The Printed Book

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

The Advent of Printing Part 2

The interesting question concerning these xylographic books is, do they, in point of time, really stand between the single woodcut pictures and the earliest books printed with movable type and so constitute a stage in the inception of the typographic art 1 At present no evidence is forthcoming which definitely connects any of them with a date earlier than that associated with the first printed books. The enquirer may, therefore, according to his bias, either consider them as steps towards the invention, or place them side by side with the earliest offspring of the printing press. While this method of reproduction was fairly convenient for the class of book for which it was used, it was quite inadequate to the cheap and speedy multiplication of those books which the revival of literature and learning was demanding. It is possible that this demand had as much influence upon the birth of the art which was to meet it, as the invention itself had in fostering and increasing the demand. .The immense superiority of typography over xylography lay in the fact that while the xylographic blocks could be used only for the particular work for which they had been cut, the movable type, being composed of separate letters, could be used over and over again for any book, with corresponding economy both in time and in material. It was an epoch-making difference.

The actual facts as to when, where, and by whom printing with movable types was first invented are, except, perhaps, to a few partisan writers, veiled in obscurity; the sands of time have almost obliterated the first early steps. The relative claims of Germany, Holland, and even France, to priority have been advanced and upheld with much zeal, edged occasionally with more than a touch of acrimony. The faint light shed by contemporary record is little better than a will-o' -'the-wisp, and affords much room for ingenious argument and special pleading. The references to the subject found in books before the end of the fifteenth century r agree generally in attributing the invention to Johann Gutenberg of Mainz, but some of them are obviously inaccurate in detail.

What is termed the 'Haarlem legend,' which attributes the discovery to Laurens Janszoon Coster of Haarlem about the year 1440, does not emerge until the second half of the sixteenth century; but it receives a certain amount of support from the story of the invention as related, on the authority of Ulrich Zell, the printer, in the Oologne Ohronicle printed in 1499. This account says that the art was first invented at Mainz about 1440; that for the next ten years it was being investigated; and that in 1450 men began to print. But it goes on to say that 'Although this art was invented at Mainz as far as regards the manner in which it is now commonly used, yet the first prefiguration (Vurbyldung) was invented in Holland from the Donatuses which were printed there before that time. The Donatus here spoken of is the De octo partibus orationis of Aelius Donatus, the fourth-century1 A. W. Pollard: Fine Book8 (1912), pp. 34 II., where the passage is printed in full.