In the absence of a Ye Dummies Guide to Mechanical Printing, how do historians study the birth of mass printing methods that emerged from the development of Gutenberg’s movable type printing press?

Study the mistakes of course!

Despite the justifiable fame attributed to Gutenberg and his development of the moveable type, there is surprisingly little known about exactly how his printing press worked – or that of other printers around the same time. Indeed, the earliest known, and not very useful drawing of a printing press is at least 50 years after the first press was developed, and hence a lot of the early problems would have been ironed out by then.

Quite irritatingly for historians, Gutenberg‘s own Bible publication is of a very high quality with very few mistakes in it. This can be partly put down to the market he was working in. The cost of a Bible was staggering, and he was competing against extremely high quality productions – so his Bible also had to be not just cheaper, but of comparable quality.

However, having let the genie out of the bottle with the idea that books can be mass produced, the race to be the cheapest printer ensued, and quality suffered. The lower quality then leaves marks and hints in the printed documents that historians can use like forensic clues to work out how the printing presses might have worked.

Last night, a person who carries out traditional printing, and then researched early printing presses gave a talk at the St Bride Institute, aptly on Fleet Street, on her researches.

Annoyingly, I lost my pen on the way to the talk, and anyway most of it is based on looking at pictures of 500 year old books to see how a smudge on a page can uncover a whole wealth of information about the metal printing presses used.

Conveniently for historians though, while Gutenberg was a near-perfectionist, a later prolific publisher was rather more careless and it was Günther Zainer that the talk focused on.

In addition to being rather slap-dash in laying out his pages so that the printing tends to wobble all over the place, he was also quite impatient, so that freshly printed sheets were put on top of still drying pages, leading to bleed-thru. Add in marks from poorly cut spacers leaving smudges and a researcher can learn a lot about the layout techniques for the typeface. Most of it is of interest to academics, but some interesting snippets came out.

One aspect that may seem odd to us initially, is that even seriously badly printed pages were still put into Bibles that were then sold on. The simple reason being that paper was incredibly expensive, and even a badly printed page would be too expensive to discard – so they used it.

Which is fortunate, as those badly printed pages are now probably more useful for researchers than the nicely printed documents.

While the printing press had sharply reduced the cost of producing a book, the cost of the paper still made it prohibitively expensive. It was an unexpected side effect of the increase in urban populations that lead to a drop in the cost of paper to make it easier for even the middle-classes to afford small books.

As more people moved into urban centres, the use of underwear increased – and was later disposed of. This rise in the “rag trade” provided an increasingly cheap supply of material to be pulped down to make paper.

In effect, the spread of the Bible and Psalters was based on a combination of the moveable type press, and dirty underpants.

No wonder historians wear gloves when handling Bibles from that era!


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