Tara Mancini tells the story of the Widow Birthon, Luxembourg's first recorded woman printer.

The peach-coloured building stands four stories tall and faces the fish market. Its main door is flanked by two large commercial windows. As I look up at the upper floors, I see that each has three windows; by the roof above are iron decorations built in 1767, designed to hold the walls straight. According to council records, the building dates back to the early 17th century, and was the home of Luxembourg’s first woman printer: the Widow Birthon.

I stand there looking at the windows, imagining what they may have looked like in 1618, with a few placards displayed facing the street. I can’t read them because they are printed in an old German script. There, on the windowsill, are four books in Latin. They are there to advertise and attest to the publisher’s capabilities. I enter the building and look at the walls, imagining where the printing press would have been located. Would it have been near the window in the front, or at the back?

I turn to look out the window facing the fish market. There used to be a haberdasher’s wooden stall there, which was not related to the printing shop, but would have increased the foot traffic outside. I imagine people standing at the window, reading the placards.

This building is significant because the person who lived and worked here had to overcome challenges, bias, and setbacks, to achieve success as a printer. And all of this, because she was a woman.

Luxembourg has a long history, but a number of important people from the past continue to be overlooked. These were historically significant people that modern people can relate to. While we need bigger-than-life, charismatic leaders, such as Ermesinde or John the Blind, we can also learn from history’s quieter voices that tell young people today that they, too, can work through challenges and achieve great things.

Luxembourg in the early 17th century

Most regions with a historically Germanic culture respected certain cultural norms. These included women retaining their family names upon marriage, their personal identity while married, and the ability to keep any businesses and contracts in case of widowhood. This meant that women could take out lines of credit, be witnesses in court, and own businesses, in stark contrast to places such as France and Spain, where women’s rights were often restricted.

The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg were trapped between local Germanic culture and Spanish Catholicism in the 16th century. When the king of Spain decreed that women were no longer allowed to have an identity other than that of their fathers and were to be “one with” their husbands after marriage, it overturned the traditional local Germanic culture.

But the Netherlands fought back. Each time the Spanish government enacted their laws, the local men in the Netherlands decided to “interpret” what these really meant. Essentially, Dutch men handed the women of the Netherlands the right to take out lines of credit and run their own businesses, and were not interested in their brides taking on their surname.

Belgium and Luxembourg on the other hand, struggled to escape Spanish rule. However, there was a silver lining. Luxembourg came under the rule of the Spanish king’s daughter Isabella Clara Eugenia. She was allowed to be owner of the Spanish Netherlands, provided she had a husband, and ruled as Duchess from May 1598 to July 1621.

When her husband died, due to being a woman, she was not permitted to continue to own the Grand Duchy. However, the male relative that inherited the Duchy allowed her to be governor from 1621 until her death in 1633.

During this time under Isabella’s rule, Luxembourg experienced what could be called a silver era. As we have already discussed, schools were established in various small towns and even villages, while several important works of art by the so-called Old Masters were painted. It would not see the level of achievements the Netherlands produced, but the Dutch did not have the restraints Luxembourg had to conform with.

Isabella had her own ambitions, but had to walk a fine line when it came to helping the women of Luxembourg, a Duchy with a Germanic heritage that remained under Spain’s Catholic vision of a woman’s place in society.

The Widow Birthon

The story of Mattheas Birthon is well known in Luxembourg; there is even a street named after him, and two books about the Birthon press are available on Google Books.

Birthon was granted the privilege of erecting a printing press by Isabella’s husband Archduke Albert of Austria.

On September 5th, 1598, Mattheas took the oath to be a printer at the Provincial Council in Luxembourg. His first official printing was a placard in 1598, declaring in German that Archduke Albert was issued the patents and existing royal offices in the Duchy of Luxembourg and the County of Chiny on August 21 and 22, 1598. These placards were very important, because they not only dictated taxes and price of goods but also what could be translated for the public.

Birthon became an alderman, and navigated his way into a position of influence, but just a few years later, he passed away. One of the last publications he would make was a placard published in 1603, which survives to this day in the Belgium Library.

Normally, under Germanic traditions, a widow could take over a husband’s business. We don’t know the exact year of Brithon’s death, but in March 1604 Widow Birthon produced a placard in her own name, titled “Das Plakat vom 16. März 1604 über Salpeter und Pulver.” This was an important milestone because it meant that Isabella and Albert’s government continued to trust in the Birthon press despite the death of Matthias Birthon.

While married women retained many rights in Germanic cultures, in order to maintain access to privileges, the surviving spouse would use the honorific Widow with her dead husband’s name as a way to give notice that she will continue his work. Otherwise, she would have simply continued using her birth name. This is also why it is difficult to locate the Widow’s original given name, while locating most other women’s birth names in documents is relatively easy.

Matthias Birthon had also had a monopoly on school textbooks entrusted to him by the Jesuit College, which was founded in 1603. According to tradition, this contract should also have passed onto the Widow.

However, it appears the bookbinder Ursus Kemmer began producing books for the students at the college without official permission from the government. Possibly due to this infringement, in May 1604 Birthon’s widow applied for a renewal and extension of the royal patent in her name for a monopoly.

The right to print schoolbooks for the college was not granted to the Widow Birthon. Unfortunately, instead of opening up the textbook market to competition, the council gave the contract to her competitor, threatening her livelihood. However, the Widow Brithon did not go out of business, and continued printing books in Latin under the name, Typis viduae Mathiae Birthon.

She continued to produced placards in the German language, but also produced two books in Latin in 1605, and two more books in Latin in 1616 and 1617. One of her clients was the popular author Salomon Sparnagell, whose books were widely distributed. Multiple copies of "Eques aurei velleris”, printed by the Widow, are available for free viewing through Google Books, and a copy of the book "Sacrum Misericordiae” by another popular author, Nicolao Gazaeo, is in the National Library of Luxembourg.

According to council records, in September of 1618 and again in 1628, a man called Jean Conen mentioned that the Widow Birthon’s house was next to the one he owned. It seems, then, that the Widow lived beyond the years she was known to be publishing. She may have printed many more placards and books we are unaware of.

Remembering the Widow Birthon

We may never know the Widow’s real name. By using her husband’s name, she advertised that she also inherited the family business, the family contracts, the family lines of credit and network. She was confronted with the loss of a major contract and monopoly of the production of texts books for the secondary school. Despite this, the Widow went on to publish placards for the government in Brussels and at least four books in Latin.

The story of the Widow Birthon gives us hope that Luxembourg will remember ordinary people who pushed through adversary to become successful.

Today, there is a sign displayed welcoming people to enjoy the existing café on the grounds of the old printing press. It is a significant building in Luxembourg, and yet, like the oldest existing school in Luxembourg, this building too is unmarked. Should we not have a sign to commemorate the first printing press in Luxembourg?

We can only hope that one day schoolchildren on history trips through the capital are shown the place where the first printing press of Luxembourg stood, marking with distinction a place where a person pushed through setbacks and succeeded.

Someday, the inside where the printing press stood will likely be erased, gutted and only the facade will be saved. This will make it difficult to connect with the history of Luxembourg. If we cannot feel the past, it is only a facade, a shell, with no passion or connection.

And so, I wonder… How shall we remember the good printer of Luxembourg?


Tara Mancini is an author with Buffalo Raising Journal. Articles have covered topic categories such as culture, charitable fundraisers, and city and State infrastructure since 2016. Mancini’s hobbies includes reading and collecting data from 17th century documents, then inputing the data into a database using spreadsheets for use in her articles.

For this article, she used the "Publications de la Section historique de l'Institute G.-D. de Luxembourg: Volumes 5 à 7”, which cited 17th century local council records. The second book was “Publications de la Société pour la Recherche et la Conservation des Monuments Historiques dans le Grand-Duché de Luxembourg…” by Mr. Fa-X. Wuth-Paquet published in 1846. Both are available for free on Google books.