OMG Gutenberg

Martin McClellan

August 17, 2015

A friend who works at the Library of Congress occasionally gets called on to give tours to visiting school groups. The kids respond like most kids would at a government institution: long, bored faces. Not even the gilded grandeur of the building holds much sway.

He takes them to the Gutenberg Bible, laying prone in a glass case, opened to whatever page the curator deemed worthy. This is one of the finest existing copies of the rarest, most valuable book in the world. It is vellum (most are printed on paper), acquired by the library from collector Dr. Otto Vollbehr in 1930.

Let’s use Thomas Jefferson as a metric, even though this book was not his. We are right now closer to the date of Jefferson’s death than his birth was to the day this book was printed. Put in a different way: when Jefferson was alive, the book was older to him than the founding of the United States is to us.

Now imagine gathered around this imposing ancient tome stand the bored touring students, with my friend. He points out that the book’s Latin is dense. Like monks in the scriptorium, Gutenberg and his workshop used abbreviations. "Latin, you know," my friend says to the teenagers, "used a lot of shorthand. Monks in the scriptorium would use acronyms or remove letters in long words to save time and space when writing. Does that remind you of anybody you know?"

The students, blank faced, look back at him, blinking.

With exaggerated manner, he rolls his eyes, lets his arms slump, and in the sarcastic cadence of a teen calls out: "El-oh-el, anybody?"

Understanding dawns. "You mean, those monks were, like, texting each other?"

So now he has their attention. Now the conversation can start.

Scribes often noted in the edges of their manuscripts the ways they suffered in the handiwork of God. A sharp complaint, secreted in a margin: Thin ink, may night fall soon. I’ve finished now. For Christ’s sake, bring me drink. Writing caved the ribs and torqued the back and fogged the eyes. Once in Saint-Victor’s library in Paris Peter had discovered a whole string of notes from the same scribe: This parchment is certainly hairy, he had carped, this lamp gives a bad light. And yet until he bent for hours above that shaft of metal, Peter never really understood his closing thought: Just as the sailor yearns for port, the writer longs for the last line.

Peter, above, is Peter Schoeffer. In the accomplished and penetrating novel Gutenberg’s Apprentice, we follow him through his transition from master scribe to master printer, and, in the process, watch him help create the greatest printed volume ever undertaken.1 The heart of this book is true: there really was a Peter Schoeffer, who worked for the man Johannes Gutenberg, who was funded by a man named Johann Fust. We know this because Fust sued Gutenberg, and the records of that trial exist. We know that Fust and Schoeffer opened a famous print house afterward, and that Schoeffer went on to become one of the most famous printers of incunabula. Here we have before us the holy trinity of literacy.

But what we know about them are islands of fact surrounded by deep uncertain waters, the content of which has been argued over the past five hundred years in both scholarship, and ages of old printers' tales handed down as if fact. What Christie has done, notably, is to lower the water to expose connective bars, and create a plausible, entertaining fictional narrative.

For Gutenberg Bible fans,2 there are myriad small obsessions in the great project. It is approachable from many different angles, like the elephant and the blind men. The astonishing thing about Christie’s book is that she covers the full ground of the Bible production, and her speculation about what might have happened inside that workshop in Mainz is thorough, realistic, and gripping.

Of course, we know what the end-game is. She has cast the book in the style of a startup fable, but although the sword of Damocles hanging over the modern startup (running out of money) also hung over the heroes of this fable, the mere act of holding her book in your hands means you touch the proof of their success. Christie’s plot challenge was to find the narrative along the way, instead of relying on potential failure as a driving point.

It’s hard to think of books as technology (it’s hard to think of anything ubiquitous as technology, and certainly in our modern post-modernity we’ve come to think of technology as only things that are electrified), but Gutenberg’s success with printing can be viewed as a conspiracy of timing, mixed with specific technological breakthroughs as radical in their time as self-driving cars will be in ours.

One was alloys. Letters had to be reusable, so hard enough to stand up to multiple impressions, but soft enough to melt at a reasonably low temperature, and not be too rarified. The combination made in Mainz in the 1450s was the blueprint for type metal for the next 500 years: a tincture of lead, antimony, and tin.

Another was the press. Although modified from the grape presses of the time, this wooden apparatus needed precision for consistency, which in a world of hand-wrought craftsmanship was not a common call. The pressure needed to be uniform between sheets, and it needed to be durable enough to last printing, over thousands of impressions.

Still another was the method of casting letters. Once you have the alloy melted, how do you create them? Gutenberg’s workshop invented an ingenious matrix,3 that could hold a letter blank made out of hardened metal, and quick-cooling lead could be poured within to make a single letter form.

And then, there was the ink. At the time, ink was used by scribes to write with pen and brush. It was thin, to spread evenly using the technology of the day. Gutenberg’s workshop had to make a new ink. A thick, lamp-black oil paste that stuck to the metal letters and transferred beautifully to the paper or vellum (printers reading this can hear the sound it makes when the letters pull free from the sheet, that sticky moist rip; that sound is heaven).

Most importantly, and often overlooked4 is the form of the typography itself. At this time, there were no letters that we would call "lower-case" (a term derived later, from the printing industry that these men helped create). The small letterforms we accept today as ubiquitous to western literacy as leaves or grass are to nature were derived from uncial forms scribes developed. Upper-case Roman lettering was taken from the great inscribed letters from Ancient Rome. Marrying them together was a later invention.

So in Gutenberg’s workshop, what form do you pick for the letters which will be reproduced time and again? Christie wisely assigns this to Schoeffer, who quite possibly was in charge, having been trained as a scribe. He picks the blackletter common of the day, a variant called textura. In one scene, they pull a proof set with some newly designed type:

"Fiat imprimere!" the master cried, and they hauled back the bed. Peter opened up the wooden frame. Carefully he peeled off the sheet, as the others stepped back to a respectful distance.

A power surged out of those words, a strength that even Peter had not pictured. The ink was as black as heaven’s vault, the letters sharp and gripping. They wove into a trellis just as Pliny said all lines must do, to hold the meaning of the text like wires among the vines. The Word is as a fruit, he thought; the vineyard of the text is thickly twined. He started, transfixed. In their austerity and density, the letters made a page of extraordinary beauty. His letters — his! — the very lines he’d drawn and carved, now lay proudly, blackly, making words up on the page. He felt his insides quicken with the thrill of it — and then a kind of falling.

Gutenberg was fairly hopping just behind him. Peter felt his energy and eagerness, and from the corner of his eye he saw him reaching. Peter held the page out to him, his fingers grazing the deep bite of the words had taken in it.

"By God!" The master’s face was open, softened, every trace of sharpness gone. "A scribe, my eye! A bloody carving genius, more like! From here on out you sculpt my types."

The beating heart of a startup is the discovery of how you make your product. The blood flow may be the money, and muscle may be the tools and methods, but the heart is what you try and fail at, until you find the way to clear success. This was true for Gutenberg, and it was true for Apple, or Twitter, or Facebook, or Tesla.

This, Christie understands. This is the narrative of failure breeding success. This is the story of men so driven to that goal, that everything else — including, sometimes, humanity — falls away.

There are few missteps in Christie’s narrative. The most egregious to my eye was this passage:

"I’ll keep my eye in here and there. Somebody has to go ahead, though — sweep the track."

The master looked at him and, not unkindly, laughed. "It’s running now with decent speed, correct?" he asked. Peter nodded.

It uses idioms of the machine age — specifically, train travel, with the "sweep the track", and "running now with decent speed" — which, of course, would come four-hundred years after the book is set.

This abnormal slip in a closely controlled, and well-edited, narrative is so the much more conspicuous in the absence of other similar trips.

Christie keeps us tight in the period with a verisimilitude uncommon in modern historical fiction, which often trades convenience of understanding for authenticity. Not here. The parlance of the language, the politics of the day, and even the gender relations (hint: women are not helpless, although certainly powerless. They are partners and friends, and fully realized characters, albeit lesser in scope than our main trinity) contribute greatly to understanding the world in which these characters lived.

The fifteenth century in Germany — in Europe — was volatile. A place of political uprising, with all power resting in the hands of the church, some sixty years before Martin Luther came knocking. The burgher class, merchants and guilds, took whatever fiefdom they could, and moved trade within any narrow channel opened to them, Through this, they controlled the flow of guilders that the church either ignored for grander wealth such as property, or allowed to move for its own convenience (and benefit).

Johann Fust was from this class. A tradesman trained in goldsmithing, as was his brother, who in Mainz was also a goldsmith and burgermeister (and, as the book has it, head of the metal smithing guilds).

Gutenberg, from a patrician family, has all the hallmarks of the uneasy rich. From privilege, he used wealth only as a means-to-an end. He was a metal smith — we can speculate how he came to know Fust — but for whatever reason, Gutenberg needed capital to invest in development of his new invention, and Fust was willing, even borrowing money to lend to the undertaking.

This as the church looms large, as Constantinople is seized by the Ottomans, as the power of Rome ebbs and flows. Each of these men have their own relationships to maintain, and their own homages to pay. Then, we have the drives of these men, as they clash and maneuver each other over the head of our hero, Schoeffer.

Ah yes. Schoeffer.

We know that the real Schoeffer married Fust’s daughter. Often, this is used to explain why he "betrayed" Gutenberg. The logic going: he was promised the bride in return for allegiance. Christie wisely sidesteps this canard, which feels too convenient, and therefore, not human enough.5

Instead, Christie invents another love interest for Schoeffer, an illustrator and artist, who she can use to illustrate how the invention of printing may have been viewed at the time. At one point, Schoeffer shows a piece of printing, and she shocks him when she doesn’t see the artistry in the mechanical nature of what he has helped create:

"He did this." Suddenly she whirled and advanced on him. "He did it, didn’t he? They say he is a hard and angry man." She fingered the slim grammar Peter still held open, looked an instant at it, pushed the thing away.

"We did it, all of us."

"Then it is truly some dark evil that has overcome you." Anna crossed herself. And then she looked at him, her dark eyes narrow and her voice high. "Where are your hands? Your eyes? I though we shared that touch, at least. Yet now you worship all that’s hard and cold and dark." She shook her head. "As if the Lord could live inside a hunk of metal."

But Schoeffer found just the opposite:

It was that unknown, fear-filled world of letters: magic, potent in their strangeness and their power. But Peter saw it otherwise. The weak — corrupted, lacking faith — must be punished.

Let others quake and mewl. He understood at last the Lord’s design. He bowed himself, a tempered thing passed through the fire, a hardened tool at God’s command.

Gutenberg scholars argue over Schoeffer. He is often cast in a notorious light, as someone who betrayed his master. Gutenberg biographer John Man, in his wonderful Gutenberg: how one man remade the world with words, says that people coming across Schoeffer would have been "well advised to admire his talent and watch their backs."

I think I prefer Christie’s version. She is not one to build artificial emotional narratives. She sees the humanity and the struggle in all three of these men. One need not be a demon for the other to be an angel. There is no tri-point scale for their souls and righteousness to be weighed against the others. To see their book is to witness their drive; why cast our soap operas on them, when a tale such as Christie’s suits the facts just as well?

Back to the Library of Congress: why should my friend at the Library of Congress trick those kids into thinking about a Bible that is more than twice as old as the country they live in, and older even than the religion that many of them, statistically speaking, follow?

In this book — and in this book about that book — is the pattern laid bare. We like to say on SRoB that a book review is the only type of review done in the method of the thing it is reviewing. This is true, but if we allow a little poetic license, we can imagine that every car design is a comment on every previous car design. Every song is certainly a comment on the songs that came before. We have a language of creation in our culture. We have a method by which we teach those who want to create.

Part of that language of creation is invention. The method is taught only by walking through it. Nothing comes made whole and perfect. People make it. People design it, create it, forge the methods by which we create. Silicon Valley would have you think that it alone owns this process, and that the end goal is the wealth it creates.

But this process is part-and-parcel of being human. It is tool-making, whether the tool is the hammer or the pistol. It is the designer, the creator, who assigns morality to her tools by choosing what creation to undertake. She has to convince herself first her tool is worth building, and then she has to convince the world. Perhaps, the world will reward her.

Gutenberg, Fust, and Schoeffer are the prototype for the modern expression of this human idea. They built the machine that made the self-replicating machines. Their invention begat literacy, humanity, and every book that has stolen your heart, or iced your blood.

This trinity is the model, and you make the method. One of those kids, perhaps, might do it, once they get a little curious about what that old book at the Library of Congress was really about. Once they do a little research on their own. Once they find a way that they could do something that might help the world. Maybe they’ll read Christie’s book and understand these three men better. Maybe they’ll hope that somebody will write about them 500 years hence. Let us hope they set their efforts so high. Let us hope in their failures they never settle for something lesser. Let us hope their goals aspire higher even than the rewards they reap.

El-oh-el, indeed.

  1. Unless you count his later Mainz Psalter, which Schoeffer printed after the bible, and which many consider finer.

  2. I’ve seen five Bibles in person. 1. Bienecke Library at Yale. 2 & 3. Both British Library copies, when they used to display them together in the old reading room. 4. The Huntington Library, in Pasadena. 5. The Library of Congress.

  3. As with many parts of this story, recent scholars dispute this, and assert that Gutenberg used sand casting to make his type. Christie suggests that he started with sand casting, and moved on to other methods.

  4. I wrote about this in a McSweeneys column some years ago.

  5. I’ve always felt, instead, there should be a grand opera made from this as a romance from her point-of-view, where the young genius who works for her father (and is, creepily, her step-brother) becomes her paramour. In the real world, Schoeffer only married her after his adopted father died.

Books in this review:
  • Gutenberg's Apprentice
    by Alix Christie
    September 23, 2014
    416 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Gutenberg's Apprentice (paperback)
    by Alix Christie
    Harper Perennial
    September 07, 2015
    432 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Gutenberg
    by John Man
    John Wiley & Sons Incorporated
    undefined NaN, NaN
    320 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.

Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox

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