Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Learning | Gutenberg

I just finished an intriguing historical fiction book.  Gutenberg's Apprentice: a Novel is author Alix Christie's first book. I have always been fascinated by medieval illuminated manuscripts, which were traditionally created by hand, by scribes.  I've been equally fascinated by the printing process; if you've ever played with rubber stamps, I'm sure you have noticed how hard it is to make consistent impressions. I've always wondered what processes allow such clarity and uniformity.

Luckily for me, Christie's book explores both worlds. The main character is Peter Schoeffer, a young scribe who has mastered the art of making those illuminated manuscripts. He takes great pride in his work. 

At the beginning of the book, he is suddenly called away from his duties by his stepfather, Johann Fust. Fust is a middle-class trader, who has invested heavily in a secret project of Johann Gutenberg's.  Peter is given to Gutenberg as an apprentice. To say Peter is resistant to the idea is an understatement.  He thinks the early samples of the printed words are very ugly, and feels his very way of life threatened by the possibility of the new technology.

If you look at the photo right below this paragraph, you will see fine examples of the writing and embellishment that can be made with human handiwork. Compare it to the images of the collage further down the page, showing pieces of the Gutenberg Bible. You can see how a scribe like Peter might react strongly to such an oddly regular arrangement of letters on a page.  

Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau, Nativity, Walters Manuscript W.174, fol. 17v, from Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts' photostream on Some rights reserved.

Gutenberg Bible collage: Left, Miami University's Gutenberg leaf (Recto) from the Gutenberg Bible. It contains Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 42:14-43:25. From Miami University Library's photostream on Top Right, Gutenberg Bible - detail from the Old Testament; Bottom Right, detail from the New Testament, The Gutenberg Bible, both digitized by the HUMI Project, Keio University, July 2005; © National Library of Scotland; from National Library of Scotland's photostream on All images in the collage were taken from The Commons area of, with no known copyright restrictions.

There are many ups and downs to the story of the production of the Gutenberg Bible.  Political and economic conditions forced the crew to work secretly for years, experimenting with various materials and techniques before developing a successful, reliable process.  Alix Christie is a printer herself, so she is able to describe the process in detail.  In some respects, this book reminds me of Homer Hickham's biography, Rocket Boys. In fact, if you enjoyed Rocket Boys, I think you will enjoy Gutenberg's Apprentice.

I can't resist talking about one of my favorite printing terms: frisket. A frisket is a thin metal frame that keeps the paper in position on a hand press. I even found you a diagram that shows you the main parts of a printing press. You're welcome!

Printing press diagram. The tympan is the part labeled t; the frisket is labeled f.  Image from page 325 of "Webster's practical dictionary; a practical dictionary of the English language giving the correct spelling, pronunciation and definitions of words based on the unabridged dictionary of Noah Webster .." (1910) From Internet Archives Book Images' photostream on No known copyright restrictions.

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