To the victor the spoils they say, and in terms of historical reputation, Johannes Gutenberg was the conqueror. Inventor of the first moveable type printing press and publisher of the first book – the Gutenberg Bible – or so established history would have me believe. A visit to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, the final destination of my Germany 2016 mini-tour, and a reading of Alix Christie’s 2014 historical novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, opened my eyes to other possibilites.
Gutenberg didn’t invent moveable type. That was invented about 4 centuries earlier in China by Bi Sheng using ceramic plates. Moveable metal type was then developed in Korea. What Gutenberg developed (because he had no prior knowledge of these Eastern systems) was a method of casting reusable metal type from a mould. The letters, together with his printing press, constituted the typographical system that proved to be the greatest invention since the wheel. There has been nothing of similar importance until the invention of the internet.
There I go, giving Gutenberg all the credit. Yet was this achievement really all his own, or should the roles of his financier, Johann Fust, and his apprentice Peter Schoeffer not be recognised also? They certainly are in Christie’s novel which is narrated by Schoeffer, looking back on the events of 1450-1455.
In 1450 Schoeffer is called back from his training as a calligrapher and engraver by his guardian, Johann Fust, to be apprenticed to Johannes Gutenberg. Of course, he is resentful. This new-fangled technology is going to destroy his career, and besides, mass production will never be able to able to produce books as beautiful as those made by hand. Well events are to prove him wrong but not without a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Christie takes us into the workshop and shows us the struggles that the team had: the technical struggles, the trial and error involved in finding the perfect alloy of lead, tin and antimony (a recipe that could not be improved upon for 500 years); the personal struggles resulting from the long hours; the political struggles that needed negotiation and the absolute secrecy that had to be maintained for 5 years to prevent the Archbishop of Mainz from confiscating the press; the personality clashes arising because Gutenberg was not the saint that we perhaps think he was ; and finally, the financial problems that contributed to the court case in which Gutenberg was forced to hand over his press to Fust.
Was that the real reason for the rift between the two partners? The facts are hard to establish as only a fragment of the court papers remains. There is a school of thought that Fust and Schoeffer (who testified against Gutenberg) had always planned to seize control of the press. This novel does not subscribe to that view and interprets events in an entirely different but thoroughly plausible way. Although, with hindsight and with Schoeffer as apologist, that shouldn’t be so surprising.
Although, having no prior knowledge of these events, this took me completely by surprise and I found myself turning the pages ever faster. It also ensured that I entered the Gutenberg Museum looking for evidence of Christie’s hypothesis. Naturally I found only the historical version of events – i.e the fragment from the court papers and only a couple of mentions of both Fust and Schoeffer.
This saddened me as I’d grown quite fond of the latter, who, following his apprenticeship with Gutenberg, went on to publish the Mainz Psalter, generally recognised to be the most beautiful book ever published. (Note to self – must find one and visit.) Still I was gratified to learn later that Mainz hasn’t forgotten him entirely, and I can verify that the wheat beer that bears his name is as refreshing as it looks!