The printed word, in the beginning ...

Top: Johann Gutenberg and his Bible. Below: Jeff Morris.

By Jeff Morris

The printed word has transcended the centuries. It remains relevant even in this electronic age of word processing and e-readers. The path however was hardly certain. The printer’s art was once considered a closely guarded secret. This is apparent because of the lack of credit in early colophons. Ironically it was released to the world through a seemingly personal catastrophic event: foreclosure.

Jeff MorrisTo the world at large, Johann Gutenberg is perceived to have invented the printing press. This singular event propelled the ideas of the Enlightenment into the general psyche of the population of Europe and beyond, unfettered by clerical restraints of the day. History, as we shall see in even this most modest article, is made of much sterner stuff.

Printing with moveable type had, in fact, been in use by the Chinese for more than 300 years prior. The problem in making the transfer from east to west was Chinese is a pictographic alphabet.

What made Gutenberg’s invention special was actually the combination of several innovations. The top three unknown to most except typographical historians and incunabulists are:

• The adjustable hand mold, a device for quickly making type. This also allowed the base of the letters to conform in size to the letter itself.

• The chemical composition of the type so that it’s durable, yet sets and cools quickly when released from the mold.

• And lastly the viscosity of the ink, which is dramatically different than that of the scribe who labored with pen.

These discoveries, conceived under a cloak of secrecy, began in and around the city of Strasbourg. The 20-year journey began with the chemical process of producing mirrors for religious pilgrims, moved to playing cards then to Papal Indulgences. It culminated in 1455 at Mainz with the unveiling of the Gutenberg Bible.

This project, hardly implemented alone, was the combination of a curious mixture of partners and financiers. It was, however, his last financier, Johann Fust, who proved to be the agent of Gutenberg’s success—and his ultimate undoing. For after two loans and the final success of the famous 42-line Bible, Fust called in his mark.

Why is still debated. Some claim Fust was tired of waiting for his money and that it was a natural termination of a business relationship. Others believe that Fust saw that the entrepreneur had finally stumbled upon a winning idea and this was the perfect opportunity to grab it. Whatever the reason, Gutenberg, unable to pay, forfeited one of his presses, the accompanying catalogue of type and half the bibles printed.

His head pressman, Peter Schoffer, married Fust’s daughter and went to work with the moneyman. This proved successful and the Fust–Schöffer shop was the first in Europe to bring out a book with the printer's name and date in the colophon. Within five years Gutenberg’s pressmen had set out on their own and spread this new secret art, like a wildfire throughout the Rhine valley.

The Genie was indeed out of the bottle.

Jeff Morris is owner of Wilsons Bookworld and Director of Incunabula at Griffon's Medieval Manuscripts, both in St. Petersburg.


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