You are reading Typologia, by Frederick W. Goudy

II: Books Before Printing

BOOKS are wells of living water,... golden urns in which manna is laid up, or rather, indeed, honeycombs ; udders most copiously yielding the milk of life ; storerooms ever full." So sings Richard Aungervyle, Bishop of Durham [usually called Richard de Bury, born in 1281 at Bury St. Edmunds], who possessed, for his time, the largest and best library in England. His books were not productions of the printing press, as printing was as yet unborn ; they were the work of scribes, mostly monks and ecclesiastics. These scribes comprised antiquarii, librarii, and miniatores, although sometimes all of the different functions might be exercised by one person. Of them, the antiquarii ranked highest, their work including the restoration and revision of faulty texts ; next were the librarii, who were copyists merely, but skilled in the use of the pen ; and last were the illuminators, who contributed only to the decoration of the pages. What De Bury said of books suggests that maybe the Dark Age" in which he lived was not quite so dark as we have been accustomed to think it.

Since the first types were probably based upon the written forms of letters, if indeed they were not actual imitations of them, our study of the steps leading to the invention of printing may well begin with some reference to the hand-drawn letters of the books which preceded printing. It is regrettable, however, that the very first types should have been founded on the Gothic medieval minuscule of Germany, a hand that stood apart from the writings of other countries and never attained the beauty of other national hands. In Italy the refined taste which had produced a more beautiful standard of writing than elsewhere, and had brought it to a high degree of perfection before the end of the fifteenth century, supplied the fine models adopted by the early Italian printers for their types, a taste which without doubt contributed much toward the quality of work that secured firmly the printing supremacy for Italy. German type printing, although the first known, was almost immediately surpassed in Italy, the home of scholarship, and it was Italy that exerted the first great influence on the new art.

Of course, Gutenberg, the probable inventor of printing from movable types, was more familiar with the handwritten books of his own time and country than with those of other countries, and it is possible that his taste in such matters may not have been sufficiently developed to suggest that search might disclose better models than those immediately at his hand. Although the first movable types were an evolution of the letters of the scribes, printing itself was the immediate outcome of the work of the engraver on wood, a craft entirely separate and distinct from that of the scribes.

That we may more readily understand the influences that actually brought about Gutenberg's practical application of movable types, we should also consider briefly the conditions and tendencies of the century that preceded him. Before the invention of movable types, books were, for the most part, in the hands of the rich, who disliked the thought that possession of them might become common. They were lovers of literature also, and believed that to place these precious things in cheapened form was sacrilege; dangerous too) as science and literature in the hands of the common people might lead to argument and to individual thinking, which in turn might foster intellectual development and self-reliance dangerous to established authority. But this attempt to withhold information proved two-edged and brought about the destruction of "copes, vestments, albes, missals, books, crosses and such idolatrous and superstitious monuments" of the Church, as well as the destruction of the very books which the royal commissioners under Elizabeth wished kept from the common herd.

The fierce conflict we now speak of as the Reformation practically constitutes the history of England for more than two centuries and is exactly reflected in the rude censorship of fire that was applied to literature there and on the Continent for a period of nearly three hundred years. Religious antagonism, military barbarism, and unthinking ignorance brought whole libraries to the flames, and oftener by design than by accident. Yet fire, wars, plunder, and suppression could not destroy the desire for learning, nor could wanton destruction at the hands of the ignorant stay the desire for learning or the acquisition of books. The Revival of Learning, that mighty intellectual movement in Western Europe which marked the close of the fifteenth century, was not confined to France; in Italy and England also the rich and cultured were busy collecting books and employing scribes to make new ones.

Clerics like Alcuin of York had exercised a tremendous influence and stimulated in the great monasteries a degree of activity in all branches of letters, comparable only to the stimulus that the universities had received from the Fratres Minores in the thirteenth century, but had not paralleled until the Revival of Learning. It was the Church alone that had encouraged the making of manuscript books, sluggishly perhaps, but nevertheless sufficiently to make ready for the mental activity which increased rapidly in the fourteenth century, and which was, a little later, to demand even more books than the scribes could furnish. The demand for more speed and accuracy than the scribes could provide made some means of more rapid production necessary, and brought about printing--first, the printing of engraved block books, and later, books printed on the newly invented movable types.

The Revival of Learning was inevitable ; in the fourteenth century private libraries had begun to increase in size and number, and the collection of books was no longer monopolized by monks and priests. It was then that the meager collection, some say of only twenty volumes, gathered by King John of France for the Royal Library formed the foundation of the great Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris, increased later by Charles V, the son of John, to nine hundred volumes. The Duke of Urbino's library was distinguished for its completeness. All obtainable works were contained in it, each in perfect state ; it is recorded that he employed thirty-four transcribers for the duplication of those books that were unavailable by purchase or otherwise. Wealthy patrons gave still greater encouragement to the writers and illuminators and ordered the classics, until then under the ban of the Church, in such numbers that writing reached a high--in fact its highest--state of perfection. With the spread of learning the necessity for books in greater number was apparent. As a first step to increased production printing came--not printing of pages of text in movable types, but the printing of engraved blocks of illustrations to supplement the work of the scribes.

In the John Rylands Library [formerly in the collection of the Earl of Spencer] is a curious print from a wood-block, which represents St. Christopher carrying the infant Jesus This print, discovered pasted in the cover of a medieval manuscript, is possibly the earliest about which there is no doubt concerning the date of production. It came but a few years before the more important idea was conceived that engraved illustrations might be printed in books before the descriptive text was written in.

The Latin legend as translated is "On whatever day you look upon the
face of Christopher, on that day shall you surely not die an evil death."

St. Christopher. Earliest Dated Woodcut. 1423

The common people, denied the Scriptures, too poor to buy manuscript books, too ignorant perhaps even to read them, turned to the prints that were within their reach and understanding for the emblems that represented the visible symbols of their faith. A favorite subject for the engraver in those days was the Dance of Death. To the ignorant these fearful pictures gave complete evidence of the impartiality of the King of Terrors, who drags from their places noble, protesting priest, rich man, or beggar--irony even within the appreciation of the illiterate.

From Holbein's "Dance of Death"

The Abbot, from Holbein's

From prints of pictures to blocks which occasionally bore engraved lettering with the illustrations was a natural step. A manuscript writer, usually a mere copyist and skilled of course in the making of letters, was not necessarily competent to copy illustrations accurately. To cover his lack of skill in this regard, blocks of wood were engraved by one making engraving his concern, and these could be printed, the illustrations being thus adequately reproduced in every copy. Although it was expedient to go so far, it was still impracticable to attempt the engraving of many lines of text. The new-found ability to print blocks, including occasional lines of text, did, however, suggest the possibility of some quicker method of duplicating the text as well as the pictures. In spite of the time required to engrave whole pages of text, it was occasionally attempted and numbers of books were issued, mostly of a religious character, in which both the text and the illustrations were engraved. These books were made for priests, mostly illiterate, who found the pictures an aid to the memory and suggestive of texts for their preaching. At the same time they were not too high priced for the people [even though they were unable to read them, the Church would not allow books to be put in their hands]. These block books may be classified as' 'Books of Images without "Text" and "Books of Images with Text," to which may be added the Donatuses, or "Books of Text without Pictures."

["The Antichrist"], circa 1450

Page from German Block Book

These xylographic productions, called block books, of which prints like the St. Christopher referred to above were the forerunners, were intended principally for persons whose education was inadequate for the study of the classics. The Bibjia Pauperum, or Bible of the Poor, is one of the earliest and is typical of the books immediately preceding type printing. It was cheap and designed for those who could not afford the high prices demanded for manuscript books and who probably could not even have read them. It was not, primarily, a book for reading, but a book to be looked at, as the text was subordinate to the pictures, which, no matter how crude, were understood by the most illiterate. This book was printed on paper that was good enough for the purpose and cheaper than vellum; the print was on one side of the leaves, two pages from one block, each two printed pages when folded and arranged in sequence facing each other and followed by two blank pages.

The Bible of the Poor was misnamed, as it was not intended for the laity, but rather for the use of the preachers. It presented a series of skeleton sermons ornamented with woodcut illustrations to exercise an illiterate preacher's imagination, and suggesting texts to assist his memory. It consisted of forty leaves of small folio, each presenting a picture with extracts from the Scriptures or other illustrative sentences.

Another remarkable block book is called Speculum Salutis, sometimes Speculum Humanae Salvationis, or Mirror of Man's Salvation, in which the engraved explanations are much fuller than in the Biblia Pauperum. As a manuscript it was popular for two centuries before the invention of typography, and was written for the instruction of mendicant friars. Two Latin editions of the Speculum are extant, both without dates, but the illustrations in both are printed from the same blocks. In the one supposed to be the older, the text of twenty-five of the pages is printed from engraved blocks, but the remaining thirty-eight pages with five pages of preface are printed entirely from movable metal types. In the other edition, all the explanatory text is from types exactly resembling those used in the earlier edition.


Upper part of First Pictorial Page,

There are fifteen celebrated block books. Some of the others are Ars Moriendi [Art of Dying], Canticum Canticorum [Song of Solomon], Mirabilia Romae [Wonders of Rome], but descriptions of these are not here necessary. -footnote 2-

There is in the Print Room of the British Museum a curious little book, four by six inches in size, in which nearly all the letters of the alphabet are formed by the grotesque figures of men. In it the page for the letter L shows a young man leaning on a sword, on the blade of which is clearly written the word "London," leading some writers to believe that the work was probably done in England [the exact date of its execution is not known], although the art of engraving in that country was in a very low state at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the probable time. But the engravings in this curious example are much better designed and executed than in other block books of the same period.


Grotesque Initial

The only block book without pictures is the Donatus, or Boys' Latin Grammar, named for its author, AElius Donatus, a learned Roman of the fourth century who was an instructor of St. Jerome. In the Cologne Chronicle, 1499, it is stated that "the art of printing, as has been said, was discovered at Mainz, in the manner as it is now generally used, yet the first prefiguration was found in Holland, in the Donatuses which were printed there before that time. And from these Donatuses the beginning of the art was taken."

The literary quality of these block books was slight and the mechanical execution of the printing contemptible. Readers familiar with the beautiful manuscript books of vellum, written in characters that to this day preserve their color, sharpness, and legibility, rated these printed efforts as "literary rubbish," and the printers of them received little or no encouragement from scholars or wealthy patrons.

The multiplication of single sheets on which the block illustrations and text appeared could, moreover, serve only a temporary purpose, and thereby constitute but the steppingstone, as it were, to the invention of movable types, which are the very essence of typography. The first person, then, to whom the idea came that the text or legends of the engraved blocks might be composed from separate engraved letters capable of rearrangement after each use for other texts or legends, fixed the principles of the new art about to be born. From the successful execution of a few words or lines, it was easy to extend the principle to whole pages, and except for the solving of mechanical details the invention itself was accomplished.


Fragment of a Xylographic Donatus

But even yet the world was hardly ready for the invention, as the expense of printing a small number of books was too great and the readers too few, although already too many for the scribes to supply quickly. Printing is cheap only when produced in quantity. For a time, handwritten and illuminated books were even cheaper than those printed from wood blocks. Nevertheless, the idea had been conceived and its fulfillment could not be long delayed; whether by Coster, or Gutenberg, or another, the invention itself was sooner or later inevitable.

"Without the humble Donatuses of Haarlem," says Blades, "we should never have had the wonderful Bible of thirty-six lines; and without the persevering and fruitful efforts of Gutenberg during the ten years from 1440 to 1450, mankind would never have been blessed with that art which his creative genius has raised to a perfection which leaves far behind the first and necessarily imperfect attempts of Koster. In a word: Koster gave us Gutenberg, and Gutenberg has given us Typography."

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