Martin died on Saturday 13th January, 2007. Born in
Paris on the 16th January 1924, he was the leading authority
on the history of the book.
possessed an intellectual energy which not even terminal
illness could curtail. With tenacity and courage, and
despite the suffering of his final months, he succeeded
in completing the book on which he had been working
for several years. Covering the long history of human
communication from the emergence of homo sapiens to
the invention of alphabetical writing, its ambitious
subject matter may come as something of a surprise to
those who principally knew him as the leading historian
of the book and publishing in France under the Ancien
His final project
bears witness to his boundless intellectual curiosity:
Henri-Jean Martin enjoyed breaking down the boundaries
of narrow specialisms which were always too narrow for
his insatiable appetite for greater understanding and
his desire to make that understanding lucidly intelligible.
In this respect, his work remained indebted to all that
was best in his mentor, Lucien Febvre (1878-1956).
Martin was still
a young librarian when Febvre invited him to collaborate
with him on the volume devoted to the invention of printing
in the collection L'Evolution de l'Humanité
. At that time, the older man was already an established
historian and founding father of the Annales School
. While Martin, having graduated from the Ecole Nationale
des Chartes in 1947, had recently joined the Bibliothèque
Nationale, where, to his great disappointment, he was
assigned the task of cataloguing erotic books in the
Restricted Access Room. He found working with Febvre
a pleasure, compounded by affection and respect for
The result of their collaboration
was L'Apparition du livre, published in 1958
two years after the death of Febvre. It was to become
a classic, republished several times and translated
into several languages (translated into English by David
Gerard and published as The Coming of the Book
in 1976 by New Left Books).
I first met Henri-Jean
Martin in 1966 in his grand office as Head Librarian
of the Bibliothèque municipale in Lyon, a position
to which he had been appointed in 1962, after three
years spent at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
(CNRS), posts which gave maximum scope for research
leading to his groundbreaking doctoral thesis on printing,
the regulation of publishing, and on trades associated
with the book in seventeenth-century Paris.
work, published in 1969, just one year after Martin's
thesis was examined, did even more than L'Apparition
du livre to found the new discipline of the history
of the book. His achievement is all the more remarkable,
because the work was accomplished amid all the varied
demands of developing an ambitous outreach programme
encouraging reading by the general public and overseeing
the construction of a new branch of the Bibliothèque
municipale in the suburb of La Part-Dieu.
From 1963, Henri-Jean
Martin taught in the History and Philology Division
of the Ecole pratique des hautes études (EPHE),
where his Monday five o'clock seminar was the crucible
for what would become the French school in the history
of the book, a school dedicated to locating the history
of print within the dual traditions of economic and
social history while also establishing a pioneering
history of literary circulation.
can be credited with the invention of a new field of
research but Henri-Jean Martin is one. From his position
in the EPHE, then at the Ecole des Chartes, where he
was elected professor in 1970, he produced generations
of researchers, who in turn made their way into the
world of librarianship and higher education, and without
whom the four volumes of L'Histoire de l'édition
française would not have been possible.
I had the honour of working alongside him as joint general
editor of the work between 1982 and 1986.
Despite all this,
Henri-Jean Martin did not regard this important enterprise
as his final achievement, but rather a starting point
for new departures, leading him eventually to widen
the chronological scope of his research in an effort
to locate the history of the book within the long history
of written culture.
et pouvoirs de l'écrit , published in 1988,
with a second edition in 1996, he analysed how writing,
from ideographic systems to the new media, has transformed
the distribution of power and the ways in which societies
and ways of thinking are organised. An enterprise of
this scope, requiring much reading and immense scholarship,
was not without its dangers, but Henri-Jean Martin was
well able to overcome them, since he never failed to
listen to people who could fill gaps in his own knowledge.
Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane, The History and
Power of Writing was published in English in 1994
by University of Chicago Press .
He then returned
to the books that, in the course of his work as librarian
and historian, he had previously classified, counted,
and read. The task he set himself from then on was to
comprehend the ways in which, in accordance with their
historic moments, material textual forms both generate
and reflect practices of reading, changing cognitive
processes, literary genres and reading communities.
The result was his two books, appearing
in 1990 and 2000 respectively, dedicated to the phenomenon
of “textualisastion” ("mise en texte"
), first in manuscripts and then in printed books:
in these works he established the link between the birth
of the modern book and the division of texts into paragraphs.
Henri-Jean Martin was well known in
the English-speaking world. In the United States he
received an award from the American Printing History
Association in 1990 and was invited to deliver the Schouler
Lectures at Johns Hopkins University in 1994. These
were translated by his friends Paul and Nadine Saenger
and were published by Johns Hopkins University Press
under the title The French Book: Religion, Absolutism,
and Readership 1585-1715 in 1996. He was warmly
welcomed in England , holding visiting fellowships at
All Souls College and the British Library. He was also
to deliver the Lyell Lectures at Oxford in 1995. Henri-Jean
Martin remembered fondly these sojourns in London and
Oxford and the times spent in the company of friends
as well as books. After his retirement in 1993, he established
a collection of images of rare books, now bequeathed
to the Ecole des Chartes . His visits to English libraries,
even moreso than their Parisian counterparts, had allowed
him to increase the scope of the collection of some
12,000 reproductions, providing valuable material for
his 2000 publication, Naissance
du livre moderne (XIVe-XVIIe siecles): mise en page
et mise en texte du livre francais.
Martin was a personality filled with contradictions,
which made his friendship all the more valuable, while
enhancing incalculably the somewhat disturbing fascination
people felt for what he called, with more than a touch
of euphemism, his ‘nonconformist tendencies'.
Born into a ‘profoundly
nationalist' family, Martin saw himself as a ‘man of
the right,' the product of that rigorous scholarly discipline
instilled at the Ecole des Chartes. He nevertheless
took enormous pleasure in debunking the pretensions
of the most prestigious institutions, in collaborating
with those who did not think like him and in encouraging
his pupils by his example and support to have the courage
of their intellectual convictions.
He had immense respect for scholars.
He was one of them. Although, like Febvre, he had no
time for narrow-minded academic pedantry. But far from
becoming ingrained in his ideas, Henri-Jean Martin retained
the enthusiasm of his youth, characterized by the will
to learn and a sense of intellectual urgency. It is
to his books that we must now turn to hear that generous
by Bill Bell