Book Review: Gutenberg’s Apprentice
Alix Christie, Gutenberg’s Apprentice. Headline Review, London, 2015 (Pbk)
Gutenberg’s Apprentice tells the story of the creation of the Gutenberg Bible through the eyes of Peter Schöffer (or Schoeffer instead of the Umlaut). Peter was the apprentice of Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden, called Gutenberg. Though the narrative takes place in the 1450’s, there are short chapters in between, where Peter is talking to abbot Trithemius of Sponheim Abbey 30 years after the Bible was printed, between September 1484 and March 1486. With the distance of time and Trithemius’ remarks, they allow Peter (and the reader) to reflect on what had happened.
The story of Gutenberg’s Apprentice begins in September 1450, when Peter is returning to Mainz from Paris, where he was working as a scribe at the Sorbonne, “the apex of the world” as he sees it. He loves this job and envisages good prospects. Therefore he is not too happy when a letter from his foster father Johann Fust arrives calling him back to Mainz. “‘I was twenty-five the year my father called me home.’ So it began.” This letter was to become the turning point of his life.
Johann Fust is the financial backer of Johannes Gutenberg and wants Peter to work in the printer’s workshop to keep an eye on his investment. Peter’s first reaction, when told about Gutenberg’s invention, is one of extreme shock and antagonism. This is “A blasphemy more like, or just some shoddy trick.” [p.18]
His first impression of the workshop does not improve things. It is described in terms which make the reader think of hell: “A searing darkness, stoked by fire, a throbbing clatter”, “a smoke … foul and … astringent” [pp.22-33]. When he sees the “dully gleaming” letters, “He felt a dizziness, as if the ground had dropped away. Noise battered at his ears: he heard the furnace roar, the crude press crash, as if to rend in two the very fabric of the world”. [p.25] Entering into his apprenticeship was “as if he’d been inducted, blindfolded, into some black and cabbalistic brotherhood.” [p.29] His reaction is later on mirrored by that of his girlfriend Anna, who says that by printing he denies “the very gifts He gave us”. [p.206]
Over the next two years, Peter’s disgust lessens as he learns the process, and his relationship with the men he is working with grows closer, though Gutenberg himself remains apart and comes across as rather erratic. Peter’s view of the process changes when he sets and prints his first proof, about a year after arriving in Mainz.
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 a fruit, he thought: the vineyard of the text is thickly twined. He stared, transfixed. In their austerity and density, the letters made a page of extraordinary beauty. [p.101]
That was the moment it all changed. … This was the spark, the breeze that entered him – the understanding, too, that all the ways he knew were coming to an end. None of the arts he’d learned could remain unchanged. None of the ways of his fathers and their fathers, the familiar rhythms of their lives, would be the same. The genie was released from the bottle. Ars impressoria, known ever after as the ars divin. [p.102]
The reader shares the partners’ efforts in securing a commission from the archbishop of Mainz, and their disappointment, when after keeping them in limbo for months, he eventually lets them down. Out of frustration with the Church, they decide to print “Something over which no church or prince can exercise control” [p.123] – the Bible.
In the process of producing the first printed book, Peter adds improvements to the basic printing technique. There are aesthetic improvements, based on his training as a scribe: a different font, devising a way of making the text justified and being able to print the first line of a new chapter in a different colour, as scribes do. On a more technical level, he also suggests a different way of casting letters, which is not only faster, but also produces crisp and clean letters, “a new technique that would transform their work, which printers everywhere would use”. [p.208]
The change in Peter’s attitude is complete, when on 30 August 1452, they began printing the Bible. Then he “fell in love with the whole motion” and instead of a kind of hell, he now sees “The master’s ink was black as the night before Creation”. [p.170]
Peter knew those days were incandescent, without rival. There was a bursting in him – a heady sense of strength, that wondrous feeling of pure rightness that does shine in every life for some brief time. [p.170]
He comes to realise that printing is a gift from God.
If copying a manuscript was prayer, then this was shouting the psalms from every rooftop. It grew in him with every passing day, this feeling of abashedness and wonder. Why hast Thou, Lord, put such a gift in these poor hands? [p.171]
The reader shares Peter’s sense of euphoria at this moment. Though it soon dissolves among the worries that come with such a huge project and the huge expenses associated with pulling it off. The need for returns on their investment, or rather Johann Fust’s investment, drives them on.
However, they don’t work in isolation and there are a variety of events and circumstances which force them to work in the way they do. Local politics in Mainz continue to play a role all through the book. Not only does Gutenberg’s team have to keep their new technique secret from possible competitors and the prying eyes of an all-powerful Church, they also have to steer clear of the continuous quarrel for control between the archbishop and the Mainz elders on the one side and the merchants on the other. Mixed into this are the differing views within the Church, from traditionalists to reformers.
In addition, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans (on 29 May 1453) sends shockwaves through Europe.
The beggars squatting in the shadows threw their rags over their heads and started wailing. Women screamed; men blanched. And then there was a dreadful silence, punctuated only by the throbbing of the bells. [pp.215-16]
Soon after the fall of Constantinople, Gutenberg makes Peter the foreman of the Bible printing project, while he wants to do other things, though he does not share what he has in mind. Eventually, cheap indulgences come to Peter’s attention, printed with their first letters (they use a more advanced set for the Bible) and in German. As they had hoped that the Church authorities had forgotten about them and they could produce their Bible in secret without interference, printing these indulgences feels to Peter like a betrayal by Gutenberg. It endangers the whole enterprise.
Discovery was death, the end. … It hardly mattered whether [the Church authorities] discovered that extensive workshop underneath their noses. It hardly mattered whether they conceived the press as heresy or boon. They might perceive it as thing that they could seize and use, or else they’d see it as a threat to the scriptoria whose proceeds kept the landed cloisters fat and ripe for skimming. [p.260]
Peter is proven right in his fear. One day, the archbishop’s men come to search the workshop. Fortunately, the team was warned and able to hide the parts of the Bible they had already printed and instead tell the search party that they are making a new psalter for the Pope (obviously a higher authority than an archbishop).
Eventually, on 22 August 1454, after 2 years of work, the printing of 180 copies of the Bible in two volumes is finished.
Each double set of books weighed nearly a stone: what beasts indeed, thought Peter, looking at each massive pile. Twelve hundred and eighty-six imprinted pages: from the doorway of the shop they looked like giant loaves. [p.350]
They take them to the autumn fair in Frankfurt, where they sell “like wildfire. Buyers came that whole first week, who then told other buyers.” [p.370] Shortly afterwards, there was a Reichstag in Frankfurt, where the Kaiser’s envoy, who was later to become pope, saw their book and ordered copies for the Kaiser to inspect.
In spite of these good results, the fair ends with a final falling out between Gutenberg and Fust about finances, with Peter is caught between the two sides. This was the end of their partnership, and though it feels to Peter as if “there was a rip in the fabric of the world” [p.379], it also sets him free to be his own man. He was “Gutenberg’s apprentice, then his journeyman and foreman, finally his equal.” [p.379]
The partnership ends in a court of law, with Fust filing a lawsuit, which Gutenberg does not contest. Peter goes on to build his own printing business, and at the end in reflection with abbot Trithemius he is able to overcome the feeling of hurt, which he had carried towards Gutenberg all these years.
‘My wander years,’ the printer says. Emotion fills his chest. He looks away towards the bright fresh world outside. ‘He taught me what he knew,’ he says, feeling a tremendous love and sorrow rising through his body, leaving him at last. ‘And then he let me go.’ [p.382]
As you can probably guess from the many quotes above, I enjoyed Gutenberg’s Apprentice tremendously. I have to admit, I was a bit apprehensive when I read early on how the family sits down for dinner in Mainz in the year 1450, eating roast lamb with potatoes [p.13] However, my fears where soon dispelled. Alix Christie, a printer herself, has evidently studied her subject in depth and has succeeded in bringing this invention, which has been ranked as mankind’s most important invention since the wheel, to life.
I am glad that I read Gutenberg’s Apprentice as a print book, not an e-book. This enables the reader of today to feel the miracle of the printed word, which Gutenberg, Peter and the others experienced in the 1450s.
As with all good novels, it encourages me to want to find out more about the characters in the book and their invention. I visited the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz once, ages ago, and have long thought that I would like to visit it again. Now I will definitely do so, when I get a chance to go back to Germany.
Having read a lot about the 1450s from an English point of view, I found it interesting to realise the huge impact the fall of Constantinople had in the Holy Roman Empire. Perhaps the English at the time were too involved with their waning fortunes in France and the political instability which led to the “Wars of the Roses”. However, Richard III’s remark to Nicholas von Popplau indicates that there was concern about this event as well.
I would like my kingdom and land to lie where the land and kingdom of the king of Hungary lies, on the Turkish frontier itself. Then I would certainly, with my own people alone, without the help of other kings, princes or lords, properly drive away not only the Turks, but all my enemies and opponent. [quoted in: Livia Visser-Fuchs, ‘He hardly touched his food, but talked with me all the time: What Niclas von Popplau really wrote about Richard III’, The Ricardian, Vol.XI, No.145 (June 1999), p.528]