The Elzevier Dynasty

2017 is the 400th anniversary of the death of the founder of the Elzevier publishing dynasty, Lodewijk (also known as Louis) Elzevier.  Magdalene College’s Old Library  has an example of printing by the founder of this famous family publishing and book selling business, as shown below:


Old Library B.16.20.  van Meurs, Johannes: Criticus Arnobianus.  Lugduni Batavorum: Ex officinal Ludovici Elzevirii, 1599.


This is a copy of Johannes van Meurs’ criticism of Arnobius’ writings, printed by Louis Elzevier in 1599.  Van Meurs was a Classics scholar who in 1610 became the professor of Greek and History at the University of Leiden.

Louis Elzevier was one of the first major booksellers and before settling in Leiden he had previously worked at Christopher Plantin’s printing house in Antwerp.  Elzevier was an entreupreneurial character who, apart from printing and selling books in a conventional manner, was responsible for developing the model of the book auction in Leiden in 1599 (when his first auction catalogue for a private library was published).  Bert Van Selm explains, ‘this procedure had advantages for both the buyer and the seller.  The seller obtained maximum financial return and the buyer was offered collections that did not have the miscellaneous composition of the ordinary bookseller’s stock’.  Thanks to Leiden’s favourable location, its reputable University, and good postal system which enabled auction catalogues to be disseminated quickly, book auctions in Leiden became a tremendous success.

Leaping forward to the mid 17th century, Samuel Pepys owned a number of books printed by various members of the Elzevier family, including the direct descendents of Louis.  These are still housed in the Pepys Library.  In Pepys’s time, the Elzeviers were producing books in Leiden, Amsterdam, Utrecht and the Hague.  Pepys’s collection includes some of the miniature editions for which the Elzeviers were famed in the 17th century; the style was widely imitated by other publishers.  Louis’ descendents creating a trend for miniature editions was a prudent economic ploy: the cost of paper was higher than the labour costs of printing.


Pepys Library PL 8.  Sleidan, Joannes: de Quator Summis Imperiis.  Amstelodami: Apud Danielem Elzevirium, 1667.


PL 8, the eighth-smallest book in Pepys’s library depicted above, is what is called a 24mo, which means the book comprises of papers which have been folded several times and cut to make 24 leaves out of each sheet.  It was much more common to fold the paper to make only 4 or 8 leaves.  The book is by Joannes Sleidan, an historian from Luxembourg, and the book concerns the four chief ancient empires: The Assyrian, Persian, Grecian and Roman.  It is a big topic for such a small book!


Pepys Library PL 520.  Schedius, Elias, Dis Germanis.  Amsterodami: Apud Ludovicum Elzevirium, Anno 1648.


PL 520, a work on Germanic religion and mythology, published by Louis’s son of the same name, has a special significance: it is one of the first books acquired by Pepys in the collection and one of the very few books he inscribed: “E musaeo Samuelis Pepys.  Magd. Coll. Cantabr. 1653”.  The inscription confirms that this was a text read by Pepys in his student days in Magdalene.


Pepys Library PL 48.  Bacon, Francis: Sermones Fideles.  Amstelodami: Ex officinal Elzeviriana, 1662.


One of Samuel Pepys’s favourite writings, ‘Faber Fortunae’ by Francis Bacon, was published by Louis’ son and grandson (Louis and Daniel) in 1662.  It is one of a small number of books in the Library’s collection that Pepys specifically mentions in his diary.  Although most of the books in the library are in exceptional condition, this edition of Faber Fortunae has most certainly been thumbed through on numerous occasions.  Pepys says on the 5th February 1664, ‘and so after dinner by water home, all the way going and coming reading Faber Fortunae, which I can never read too often’.  Both Pepys and his contemporary John Evelyn were heavily influenced by the writings of Francis Bacon.

By Catherine Sutherland

Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections


Dijstelberge, Paul. ‘Cruz, Laura. The Paradox of Prosperity: The Leiden Booksellers’ Guild and the Distribution of Books in Early Modern Europe. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2009.’ The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 105, no. 1 (March 2011): 95–97.

Gaskell, Philip. A New Introduction to Bibliography. Reprinted with corrections in 1995. New Castle, Del: Oak Knoll Press, 2007.

Imhof, Dirk. ‘Laura Cruz. The Paradox of Prosperity: The Leiden Booksellers’ Guild and the Distribution of Books in Early Modern Europe. New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 2009..’ Renaissance Quarterly 63, no. 1 (March 2010): 191–93.

Pepys, Samuel, Robert Latham (ed), and William Matthews (ed). The Diary of Samuel Pepys:: A New and Complete Transcription. Vol. 5: 1664. Reprint. London: Bell, 1983.

Van Selm, Bert. ‘The Introduction of the Printed Book Auction Catalogue’. Quaerendo 15, no. 1 (1 January 1985): 16–53.

Van Selm, Bert. ‘The Introduction of the Printed Book Auction Catalogue’. Quaerendo 15, no. 2 (1 January 1985): 115–49. doi:10.1163/157006985X00108.

‘Elzevir in Central London | Senate House Library’. Accessed 15 May 2017.

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