Henri-Jean Martin

Author in 'The Coming of the Book' of a fascinatingly original treatise on the invention of printing


Henri-Jean Martin, librarian and book historian: born Paris 16 January 1924; Conservator-in-Chief, Bibliothèque Municipale, Lyons 1964-70; Professor, Ecole Nationale des Chartes 1971-93 (Emeritus); married 1955 Odile Lorber (one son, three daughters); died Paris 13 January 2007.

L'Apparition du livre (1958), lamely translated into English as The Coming of the Book (1976), was a miraculous book about a miraculous event. Events just happen, but an apparition signifies something. The event was the invention of printing, something whose significance Henri-Jean Martin set himself to explore. What he found was a wholly new way of looking at the invention, seen not just as a signpost of modernity, along with gunpowder and the compass, but a complete revolution in human thought and the way it was recorded.

It was Lucien Febvre, the old co-founder of Annales, who picked Martin, then a junior member of the staff of the Bibliothèque Nationale, to help him write the book he had been asked to contribute to the series "L'Evolution de l'Humanité" in 1953. Martin was to draft each chapter, which Febvre would then edit. In the event, Febvre only lived to edit three chapters. The rest were Martin's alone, and, after Febvre's death in 1956, he edited the whole book.

The book began with the technology of the invention, passing to the change in presentation that it involved, to the changes involved by the creation of a wholesale rather than bespoke trade, and in its personnel - authors, printers, booksellers. Then came geography, charting the diffusion of the new trade with original maps and graphs devised by Martin, to show its impact on commerce as a whole.

The last section was entitled "Le livre, ce ferment", and it was this that gave the book its eventual influence. The manuscript book was necessarily restricted; printing opened Pandora's box. Which came first, printing or the Renaissance? Which created the other? Would the Reformation have happened without printing to spread its ideas? How did it change the languages that it now stabilised?

These questions and the answers excited not merely those professionally involved in books and their history, but historians of all sorts, not least because it provided a blueprint for the study of the migration of ideas. L'Apparition du livre continues to find and fascinate new readers.

Some of this originality was in Martin's genes. He was born in Paris in 1924, his grandfather a manufacturing jeweller and his father a pioneer of electrically powered locomotives, who shared in Léon Gaumont's cinematographic experiments. Moulding and casting lead soldiers to re-enact the Battle of Austerlitz gave him an inside view of Gutenberg's technology; his father's subsequent failures showed him the down-side of an inventor's life. School led to the Ecole des Chartes, whence he was plucked in 1947 by Julien Cain, administrateur général of the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Support from on high did not endear him to his immediate superiors in the library, who set him to catalogue works on flagellation in the "Enfer" section. He sent a minute to the Ministre de l'Instruction Publique, asking whether it was official policy that he should be thus occupied while the main catalogue, begun in 1896, had only reached the letter T. The explosion was considerable - it was not the last time that he was to shock those in authority - and he escaped to the Centre Nationale de Recherches Scientifiques.

In 1964 he was appointed Conservator-in-Chief of the Bibliothèque Municipale at Lyons, the second city of France. The early 1960s were perhaps the happiest time of his life, "au moment où rayonnait Brigitte Bardot, c'est-à-dire une certaine forme de joie de vivre", he said later. Louis Pradel, the great mayor of Lyons, became a close friend and supporter; together they built a brand new building for the Bibliothèque Municipale, not without controversy - it was one of the first to cater for other "médias" than books - but it was a great success. He also helped create the Musée de l'Imprimerie et de la Banque at Lyons.

But it was also now that he began to teach, commuting (pre-TGV) between Lyons and Paris, where he taught every Monday at the Ecole des Bibliothèques and the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes; in 1970 he became, too, Professor at the Ecole Nationale des Chartes. He found time, as well, to begin the immense work, based on archival research, careful statistics and his own wide knowledge of books of the period, that underlay his next work, Livres, pouvoirs et société à Paris au XVIIe siècle, in two substantial volumes (1969; translated as Print, Power and People in 17th-Century France, 1993), following it with an edition of the ledgers of a 17th-century Grenoble bookseller (Les Registres du libraire Nicolas (1645-1668), 1977). Teaching brought him an abundance of pupils, now that "histoire du livre" was an established cult.

This led to an even greater work, L'Histoire de l'édition française, a history of the whole French book trade, which came out in four big volumes in 1982-86, an astonishingly short time. It was the work of many hands beside his own, notably his co-editor Roger Chartier, but the organisational skill and the drive that brought it off were all his. Next came Histoire et pouvoirs de l'écrit (1988: The History and Power of Writing, 1994), which directly addressed the question latent in all his work to date: what was the impact of the written and printed word, on whom and with what effect?

He gave his answers visual demonstration in Mise en page et mise en texte du livre manuscrit (1990) and Mise en page et mise en texte du livre français: la naissance du livre moderne (2000).

Martin liked to see meaning, purpose and audience all reflected in the letter-forms and in the form of the pages that they made up. He had a sharp eye for the telling detail, but never stretched his evidence further than it would go. He was as fascinated by the future as the past: "Gutenberg a été un apprenti sorcier. Les informaticiens actuels sont des apprentis sorciers," he said. Although resolutely French in outlook and speech - his diction mitrailleuse was hard to keep up with - he enjoyed his many visits to the United States and Britain, and his sometimes mystified audiences, if undeniably "anglo-saxonnes" (his word), were equally delighted by him.

His splendidly pungent and indiscreet memories, retrieved from conversations with Jean-Marc Chatelain and Christian Jacob in which his brisk staccato voice resonates, were published in 2004 under the title Les Métamorphoses du livre. He put up with the illness that then struck him with his usual iron determination, and it was rewarded: he finished his last work, which deals with human communication from the emergence of homo sapiens up to the invention of writing, just before he died.

Despite his distinction and formidable presence, Martin was always the irreverent youth, like the boys of Butte-Chaumont throwing darts at the solemn married couples below. He threw his at pomposity, in persons or dogmatic beliefs, established figures or facts unable to stand up to his own rigorous enquiries. But he also enjoyed working with pupils and younger colleagues, whose help he generously acknowledged.

He looked forward: in a world where communication seemed to be reverting to pictures and sound, he was quite sure that the written word, difficult though it might seem, would survive.

Nicolas Barker

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker