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

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