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Alphabet Venture

(The following is a post by Taru Spiegel, reference specialist, European Division.)

Printing with movable metal type was first introduced to Europe in the mid-15th-century Germany by a visionary goldsmith and businessman, Johann Gutenberg (d. 1468). Prior to that time, books were written and copied manually, a labor which took many months. Gutenberg anticipated sound profits for publishing religious materials—since multiple copies could be duplicated in a significantly shorter time than it took a scribe to produce one manuscript. His book production breakthrough turned out to be a revolutionary advancement in the dissemination of information.

Hand-copied books were rare and precious objects. The few members of the elite who could read and write, and were wealthy enough to possess such valuable manuscripts, have left us with a rich legacy of costly book decorations. Gutenberg’s invention, on the other hand, made plain books available to a larger segment of the population. For instance, in 1450, hand-copied books in Europe numbered in the thousands, but in the 1500s, the number of printed books figured in the millions. Consequently, the printing explosion played a part in furthering the Renaissance in Europe (1400-1650) and making the Reformation possible—important milestones in European history.

Hand-illuminated manuscript pages.
1. Valturio, Roberto. “De re militari.” [Third quarter of the 15th century] Rosenwald manuscript. No. 14, p. 21, PDF, Page view.

Hand-illuminated manuscript pages.
2. Catholic Church. “Book of Hours,” 1524. Rosenwald manuscript. 10, PDF, Page view. p. 82.

Coincidentally, around the time of Gutenberg’s invention, another means of duplicating books was created that employed wooden blocks on which text and images for each page were laboriously carved by hand, but which did allow for a number of subsequent fast printings. This was a technique that had long been used in Asia. However, Gutenberg’s method prevailed because individual, movable letters made of metal were much easier to manipulate, and were more durable than the wooden blocks.

Pages from the wood block book “Ars moriendi” (The art of dying).
Ars moriendi” (Version beginning: Quamvis secundum philosophum tertio Ethicorum). Germany, 1466 , pp. 20, 42. PDF, Page view.

Pages from the wood block book “Ars moriendi” (The art of dying).
Ars moriendi” (Version beginning: Quamvis secundum philosophum tertio Ethicorum). Germany, 1466 , pp. 20, 42. PDF, Page view.

One of Gutenberg’s printing improvements was to introduce right margin justification, or making the right edge of the text even, by fashioning an assortment of letters in varying widths.  This made the two columns of printed text on a page more pleasing to the eye than the columns in hand-copied works.

Gutenberg’s printed, and right-justified and columns in:
Biblia Latina” (Latin Bible). Mainz: Printer of the 42-line Bible [Johann Gutenberg] between 1454 and 1455/1456. Vol. I, image 6.

Hand-written columns in:
Godefridus Viterbiensis. “Speculum regum.” Partial text and commentary. Germany, 1478. PDF, Page view.

Even though Gutenberg’s printed black text showed to great advantage, it was initially too laborious and complicated for him to also print the customary red color for headings (rubrics), titles, chapter numbers, initial letters, and any additional ornamentation still had to be created by hand. Purchasers could thus subsequently decide how elaborate and costly they wanted the lettering and illumination, or decoration, to be. The printed book pages that were sold were quite bare compared to the finished product.

Pages without color lettering.
Biblia Latina” (Latin Bible, Vulgate). Mainz: Printer of the 42-line Bible (Johann Gutenberg) between 1454 and 1455/1456. Vol. I, image 3.

Pages with color lettering.
Biblia Latina” (Latin Bible, Vulgate). Mainz: Printer of the 42-line Bible (Johann Gutenberg) between 1454 and 1455/1456. Vol. I, image 3.

In order to finance the development of his movable type and printing press, Gutenberg borrowed a large sum of money from a financier, Johann Fust.  Financial backing enabled Gutenberg to cut and cast letters on individual metal rods—something he was able to do because of his skills as a goldsmith. He designed hundreds of different kinds of movable type, including some with letters linked to each other, as well as abbreviation symbols common at the time. Because tens of thousands of separate letters were needed to simultaneously print a series of pages, it took Gutenberg many years to perfect the pieces of type required.

After waiting five years for repayment, Fust in 1455 successfully recouped his investment by suing Gutenberg and gaining control of the printing equipment, including the type for the Bible.  Fust’s son-in-law, Peter Schöffer, had worked as a printer for Gutenberg and was thus able to act in an advisory capacity to Fust regarding Gutenberg’s trade secrets. Instead of crediting Gutenberg as the movable type inventor, Fust and Schöffer proudly displayed their names in subsequent printed works.

Because of printing improvements found in the 1457 Psalter, experts believe that Gutenberg worked for Fust even after the lawsuit. This Psalter, produced two years after the Bible, showed that the difficulty of printing black and red together in perfect registration, or alignment, had been overcome. The 1459 Fust and Schöffer print job, “Rationale divinorum officiorum” (Rationale for the divine offices), was printed in red, black, and blue. The color registration of the printed red and blue initials is especially notable.

Three-color print in “Rationale divinorum officiorum.”
Durand, Guillaume. “Rationale divinorum officiorum.” (Explanation for a set of prayers). Mainz: Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer, 1459, pp. 38, 288. PDF, Page view.

Three-color print in “Rationale divinorum officiorum.”
Durand, Guillaume. “Rationale divinorum officiorum.” (Explanation for a set of prayers). Mainz: Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer, 1459, pp. 38, 288. PDF, Page view.

Like so many other inventors, Gutenberg did not gain the hoped-for profits from his ideas and hard work. However, even though Fust and Schöffer took credit for his printing techniques, it is still Gutenberg who is remembered today for his invention of movable type and its far-reaching consequences. Gutenberg probably would have been astonished to know that his birth city of Mainz would be celebrating his achievements throughout the “Gutenberg Year 2018,” in commemoration of the 550th anniversary of his death.

John White Alexander. “Printing Press” mural in the “Evolution of the Book” series at the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building. Washington, DC: mural c.1896; photograph 1990. The mural is one of six depicting the history of the book. The artist has imagined a man working at a printing press and Gutenberg (center) examining a printed sheet of paper with another man.

Additional information about early printing and Gutenberg may be found at the following Library of Congress websites:
Incunabula: The Art & History of Printing in Western Europe, c. 1450-1500,”and
Library of Congress Bible Collection.”

 

Notes: The sources of the leading alphabets are the Gutenberg Bible in the Library of Congress Bible Collection, and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division’s Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection.

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