This page documents the evolution of printing and publishing during the fifteenth century. The main event from this era is Gutenberg’s invention of a printing press that works with movable type.
Books are still rare since they need to be laboriously handwritten by scribes. The University of Cambridge has one of the largest libraries in Europe – constituting of just 122 books.
Even though woodcut is already used for printing on cloth for over a century, the first European woodcut printing on paper happens in the early 15th century. It is used for printing religious images and playing cards. Woodcut is a relief printing technique in which text and images are carved into the surface of a block of wood. The printing parts remain level with the surface while the non-printing parts are removed, typically with a knife or chisel. The wood block is then inked and the substrate pressed against the wood block. The ink is made of lampblack (soot from oil lamps) mixed with varnish or boiled linseed oil. This printing technique is also called block printing. The first block books are produced in Germany and Holland around 1430.
Gutenberg begins work on a printing press. It takes him 4 years to finish his wooden press which uses movable metal type. The image below shows a press from that era. It uses relief printing: at the bottom left a frame holds the columns of text that get printed. This type consists of individual letters set in lead. After inking the type, a sheet of paper is put on top. Next the frame is shoved to the right underneath the platen. By moving the large handle pressure is applied to make sure the ink is transferred to the paper. Afterwards the bed is moved back to its original position and the paper can be removed.
Gutenberg sets up a printing shop. Among his first publications are the ‘Poem of the Last Judgment‘ and the ‘Calendar for 1448‘.
Gutenberg begins printing bibles. The first edition has 40 lines per page. A later 42-line version comes in two volumes. Ironically enough Gutenberg goes bankrupt in 1455, when his investor Johann Faust forecloses on the mortgage used to finance the building of the press. Faust gets hold of the printing equipment as well as the 200 copies of the bible that have already been printed. While trying to sell them in Paris Faust tries to keep the printing process a secret and pretends the bibles are hand copied. It is noticed that the volumes resemble each other and Faust is charged with witchcraft. He has to confess his scheme to to avoid prosecution.
Constantinople is captured by the Turks. Many books from the Constantine library are burnt or carried away and sold.
The first known color printing is used in ‘Mainz Psalter‘, a book containing a collection of psalms. It is printed by Johann Faust and his son-in-law Peter Schoffer.
• Albrecht Pfister prints the first illustrated book called ‘Edelstein’ which features a number of woodcuts.
• The ‘Biblia Pauperum’ is issued in Bamberg and contains many handcolored illustrations.
The first drypoint engravings are created by the Housebook Master, a south German artist. Drypoint is a technique in which an image is incised into a (copper) plate with a hard-pointed ‘needle’ of sharp metal or a diamond point.
The first book is printed in Rome by Ulrich Haan (Udalricus Gallus). Haan had imigrated to Rome after his letterpress print shop in Vienna was destroyed because he had dared to print a lampoon against the mayor.
In their print shop in Venice John and Wendelin of Speier are probably the first printers to use pure roman type, which no longer looks like the handwritten characters that other printers have been trying to imitate until then. Another printer in Venice, Nicolas Jenson, produces a more distinguished roman font which still serves as a model for type designers today.
‘De honesta voluptate’ (On honourable pleasure) is one of the first printed cookbook. It is as much a series of moral essays as a cookbook. Ten years later ‘Kuchenmeysterey’ (Kitchen Mastery) becomes the first printed German cook book.
• William Caxton buys equipment from the Netherlands and establishes the first printing press in England at Westminster. Books printed by Caxton include Chaucers ‘The Canterbury Tales’, ‘Fables of Aesop’ and many other popular works. Caxton is also the first English retailer of printed books. The painting below depicts Caxton showing his printing press to King Edward IV.
Dutch printer Gotfried van Os (Gotfred of Ghemen) establishes the first print shop in Copenhagen.
Anton Koberger, a publisher and printer in Nuremberg, prints his most famous book, the ‘Nuremberg Chronicle’. It is illustrated with hundreds of woodcuts, many of them portraits. These portraits are all imaginary and the same block is often used to depict different persons.
‘Das Narrenschiff’ (The Ship Of Fools) by Sebastian Brant is published in Basel, Switzerland. This satire about the state of the church is illustrated with woodcuts from the great Renaissance artist-engraver Albrecht Dürer. It quickly becomes extremely popular, with six authorised and seven pirated editions published before 1521.
Printing has become established in more than 250 cities around Europe. Renaissance printing presses can produce 3,600 pages per workday, compared to forty by typographic hand-printing and just a few pages by hand-copying. One of the main challenges of the industry is distributing all these works. This leads to the establishment of numerous book fairs. The most important one is the Frankfurt Book Fair which is first held by local booksellers soon after Gutenbergs invention of the printing press. Frankfurt remains the book capital of the world until the end of the 17th century when the Leipzig Book Fair takes over. After World War II the Frankfurt Book Fair is reestablished and regains its position as the world’s largest trade show for books.