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For years it remained a mystery who had printed the two most important books penned by seventeenth-century philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677). Even the most avid attempts by past researchers proved unsuccessful at solving the riddle of the book printer who concealed his identity behind false names and addresses on the books’ title pages. But now, two young students have uncovered his identity by means of typographic research. Today, at a conference on the Radical Enlightenment in Brussels, they revealed that the secret printer of Spinoza’s masterpieces was Amsterdam printer Israël de Paul (1630-1680).

In 1670, Spinoza published his Tractatus theologico-politicus (‘theologico-political treatise’), putting forward an analysis of the Bible to argue for religious freedom and tolerance. Spinoza concluded this work with a section in praise of the freedom enjoyed by the citizens of Amsterdam – yet the implied tolerance did not extend so far as to enable the texts to be published in Amsterdam without risk. The book was therefore issued without the name of the author and bearing a false imprint (‘Hamburg, Henricum Künraht, 1672’).

Such precaution was entirely justified, for no sooner had the book been published than it unleashed a flurry of criticism. At bookshops in various cities, copies of the book were confiscated, quickly followed by an official ban on its printing, dissemination and sale. Shortly after his death in 1677, the book now recognised as Spinoza’s magnum opus – the Ethica – was published, explaining his views on not only ethics but also metaphysics.

In spite of the vast interest in the life and work of this most famous of Dutch philosophers, scholars remained unable to discover the identity of the man who printed Spinoza's most important works. Not a single letter or other archival evidence was able to shed any light on the puzzle. Recent literature has often erroneously cited the Amsterdam publisher Jan Riewertsz as Spinoza’s printer, but although he certainly moved in ‘Spinozist’ circles, Riewertsz confined his activities to publishing and engaged other parties to do the print work.

Now, nearly 350 years after the fact, painstaking research by the Amsterdam book scholars Trude Dijkstra and Rindert Jagersma has finally been able to reveal the identity of Spinoza’s secret printer. Dijkstra and Jagersma looked at the typographic material (types, decorated initials, ornaments, etc.) used to print both anonymous works and compared it with the material used for books furnished with dates and first and last names of contemporary printers. As the centre of the world’s book trade, there was certainly no shortage of printers in Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age.

Using their method, Dijkstra and Jagersma eventually stumbled upon the unknown Amsterdam book printer Israël de Paul (1630-1680), only a handful of whose works survive bearing his name. Clearly, De Paul had chosen to specialise in printing books and pamphlets written by the circle of freethinkers around Spinoza, including those that had been banned. Tolerant as Amsterdam may have been, it was a perilous undertaking and De Paul opted for anonymity to protect himself from the risk of persecution. Eventually, it was the physical books themselves that disclosed his identity as the printer.