In principio erat verbum
In the beginning was the word, (well according to John 1:1 anyway) but in the absence of someone writing it down, then printing millions of copies, you might never have known. So maybe in the beginning was the word but right behind it was the printer. Before Stephen King, Dan Brown, JK Rowling or AC Doyle, there was once a major global best-seller, the first one. It had an initial printing of one hundred eighty, and it changed the world.
Alix Christie has given us a look at how the Gutenberg bible came to be, and in so doing has illuminated the image we might have of this seminal work with portraits of the man himself, the era in which he lived, the politics of the time, details of the technical advances that went into development of the movable type press, and a look at the people involved.
When you combine the words Gutenberg with Bible, you might conjure an image of some monkish guy in a
garage basement, or barn, banging away at his personal project until Voila! You might also think printing the bible was his first gig. Turns out, not so much. While it may not have taken a village to make the famous big book, it came close. Johannes Gensfleisch, the man we know as Gutenberg, (the name of the town where his mother had been born) had some help. There is no question that he was a genius, and that his notions of using movable metal type ushered in a new age. But he was also a very results oriented entrepreneur. Bit of a slave-driver too, as well as being someone of questionable ethical standards, and maybe not the guy you would want having your back in a critical moment. One of the joys of Alix Christie’s tale is learning at least some of the many challenges of all sorts that had to be met along the way from revolutionary printing notion to reality. She came on her less-than-glowing notions about Gutenberg as the sole source of the genius behind the press as a result of relatively recent research by several European scholars. She goes into details on the book’s site.
Our window into this world is his assistant. Peter Schoeffer, the apprentice of the title, was a scribe in Paris when Johann Fust, who had adopted him, summoned him back to Mainz (pronounced mīn(t)s) to work as Genfleisch’s apprentice. Fust had seen what Gutenberg might do with his marvelous new machine and committed a significant financial stake to the project. Part of the deal was for Peter to be an apprentice in Gutenberg’s shop. Fust’s intentions were not wholly beneficent. He wanted a spy on the inside. The story of how the bible was ultimately made is given by Peter, relating his history to a monk many years later. We step back and forth between the then (1450-1454) and the now (1485), of the story. This offers the author a way to present some views on Gutenberg from a more objective distance. Well, from a distance, anyway. JG is presented in a rather dim light as seen through Peter’s eyes.
Johannes Fust and Peter Schoeffer
In the world of the late 15th century the Catholic Church was a particularly corrupt and oppressive force, impacting the world of earthly politics to an unholy degree. It was within the power of an archbishop, for example, to essentially quarantine an entire city if, say, the ruling council of that city went against his wishes. The Church was also busy selling indulgences, pieces of paper on which the church had incorporated its imprimatur, and which, once you filled in your name, would guarantee forgiveness in heaven for sins committed on earth. The 15th century variety was a way for the church to raise funds, for things like Crusades and large papal celebrations. As the mass production of these monstrosities could be stunningly lucrative to the church, those in charge had a considerable interest in the possibility of new printing technology. And Gutenberg had to be on his guard to keep the church from learning of his project too soon, lest they seize his entire workshop for their own purposes. Secrecy was paramount, and many tongues needed to be stilled for the project to proceed. This creates considerable tension in the story, even though we know that the book is eventually made. Christie also looks at the local politics of the city, the importance of guilds, and the political push-pull of the elders (think the one percent) vs the workers (in this case, guilds).
The focus on the people involved in the time and place make this a tale of Mainz and men (sorry), and not just a tracking of technological innovation. There is a bit of romance in here as well, as Peter and a local lass become entangled. This offers Christie an opportunity to look at the status of women in the late 15th century and note the life-threatening aspect of childbirth that was much more a hazard then than it is today. Of course the tech stuff is fascinating, as it took considerable trial and error to work out the kinks. Christie is a master of these details. As she should be. She apprenticed as a printer and owns a working press. However, she is equally adept at portraying the many interpersonal tensions and complications in the relationships of the major players.
For centuries the ruling class had run the city like their private bank. They’d lent the council sums they then repaid themselves at crushing rates of interest. These bonds they then bequeathed to their own spawn, in perpetuity. Thus was the city fated to insolvency, like half of the free cities of the Reich. Each time the treasury was bare, Archbishop Dietrich would step in, prop up that rotting edifice, enact some other tax that only workingmen and merchants had to bear.
Contemporary issues resonate here. Just as the internet, a marvelous bit of technology, can be put to low or dark purposes, so could the original printing press. In fact an early money-maker for Gutenberg was the equivalent of a penny-dreadful. The selling of indulgences by the Church is echoed today whenever the Department of Justice investigates corporations for malfeasance. What remains clear is that tools, even miraculous ones, are only as good as the people who control them. The stresses between old and new, between powerful and less powerful, between religious and secular power comes through. BTW, one of the reasons Gutenberg opted to produce a bible is that a project that was in the works with church leaders to print a standardized missal fell through. I suppose one might call this an early missal crisis. I wouldn’t, but I suppose some might.
I expect Christie was hewing as closely as possible to the history she is writing about. Peter was a real person, as were all the major and maybe even minor characters in this impressive book. As the fictional Peter here tells his story to a monk many years after the events described, so the real Peter did the same. This is definitely an instance in which the historical aspect of this historical novel is a very powerful element. She even includes in an afterword a bit of what happened to each of the characters after the bible was completed. No, nothing on Dean Wormer.
I have two gripes with the book, neither of them major. I appreciate Christie hewing to history in her re-telling of how the great book came to be, but I did not find the steps forward to Peter’s telling the tale to a monk altogether necessary. Second, one thing you should know about Gutenberg’s Apprentice is that, as informative and satisfying as it is, it is a slow read. At least it was for me. You are unlikely to be taking this one to the beach to while away a few hours. But if you settle in for a longer spell, you will be richly rewarded.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice may not be the first book you have ever read, but it will definitely leave a lasting impression.
An informative Wiki piece on Fust and Schoeffer
A nice video on the press. Ignore the word kids on the site. This is accessible and interesting, even if the documentary video cadged music from John Adams and is a bit amateurish.
A nifty wiki article on movable type
In addition, there is a lot of excellent material on Christie’s book site