Pradeep Sebastian

Endpaper: Pressing news

Alix Christie

Alix Christie

The question ‘what did Gutenberg invent?’ is not as easy or simple to answer as we once thought. Most of us know now what he invented was the process of movable type, not the printing press. But this, too, continues to be questioned: some printing and typographic scholars think Gutenberg devised an early form of movable type using wood blocks and not metal type; while others think what he created was just printing one line of type using a block of metal types and not individual letters of metal type. What most scholars agree on is that Gutenberg only pioneered a crude form of printing from movable type and that it was his apprentice — later associate — the scribe Peter Schoeffer who improved it to the method we recognise and use in letterpress printing.

In Alix Christie’s rousing and beautiful novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Harper, September, 2014), the scribe Peter Schoeffer is the young protagonist. Peter’s uncle Johann Fust recalls him from Paris to be an apprentice to an inventor in Mainz called Johannes Gensfleisch also known as Gutenberg. He has discovered a marvellous new technique of making letters that he calls ‘Imprimere’ or ‘impressum’. Fust hands Peter a parchment and asks him to run his hands over it. “He felt a kind of stippling, a roughness in the hide”, and when he lays eyes on what lies on the parchment he is shocked to see a text in “ strange, sharp symmetry, unnervingly even, ending in chilling harmony.” Fust asks him to “feel how it sinks. The way the ink lies not on top, but in a hollow in the skin?” When Peter finds out what it is exactly that Gutenberg has been up to he is appalled. To understand his response, we have to remind ourselves that until then books were copied out by hand by skilled calligraphers like Peter, and a machine-made or technological process called ‘printing’ to make books was unthinkable for theological and aesthetic reasons.

Fust believes in the project enough to invest in it and have his ward learn and master the secrets of the trade. At first Peter shrinks from the process that his new master, Gutenberg, and his team at the foundry initiate him into. Without feeling any more fondness or appreciation for the various steps of designing a type, cutting it, casting it, typesetting it, dampening paper, pulling proofs and printing it, Peter is able to bring his gifts to make printing finer. As a scribe in love with letterforms he can design better type and compose a page more handsomely than his master. When Schoeffer and Gutenberg print a page of the Bible together and the apprentice sees and feels for himself how unexpectedly beautiful the printed page is, how astonishingly more brilliant than the manuscript book, he becomes a convert.

Alix Christie, a letterpress printer herself, takes us through every intricate step of how Gutenberg and his team engineered movable type and solved each problem of the early printing process in creating their famous Bible. We think that early printed books — what the book trade calls incunabula, books printed from 1450 to 1500 — must by default be primitive, crude, incomplete but the very opposite is true: the finest printers agree that those early printed books are the most beautiful ever printed. They had to be because they were competing against very sophisticated looking manuscripts: illuminated manuscripts with rubricated letters and floriated capitals. Anyone printing a book in that period had to do it from scratch: build a wooden hand press, design, punch, cut and cast their own type, make their own ink, use dampened handmade paper, hand-set the type and ink it, compose and illustrate each page, and print one page at a time. That is how a book should be printed, and this is how traditionally fine press and letterpress printers have been making fine books.

There is a witty, marvellous and unexpected scene towards the end of the book (not a spoiler I hope, since we all know that Gutenberg succeeded in completing the Bible and selling it) where the master-printer and his apprentice are hawking the Bible (and other loose quires from pages of the Bible) at the Frankfurt book fair as something cheap to buy! “Twelve Hundred pages” he sang out, “on Turin rag, or finest vellum. The Book of Books, as fine as you will see, and for a fraction of the cost to have it copied.” And indeed it was so: because every other stall was offering the more expensive form of lettering — manuscripts. What Gutenberg and Schoeffer were hawking that day was also something of a wonder. People swarmed their stall to gape at this miracle. “What manner of writing, then, is this?” people asked. “Which instrument punched this hide?”

Forty-eight copies of the Gutenberg Bible are said to exist today, complete or in part of an estimated 180 copies made (135 on paper and 48 on vellum). Today the auction price for a complete paper copy of the Gutenberg Bible would be $10-12 million, and perhaps double that for one printed on vellum. A single leaf recently sold for $74,000. In an Afterword, Christie tells us that her hero Schoeffer went on to become the world’s first major printer, producing 300 hundred volumes under the firm of Fust & Schoeffer, including the 1457 Mainz Pslater , widely considered the most beautiful book ever printed. He invented the business of publishing and founded the event know today as the Frankfurt Book Fair, and died in 1503 at the ripe age of nearly 80.

Alix Christie’s description of the work at the foundry is poetically evoked: “If copying a manuscript was prayer, then this was shouting out the Psalms from every rooftop… It was perfect. Absolutely perfect: more exquisite than the dream of any scribe. The block was sharp, perfectly squared: the punctuation floated softly in the margin, brushing like the lashes of a bashful bride… The Word is as a fruit, he thought; the vineyard of the text is thickly twined.”

It’s surprising that Hollywood is yet to make a movie on Gutenberg and his press, and I hope Alix Christie’s richly imagined, finely researched and intricately plotted novel is the one that gets picked to be that long-wished-for movie.

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Printable version | May 28, 2022 5:58:51 pm |