Books: Gutenberg’s Apprentice

I have enjoyed several works of historical fiction lately, so when I was looking for a book recently at the library, and had no author or series in mind, I decided to just look for historical fiction. It’s easy to find books belonging to other genres, such as science fiction and mystery, because the spines of the books are marked with little stickers showing a spaceship or a question mark. (In the same manner, it’s easy to skip over the books marked with hearts or cowboy boots because I’m not interested in romances or westerns.)

But there’s no sticker for historical fiction. (What would one look like, anyway?) So I just walked along, running my eye over book titles, waiting for something to catch my eye. And what caught my eye was Gutenberg’s Apprentice. Now there’s a piece of history I knew little about. We learned in history class about the significance of Gutenberg’s development of movable type, and in Junior Achievement classes I have helped students get an idea of the huge gains in productivity that resulted. But I knew next to nothing about how the invention of the printing press actually came about.

Since this is historical fiction, I still don’t know how much of the fascinating story I just read is fact and how much comes from the writer’s imagination. Certainly it is incredibly detailed regarding the craft of creating books, as well as fifteenth century life in general, and I am confident that Christie based her writing on careful research of the period. Historical notes at the end tell about the role that a number of men played in the early history of printing books, and while they may not all have been so closely associated with Guternberg as depicted in the novel, it certainly would explain their being at the forefront of the new publishing industry.

Most of the characters are not well-developed, but I scarcely noticed that because I was so absorbed in Peter Schoeffer’s story. I felt his anger at his father, his desire to make his own choices regarding career and marriage, his growing excitement at the new thing they were doing in Gutenberg’s workshop, his resentment of how Gutenberg treated him, and his realization of how his own pride was hurting himself as well as others.

I’m not sure just how well the suspense carries the reader through a fairly long and not exactly rapid-paced story, since most people who read historical fiction probably know that Gutenberg did print the Bible. However much Christie tries to make it seem that the end result of the grand project is in doubt, I know that one way or another it has to succeed, because it did. The book I’m holding in my hands as I read, despite the incredible advances in technology in the past five centuries, owes its existence to a large extent to the invention of the printing press.

Someone other than Gutenberg could have made it, of course. But considering the obstacles faced by Gutenberg and his partner, Johann Fust, perhaps it took someone as obstinate and fanatical as the Gutenberg described by Christie. I had never imagined it could be so time-consuming to produce a book, even one as lengthy as the Bible. Even the people who worked on it thought initially it would take months, not years.

I had not thought of the need for secrecy, to keep someone else from copying the technique before Gutenberg could make a good profit from being the first to mass-produce books. Or, a greater danger, that church leaders might simply confiscate Gutenberg’s press, either to use it themselves and be the ones to make a profit, or to destroy it as an instrument of Satan.

Printed materials are so much a part of our society that it’s hard to imagine the reaction of people seeing them for the first time. I’ve read about tribes in remote parts of the world seeing books for the first time, and their amazement at how words can be captured on paper. But Europe in the fifteenth century was well-acquainted with books; it was just that all their books were handwritten. I can understand that scribes might be upset at the prospect of being displaced by a machine, just as people are today when their work is given to computers.

But the reaction of horror and disgust wasn’t limited to scribes, and the reason for it surprised me. It was unnatural, people felt, to see two (or more) perfectly identical copies of the same book. Handwritten books, even those produced by the same hand, inevitably showed some small differences. This was normal and expected. To see a page duplicated in all particulars provoked a response perhaps similar to what many people feel today at the thought of cloning human beings.

This was particularly the case when it came to printing the Bible. In the novel, Gutenberg chooses the Bible because its text is public domain, and does not depend on getting a commission to produce some particular work. But the Bible is also considered the very Word of God, and suitable to be written out by men who are made in the image of God, not by soulless machines. I don’t know if people actually reacted that way as they did in this novel, but I have read that the press seemed magical in its ability to produce identical copies, and magic of course was seen as Satanic in origin.

Another very interesting aspect of the novel is the depiction of politics and the economy. They are intertwined, as they always are, because people use power to get money and money to get power. Christie describes issues related to trade, taxes, corruption in the Church, and how this affects the lives of ordinary people. These economic issues are not just background but central to the plot, because producing a book that takes years to complete takes a great deal of money. And money is behind a great deal of the conflict between different characters.

It’s not exactly a page-turner. But for someone with an interest in books and in history, especially as it relates to the church and faith, this is an intriguing look into what it might have been like to be in on the development of such a significant invention.


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