Alix Christie’s Gutenberg’s Apprentice

In 1454, ca 180 printed copies of the Bible, the Biblia Latina, were offerend for sale. These 180 copies of the Bible came from the Mainz workshop of one Johannes Gutenberg, and caused quite a stir because of the new technique that had been used to produce them. Gutenberg is credited with the invention of letterpress printing with moveable type, that is, pages are set one page at a time by setters who compose the words by using cast metal letters into a frame and assembling them to form the words. Once a page is set, the frame goes into the bottom of the printing press, the  page is inked, and an imprint of the page is taken by pressing the inked frame on to a surface, paper most commonly, or in the case of the Gutenberg Bible, also vellum. This technique allows for the printing of multiple identical copies, basically as many  as possible until the metal letter casts wear down, and while it still requires for each page to be printed separately, the speed of a press massively outstrips that of a scribe, massively accelerating the pace at which (identical) writing can be distributed. Letterpress printing also allows for justified margins, and for pages of identical numbers of lines, all of which are aesthetic features difficult to standardise for a scribe. For us, this technique is familiar and by now technologically outdated, as digital printing has long overtaken letterpress printing. We even consume books and letters in purely digital form now, often without the intermediary of a printed page, but when Gutenberg first successfully demonstrated the potential of this new technique, it caused quite a sensation. If I had to name the most significant technological invention of the Renaissance, for me, letterpress printing would be right there, especially given the way in which the application of this new technology allowed for increased access to reading.

cover-ukBut, this blog isn’t about my thoughts about the significance of letterpress printing , rather, it focuses on Alix Christie’s novel! Incidentally, the novel has a superb supporting website, gutenbergsapprentice.com , which contains the notes and glosses of the novel, and some very handsome pictures of examples of the surviving Gutenberg bibles with a plethora of images and links which provide background to the story. The web page is well worth looking at- have a go, especially as the novel itself lacks illustrations.

In Gutenberg’s Apprentice, the story follows one Peter Schoeffer, a historical figure like most of the characters introduced in the course of the book, and his own involvement in, and contribution to, the printing of the Gutenberg Bible. Schoeffer is trained as a scribe in Paris and his trade is writing, but he gets recalled to Mainz by his foster father and apprenticed to Johannes Gutenberg. In other words, in Schoeffer we meet a highjly skilled craftsman and intellectual in possession of a rare skill, writing, whose entire future and livelihodd depends on being able to make a livelihood from writing. Schoeffer, and his fellow scribes, are valued because they make administration of complex corporations, cities and religious orders possible; they are valued because their skills are rare and necessary, but also appreciated for beauty and aesthetic appeal. In Schoeffer, we meet the scribe who becomes a printer and bookseller because he sees printing not as a soulless mechanical, purely functional process but one that has the potential to give acess to words to everybody. Schoeffer is a visionary, and his foil is his master, Johannes Gutenberg, the mercurial but calculating genius for whom printing is a means of increasing profit.

The story follows Peter Schoeffer’s arrival in Mainz and introduces us to his foster father, Johannes Fust, who goes into partnership with Gutenberg as his financier and the bookseller who will eventually sell the printed copies of the Bible. Fust believes that Gutenberg’s new technique has potential but it is Schoeffer whose skills as a scribe make printing more than a mechanical process and also an aesthetic one. Gutenberg remains always remote, always aloof, inscrutable in the background but ultimately the force who drives the work on the book on.

Christie does a fabulous job of grounding the story of the printing of the Bible in 1450s Mainz, and she is particularly insightful in writing about the conflicts that arise between the craftsmanship and artistry of the scribes, many of them dependent for their livelihood on the religious orders, and in firm control of access to books and texts. She sets the prospect of printing as freedom from these constraints and free access to words for everybody against this world of privilege, played out in the encounters between Peter Schoeffer on the one hand and his childhood friend Peter Heliand, a scheming, conniving scribe who rises in the service of the Archbishop of Mainz. Christie also introduces a painter’s daughter, both  as love interest for Schoeffer and an incredulous observer of the technology of the new press.More than anything else, what Christie succeeds in doing is to embed her story about a technological invention that arguable changed the world with the human context of fifteenth-century Mainz.

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3 thoughts on “Alix Christie’s Gutenberg’s Apprentice

  1. Pingback: Historical novels as slices of time: Geoffrey Trease’s The Hills of Varna  | renaissanceissues

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