There is a national myth in the Netherlands that was taught in school well into the sixties of the 20th century: a man who lived in Haarlem, Laurens Jansz Coster, was walking his small children in the nearby dunes and to amuse and teach them he cut a letter from a piece of wood. He dropped the stick with the letter by accident, it fell on sand instead of grass and then in a single instant he saw for his eyes the complete process of printing: the cutting and casting of letters, how to create pages with them and the printing itself. But the invention was stolen on Christmas-eve by a certain Fust or Faust who took it to Germany where he gave the secret to Gutenberg. Faust came to a bad end soon after, when he sold his soul to the devil, but the stolen invention was claimed by the Germans as theirs ever after.
First told by the Dutch scholar Petrus Scriverius in his book on Haarlem (published in 1628), this story played an important part in the genesis of the history of the book as a serious activity for scholars. Of course printing was invented by Gutenberg, who may or may not have had the same ‘eureuka’ experience as his fictitious Dutch counterpart, but who was to spend long years of trail and error before his printing press became the machine that would change the world. The controversies – the Dutch of course did not give in right away and were helped by some French and English scholars – brought about a vast corpus of books on early printing. The serious study of incunabula (or ‘new-borns’ as they were known in later years) started in the late 18th century while the Dutch claim was only definitly rejected by historians and philologists in the 20th century. It still lingers on, in school and probably in the city of Haarlem too.
What did Gutenberg invent? The printing process encompasses activities that are quite diverse. One can imagine the thought-process, starting with a ‘what if …’
What if you could press letters, sentences, even pages on a sheet of paper, instead of having to write it all down, letter by letter, word by word? You would have to print on the recto and the verso or frontside and backside of a sheet of paper but that was of course easy. And yes: it would even be easier to print more than one page on the side of a sheet to be able to fold and bind it afterwards. As the position of the pages on the sheet was not sequential this called for some math. To put each page on the right place was called imposition and it was known to the scribes of an earlier age who wrote books by hand.
What if you cut each letter on a separate block so that you could use the letters again and again? The Chinese method of printing was to cut whole pages at a time on a block of wood and so did the makers of the so-called blockbooks that were published about or after the time Gutenberg started printing. But the cutting of whole pages in a tiny roman or gothic script was difficult – if not impossible at all – and uneconomical as the resulting block was to fragile to be put under a printing press. You could rub it of with your hands by placing a piece of paper on the inked wood thousands of times like the Chinese did but then you could only use one side of the paper. and the process was slower. You could also use such complete pages for one text.
The answer to this would be to use separate little blocks but you would soon find out that wood was to soft and sensitive to water and ink to put pages together from separate wooden letters. And was the cutting of hundreds of copies of each separate letter feasible at all? Using some kind of metal for letters was of course the answer – and so was casting them in series, instead of cutting them all separately. To cast letters you needed a matrix. How to create it? You could use sand or clay like the casters of silver and bronze did – this is how dentists still make crowns and how goldsmiths like Benvenuto Cellini worked in the days of Gutenberg. But you could also try and find a more permanent matrix. To be able to make that you had to create a punch that was struck in a small rectancle of copper and made to fit a mold later on. Dies and coins were made like that well before the classical era.
What Gutenberg did, was to combine different techniques that had existed for some time – and sometimes even for ages – giving them a twist of his own. The ink was probably something that he created out of nothing, but even that may have been related to the oil-based paints that had recently been invented by the Flemish painter Van Eyck.
The invention spread like a wildfire over Europe. His successors Fust and Schoeffer were not as secretive as Gutenberg – who may have been after the money, by selling “manuscripts” that were made at a fraction of the cost of a written book but were sold for the full price. But in some old sources printing was called ‘artificial writing’ and maybe we should think of it as that and accept that there was no clear divide between before and after Gutenberg. You bought a book – the artificial kind became cheaper in time and a few snobs declared that they would not have them in their palaces since they did not like paper.
Some of the inventions ascribed to Gutenberg have been questioned. According to bookhistorian Paul Needham and scientist Blaise Aguerra y Arcas the variations in the letters show that Gutenberg at least in some of his books did not use matrixes as we know them from the 16th century. At least part of his material seems to have been casted in sand or perhaps some other not permanent material like plaster. As the detailed pictures of type in this book show there was a lot of variation in 15th century letters – even on pages that were printed by Jenson himself – who is credited by Lotte Hellinga as the inventor of the permanent matrix.
Perhaps Gutenberg did invent the matrix as it was used until the 19th century but did he not invent or use it when he started to print his first books. It seems that not every printer used permanent matrixes, but that some had their letters casted in not permanent ones as were used by goldsmiths of their days. A non permanent matrix makes casting of type a labor-intensive job: you have to recreate the matrix for every single cast. Casting letters in sand takes probably at least forty times as much time to get a usable amount of type as using a permanent matrix. Why would printers use such a less advanced technique? The answer may be that they simply did not have all the information on how it was done. The first printers may have had to reinvent parts of the printing-process.
It took at least twenty years before printers did their work more or less in the same way. We are then well into the eighties of the fiftheenth century. Some pictures in this book show a diversity that give some support to this idea. On the other hand the letters we see on the page are at least six steps away from the original design on top of the punch. With a punch one could make a lot of matrixes that would have to be adjusted and that was a process that may have created variations. Then there is the casting: handwork that needs a lot of dexterity and easely results in quite diverse letters – siblings that were looking different but were all coming from the same matrix. Simply by re-using casted type even more variation was created, and inking and the uneven quality of the paper also did their part.
In the beginning there may not have existed a dichotomy between the written book and it’s printed cousin. Buyers were supposed to have their printed books rubricated, historiated and bound, just like they did before when they ordered their books to be written at one of the ateliers that could be found in any city. Most of the earliest printed books that survived, have spend time with the rubricator and the painter. But perhaps these copies own their survival just to that. There are of course lots of books that were meant to be touched up but that never saw a paintbrush. This completing of books by hand was done until the middle of the 16th century but the emancipation of the printed book from the artisans started somewhere in the seventies of the 15th century. Erhard Ratdolt is a printer who deserves to be named as one of the great innovators. He was one of the first who had his initials and ornaments cut in wood so they could be printed instead of having to be painted in in each single copy of an edition (in those days 300-500 was probably a normal print run).
The mechanization of all activities that were part of the process of creating books changed the way books looked in many ways. The one reason for this was the disappearance of color from the book. The rubricator touched up all letters and words with red or blue ink that deserved special attention from the reader or helped him on his way through the text. But printing in color was difficult and time-consuming and thus expensive. The printers had to find other ways to express the different kinds of information that could be found on the pages of their books. They did this by using white as a mean of dividing paragraphs, by using smallcaps, the italic and all the other ways that we now use to structure our texts even if we are writing them by hand. Eventually color returned to the book. But not as a way to bring articulation to the text. It was used for illustrations and for artistic expression.