologians such as the German reformer Martin Bucer (1491-1551), the Swiss reformer Pierre Viret (1511-1571) and the French reformer Jean Calvin (1509-64).[5]

[Ioustinou tou philosophou kai martyros epistolē pros Diognēton, kai logos pros Hellēnas]: Ivstini philosophi & martyris Epist. ad Diognetu[m], & Oratio ad Græcos, nunc primùm luce & Latinitate donatæ ab Henrico Stephano. Eiusdem Henr. Stephani annotationibus additu[m] est Io. Iacobi Beureri de quoru[m]dam locorum partim interpretatione partim emendatione judicium. Tatiani, discipuli Iustini, quædam (Geneva, 1592), Sig. D1r. Epistle of Mathetes to  Diognetus.

Although Edward Worth’s collection of Estiennes isn’t focused on theological debate, it is still interesting to note that every single Estienne volume he bought on this subject had been published by the protestant side of the family (Robert Estienne I, and his son Henri II (1528-98) primarily). It was Henri II who was responsible for the above edition of the works of the early Christian apologist, St Justin Martyr, and Robert I’s grandson Paul produced Worth’s copy of the Concordantiæ Græcolatinæ Testamenti Novi (Geneva, 1600).

Concordantiæ Græcolatinæ Testamenti Novi, nunc primùm plenæ editæ : & diu multúmque desideratæ, vt optimæ duces ad veram vocum illius interpretationem futuræ. Accessit huic editioni Supplementvm eorvm omnivm quæ hactenvs desiderabantur, tam eorum quæ ad calcem libri reiecta, quàm quæ omissa desiderari poterant. In his quid præstitum sit, præfixa ad lectorem epistola docet (Geneva, 1600), Sig. ¶¶5v : Paul Estienne’s tribute to his father.

The fortunes of the Estienne family reflect the fundamental chasm in Christianity which took place in sixteenth-century Europe. Their position as printers, a profession at the vanguard of the Reformation, inevitably drew them into the internecine religious debates of their time. The division within Christendom was matched by a fundamental split within the Estienne family itself : now two branches of the family rose to become polar opposites in their political and religious statements. The only thing they continued to hold in common was their commitment to scholarship.


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

Renouard, A.A., ‘Repensio’, Annales des Estienne (Geneva, 1971 reprint).

Rott, Jean & Peter, Rodolphe, ‘Exposition Jean Calvin’, Revue d’histoire et de philosophie religieuse, 45, no. 2 (1964), 128-155.



[1] Schreiber, Fred, The Estiennes. An annotated catalogue of 300 highlights of their various presses (New York, 1982), p. 64/

[2] Rott, Jean & Peter, Rodolphe, ‘Exposition Jean Calvin’, Revue d’histoire et de philosophie religieuse 45, no 2 (1964), 128-155.

[3] Renouard, A.A., ‘Repensio’, Annales des Estienne (Geneva, 1971 reprint), p. 552.

[4] Armstrong, Elizabeth, Robert Estienne, Royal Printer (Cambridge, 1940), p. 165.

[5] Rott, Jean & Peter, Rodolphe, ‘Exposition Jean Calvin’, Revue d’histoire et de philosophie religieuse 45 (1964), 128-155.