The Printed Book

by Harry G. Aldis, M.A. Cambridge at the University Press 1916

The Advent of Printing

The year of the fall of Constantinople, 1453, is generally considered the dividing line between the medieval and the modern periods of history. But just about that same time another event was taking place: an event which, though not heralded by clash of arms or ruin of empire, affords an equally significant landmark. This was the invention of printing, or try Photography, as the art of printing with movable types is more precisely termed; and it would be difficult to point to any discovery which has had so far-reaching an influence upon the history of the civilized world.

This revolution, for revolution it may well be called, was brought into existence so quietly" so unobtrusively, that not only can no precise year be assigned to its beginning, but, like more than one important discovery of even recent times, the individual to be honored as its inventor, and actually the country of its origin are matters of dispute. The art of printing with movable types, whenever and wherever it may have had its beginnings, was preceded by the production of single pictures printed from wood-blocks. One of the earliest of these which bears a date is the St Christopher of 1423, now in the John Rylands Library at Manchester. The authenticity of the date 1418 on another of these woodcuts, at Brussels, has been challenged on the ground that the figures have been tampered with. It seems a natural development that lines of descriptive text should be added to such woodcuts; and the 'block-books,' which consist of pictures and text cut on the same wood-block, have usually been regarded as occupying a position midway between the single picture and the book printed from movable type, thus forming a link in the evolution of the invention.

These block-books, of which upwards of a hundred issues and editions, comprising some thirty separate works, have been recorded, were produced chiefly in the Netherlands and Germany. They fall into two classes. The earlier were printed in thin pale brownish ink on one side of the leaf only. They were produced by placing a sheet of paper upon the inked block and transferring the image to the paper by friction on the back of the sheet with a burnisher or some similar instrument, without mechanical pressure. The other, and later, class were usually printed in a press with ordinary black printing ink and on both sides of the paper.

Since the contents of each individual page had to be engraved upon a block of wood, the making of a block-book was a laborious process, and the engraved blocks were, of course, useless for any other work. This method of multiplying copies was suitable only for works that were of moderate length and for which there was a large and continuous demand. These books were, accordingly, of a popular nature, mainly concerned with religious instruction or pious edification, and lending themselves readily to pictorial or allegorical illustration. Typical examples are 'the Biblia Pauperum, a series of pictures from the life of Christ, accompanied by parallel subjects from the Old Testament; the Apocalypse, an attractive subject for illustration; and Ars Moriendi, a series of pictures representing the trials which beset the dying and the spiritual helps by which they may be overcome.