|The Story of Books
by Gertrude Burford Rawlings
New York D.Appleton and Company 1901
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|THE BEGINNING of PRINTING.
The germs of the invention which, in spite of Carlyle's somewhat slighting reference, has proved itself
hardly less momentous in the world's history than the conception of the idea of writing, are to be found
in the stamps with which the ancients impressed patterns or names upon vases or other objects, or in
the device and name-bearing seals which were in common use among the nations of antiquity. But these
stamps and seals could be used only to impress some plastic material, not to make ink or other marks
upon paper; and for the first example of printing, as we understand the word, we must look to China,
where, it is said, as early as the sixth century, A.D., engraved wooden plates were used for the
production of books.
The Chinese, however, kept their invention to themselves, or at anyrate it spread no further than Japan,
until many years later; and although in the tenth century the knowledge of printing was carried as far as
Egypt, Europeans seem to have made the discovery for themselves, quite independently of help from the
East, both as regards block-printing and the use of moveable type.
In Europe, as in China, the first printing was done by means of a block, that is, a slab of wood on which
the design was carved in relief, and from which, when inked, an impression could be transferred to paper
or other material. This process is known as block-printing, and in Europe was principally used for the
production of illustrations, the text, which came to be added later, being accessory and subordinate to
The first European block-prints are pictures of saints, roughly printed on a leaf of paper and usually
rudely coloured. Heinecken, whose I dée general d'une Collection complette a' Estampes (1771) is still a
standard work, is of opinion that pictures of this class were first executed by the old makers of
playing-cards, and that the playing cards themselves were printed from wood and not drawn separately
by hand. In this case the cards should rank as the earliest examples of block-printing or wood-engraving.
Heinecken has not been alone in entertaining this opinion, but, on the other hand, there are some who
consider that the portraits represent the first woodcuts, and that the early playing-cards were drawn and
painted by hand.
The single-leaf portraits of saints were produced chiefly, or perhaps solely, in Germany, and examples are
now rare. It is curious that most of those which have survived to the present day have been found in
German religious houses, pasted inside the covers of old books, and thus shielded from the destruction
to which their fragile nature rendered them liable. One specimen, which has the reputation of being the
earliest extant with which a date can be connected, is the well-known St. Christopher, which represents
the saint carrying the child Christ over a stream, after an old legend.
This specimen bears the date 1423, and was discovered pasted in the cover of a mediæval manuscript in
the monastery at Buxheim, in Swabia, and is now in the John Rylands Library at Manchester. The date,
however, may be only that of the engraving of the block, and not the year of printing. A theory was put
forward by Mr. H. F. Holt, at the meeting of the British Archaeological Association in 1868, that this St.
Christopher, so far from being the earliest known specimen of printing of any sort, belonged to a period
subsequent to the invention of typography, and that the date 1423 refers only to the jubilee year of the
saint, and not to the execution of the print. He also held that the block-books, to which we refer below,
were not the predecessors of type-printed books, as they are usually considered to be, but merely cheap
substitutes for the costly works of the early printers. But these theories, though not disproved, do not
receive the support of bibliographers in general.
Another early woodcut is the Brussels Print, which is in the Royal Library at Brussels. It is ostensibly
dated 1418, but although this date is accepted by some, it has most probably been tampered with, and
therefore the position of the print is at least doubtful. It is of Flemish origin, and represents the Virgin
and Child, accompanied by SS. Barbara, Catharine, Veronica, and Margaret. Other prints exist which are
not dated, and it is quite possible that some of these may be older than the St. Christopher, though no
definite statements as to their date can be made. It is certain, however, that the art of block-printing was
known in the closing years of the fourteenth century, and that it was practised thenceforward until about
1510, that is, some years after the invention of typography. In many manuscripts of the period, printed
illustrations were inserted by means of blocks, either to save time, or because the scribe's skill did not
extend to drawings.
These early woodcuts were the forerunners of the better known block-books, which also, according to
Heinecken, were at first the work of the card-makers. Block-books consisted of prints accompanied by a
descriptive or explanatory text, both text and illustration being printed from the same block. Since they
were intended for the moral instruction of those whose education did not fit them for the study of more
elaborate works, they generally deal with Scriptural and religious subjects. The earliest of all the block
books was the Biblia Pauperum, or "Bible of the Poor," so called because it was designed for the
edification of persons of unlearned minds and light purses, who could neither have afforded the high
prices demanded for ordinary manuscript copies, nor have read such copies had they owned them. The
Biblia Pauperum, however, exactly met their want. It is not so much a book to read, as a book to look at.
It has a text, it is true, but the text is subordinate to the pictures.
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