Gutenberg and His Bible: A Review

I was pleased to see that Janet Ing's intriguing chapbook on Gutenberg and His Bible is still available at Amazon

This is the text of a review I wrote when the little book first came out:

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Johann Gutenberg, yet what we actually know about the shadowy inventor of movable type can fit readily into a slender volume.
Janet Ing has a bone to pick with Gutenberg scholars, and she picks at it with grace and erudition in a beautiful new volume in The Typophiles Chapbook Series.
In a modest 154 small pages, the author recounts the sparse history of Gutenberg. At the same time she deflates the wordy effusions of scholars who borrowed well into mental deficit on intuition and guesswork, choosing instead to rely on hard facts. Most important of all, she reviews in clear, precise terms the latest scientific analysis of Gutenberg Bible pages, in which proton beams from a cyclotron were used to study the ink in which the text was printed.
Paul Needham, in an introduction to Dr. Ing’s succinct work, describes the new book as one good for "clearing away the unruly undergrowth" of previous writings on Gutenberg.
Reading the scant biographical details of our printing forefather, it is easy to see how students and scholars, not to mention popular writers of history and fiction, would tend to fill in data based on fancy, inspiration-even a healthy dose of imagination.
It's almost impossible even to paraphrase the outline of Gutenberg's life without interpolating particulars. We take our own knowledge of human nature, our own experience in how printing gets done on a day-to-day basis-and, voila! we think we have a sense of the man, his shop, his problems, and his ambitions.
Dr. Ing tries to combat this romanticizing of Gutenberg, largely the result of works written since the 19th century. History nearly forgot this patient craftsman, who first gained notice in 1438 or 1439 as a manufacturer of "spirit mirrors," mirrored badges worn by pilgrims to Rome. It is speculated that Gutenberg developed a way to mass produce them using a "press" and that he may have gained some of his familiarity with the properties of alloyed metals while engaged in this work. One thing is certain-he had partners in the venture who sued him to get their money back because they were impatient for results.
We can almost see the steadfast tinkerer in his workshop, perhaps examining some reverse die used to emboss a pattern on the pilgrim badges, fiddling with molds and trying new alloys of lead, mixing his own inks out of carbon and lead and sulfur. The smell of brimstone might even have brought a few whispers of alchemy or sorcery from the old wives of Mainz!
We can imagine the "Eureka!" moment when Johann cast a complete word or line of type and then inked the backwards letters to produce a proof.
What Was His Vision?
Then, just as Edison envisioned a world ablaze with electric light, Gutenberg saw the printed book. First, the Bibles would pour forth so that every person capable of reading could see the word of God with his own eyes.
Did he imagine that printing art would one day topple the intellectual and moral monopoly of the Church of Rome! Or that pamphlets and books from presses would eventually undermine monarchies and establish a new nation across the Atlantic? Or that the printer and publisher would gain incredible freedom and power in shaping opinion and spreading knowledge!
You see what we mean about the inclination to elaborate! We are Gutenberg's great-great-whatever-grandchildren. We want Gutenberg to be a visionary-an Edison or Einstein. Or we want him to be an inspired perfectionist, like Bach with his Art of the Fugue or Stradivarius with his violins.
Back to the Facts
Dr. lng, however, brings us squarely back to the facts of the matter. We have, she assures us, no single insight into the mind of Gutenberg other than testimony by or about him given when Johann Fust, a Mainz money- broker, sued Gutenberg to. get back his investment in Gutenberg's venture, referred to cryptically as "the work of the books." This was in 1455, and it is generally agreed that the lawsuit brought Gutenberg to the point of insolvency if not bankruptcy. Somehow, though, Gutenberg seems to have stayed in business well into the 1460s.
Johann Fust took in a partner, one Scheffer, who became his son-in-law, starting a printing dynasty that later claimed to have "invented" printing.
One of the most fascinating parts of the early printing story has 'been the detective work that led scholars to de¬cide which early Bible came first, the 36-line (per page) Bible or the 42-line Bible. Dr. Ing joins those who favor the 42-line Bible. She reproduces passages that show convincingly how a typositor for the 36-line Bible made an error that could be based only on reading a printed copy of the 42-line Bible. (It's all a matter of the final words of one chapter tucked into the end of the first line of the next.)
The author narrates with clarity and a sense of excitement how scholars have gradually learned more and more about how the Bible was printed. This is real detective work, since no one knows how many presses were used or how many typositors were employed. All conclusions have to be made from examining the extant Bibles in museums and collections, and from pages preserved from Bibles broken up and sold in pieces.
AAs We’ve Had Always with Us
As if this weren’t complex enough, the first job by the world’s first printer had “Author's Alterations”!
Less than a quarter of the way into production, Gutenberg increased the print run from about 124 copies to perhaps as many as 167 copies (paper and vellum editions combined, based on estimates by Paul Needham). This change forced them to reset part of the Bible, and to buy additional paper of a different watermark that had to be cleverly insinuated throughout the press run.
Recent analysis by proton beam of the highly variable ink has even made it possible to determine which sheets were printed from the same batch of ink. This, combined with examination of watermarks, has provided many pieces of the "how did he do it?" puzzle.
Dr. Ing speculates that Gutenberg probably operated a second shop for the printing of papal indulgences, calendars, and other ephemera. Would he have called this "Johann's Augenblicklich Incunabula Shop," we wonder?) Type from both the 42-line and 36-line Bibles appears in these early specimens.
Nearly Forgotten
Why did we almost lose the name of Gutenberg altogether? Johann Gutenberg died a mere 12 years after the lawsuit. Fust and Scheffer continued, and their successors dominated the local market. Early colophons and notes about printing credited Fust. Even Erasmus made the, mistake, but not without encouragement from eager salesmen from the Fust printing family.
Apparently some of Gutenberg's own apprentices, who doubtless went to other cities to found their own printing dynasties, got the word out. The fatherhood of the printing art became disputed, and even though Fust or other early printers still have their adherents, the name of Gutenberg has finally triumphed. Whoever said that history is written by the victors was wrong — history is written by the survivors. The unterhund [underdog] will become the uberhund thanks to the very press Gutenberg invented.
Behind the Mask
Obscure as the figure of Gutenberg is in this carefully researched book, we see ample evidence that old Johann was a diligent craftsman, a perfectionist who accepted no compromise in striving to make printing look like fine calligraphy.
Have you ever reflected on the incredible accomplishment of Gutenberg’s work — how it is that the first book ever printed came out as a breathtaking masterpiece? The magnitude of the task set before him explains all too well his backers’ impatience and the resulting lawsuit. Human nature was the same then as now, and the first printer already knew how to say, “Call me tomorrow — ¬the job is on the press!”
Early Linecasting
One of the most tantalizing portions of Johann Gutenberg and His Bible is a later chapter called “Gutenberg and Other Early Printing.” Here Dr. Ing traces a dictionary called the Catholicon, printed with Gutenberg’s type and quite likely with his participation, in editions between 1460 and 1467.
Dr. Ing discusses the startling theory that standing type was kept for seven years on this book, which was reprinted several times. An examination of the printing, including some two-line segments that were mixed up, suggests very strongly that Gutenberg developed a way to cast blocks of type in two-line “slugs,” which could be easily reassembled and locked up for a reprint.
If this suggestion is correct, it's not hard to see the hand and mind of Gutenberg at work. Even to the end, he was seeking a way to economize and gain even further efficiency. We can see him setting two lines of type by hand in a chase, making a mold from them, and then casting and trimming two-line slugs. This makes him the inventor of linecasting and a precursor of Mergenthaler!

Comments

Popular Posts