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The story of a truly fateful Frankfurt fair

Posted on: 12/10/2015 with tags: alix christie, books, frankfurt, frankfurt book fair, gutenberg, gutenberg bible, historical fiction, historical novel, printing, printing press

Alix Christie explains for us why publishers owe a special debt to Gutenberg’s apprentice – the title of her dazzling debut novel.

On an October day in 1454, a book appeared in Frankfurt that amazed and terrified the merchants and the priests who first laid eyes upon it. Publishers from around the world are again making their pilgrimage to this German city, showplace of kings and kaisers, and the spot where their industry was founded five hundred and sixty-one years ago. Few, though, will know the real history of their profession.

Manuscript books had been sold along the River Main since the eleventh century. But, that long-ago autumn, a strange new volume appeared in the Leonhards Lane. It was a monumental book, one that would launch the last great media revolution before our own: the Gutenberg Bible.

This book was startlingly different from the wares usually peddled at Europe’s largest trade fair. It was not written by a scribe with a quill or a reed, but produced by a marvellous new technique. Each of its 1,286 pages had been printed on paper and vellum using a modified grape press, sticky oil-based ink and cast-metal type.

 Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II and secretary to the Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire at the time, saw it with his own eyes – either at the fair or a gathering of the empire’s princes several weeks later. He later enthused to a Spanish cardinal that the book’s letters were so large and clear that ‘your Excellency could read them without your glasses’. The whole press run of some 180 copies was already spoken for, he wrote. He had seen the book himself, presented by a ‘miraculous man’ — almost certainly the inventor of printing with moveable type, Johann Gutenberg.

Yet innovation, as we have learned in the centuries since, is rarely the work of one lone genius. Gutenberg did not change the course of history by himself. Without two other men long left out of the history books, that Bible would never have appeared. One was Johann Fust, a Mainz merchant who advanced the inventor his venture capital. The other was Gutenberg’s apprentice, Peter Schoeffer, who would go on to become the world’s first major printer and the chief founder of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Peter Schoeffer was a scribe and close associate of Fust’s who himself incarnated the technological transformation from the medieval world of the scribes to the modern world of print. For decades afterwards, along the Rhine, the three men were collectively referred to as the ‘Holy Trinity’ who brought forth the technology that ushered in the Renaissance and changed the world. I tell the extraordinary story of their partnership and its dramatic collapse in my debut novel, GUTENBERG’S APPRENTICE.

The publishers, booksellers, agents and authors who crowd Frankfurt’s congress halls this week might spare a moment to reflect on the seismic change these three men brought about. The world’s first tech startup holds many lessons for the digital revolution that is disrupting the world of print the way the press did five centuries ago.

Take a walk in Peter Schoeffer’s footsteps: he’s your spiritual ancestor. He and Fust founded a printing firm after their acrimonious parting from Gutenberg. Over his lifetime, Schoeffer produced nearly 300 books, inventing the title page, the sales catalogue, and the business of publishing itself. In 1462, the firm moved to Frankfurt, where Schoeffer led this nascent market in printed books. For forty years after World War II, in fact, the Frankfurt Book Fair used Peter Schoeffer’s printers’ mark
as its logo.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie is out now  

Amy Dolman

Post author: Amy Dolman

Amy is responsible for the smooth running of the H for History website, and enjoys reading history-based fantasy. She also like to photograph sites of historical interest in her spare time with a cup of bovril and a pork pie for company. Favourite period of history: Ancient; Favourite historical read: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave; Upcoming book i'm most looking forward to: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick

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