Men of many words
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside
Sunday 28 September 2014
The Gutenberg Bible, the first printed using the moveable type system, was a huge leap forward in the 15th century.
Prior to that, books were painstakingly copied by hand, a lengthy and expensive process that only the very rich or the church could afford.
Although it is Gutenberg’s name that has gone down in history – he was Time magazine’s Man of the Millennium – he was not alone in inventing and refining this new printing process. He was funded by Johann Fust, a Mainz merchant, and aided by Fust’s foster son Peter Schoeffer, who exchanged the refined world of a talented scribe for the filth and backbreaking work in Gutenberg’s workshop. The three men’s relationship ended acrimoniously and it was this that provided the spark for journalist Alix Christie’s debut novel, exploring the human story behind one of the world’s great inventions. The story is told in flashback as the mature Peter Schoeffer relates the momentous events of 1450-54, to an Abbot called Trithemius who wishes to record the details of Gutenberg’s experiments and eventual success in producing the first printed Bible.
Schoeffer is a successful young scribe working in Paris with expectations of rising to the top of his profession when he is suddenly called home by his foster father to Mainz. Johann Fust has decided to fund the work of one Johann Gensfleisch, better known to history as Gutenberg, who is secretly working on a new printing process. Schoeffer is horrified but deeply indebted to the foster father who took him in as an orphan, and he reluctantly joins Gutenberg’s workshop. He finds Gutenberg obnoxious and infuriating, a man sorely lacking the most basic social graces, who works his employees hard, rarely gives praise and keeps his true purpose a secret.
At first Schoeffer hates the work, especially the smelting as Gutenberg experiments with different metals to find the best one to create clean and precise letters. Slowly however he is drawn into the process and becomes as keen as Gutenberg and Fust to make it work.
Mainz comes to life with Christie’s vivid descriptions of the city, a power base in medieval Europe, full of gold- and silversmiths working for the church and nobility that earned it the soubriquet Golden Mainz. Merchants traded goods all over the world from Mainz, and its grand cathedral made it an important city for the church. Christie outlines the ongoing struggle between the merchant classes and the church for ultimate control of the city, a struggle that Gutenberg tries to avoid where possible. However, for some in the church the printing of the word of God is blasphemous, and Gutenberg and his collaborators must use all their wiles to outwit them.
Out of the three main characters it is Gutenberg who stands out, an unlikable man driven by his passion to create something revolutionary. His ruthless single-mindedness makes him intriguing and unpredictable. It is always a risk to make a leading character unsympathetic and Christie increases the risk by making Fust a rather drab man more interested in business than the happiness of his foster son. Schoeffer feels more like a vehicle to tell the story than a fully rounded character. Even the superfluous subplot of a romance fails to take the reader inside his head and heart, and he remains a cipher throughout.
Christie’s meticulous research shows on every page but ultimately the minutiae of the new printing process, from the carving of the letters to the clatter of the press, overwhelm her characters. As a trained letterpress printer herself, her love of her subject is obvious and infectious but the main players feel emotionally distant.
Fortunately, this is such a pivotal moment in history that the remarkable real-life events carry the story forward and knowing the outcome does little to spoil the pleasure of their eventual success. The bitter demise of the partnership is a sad coda to a story of such ingenuity but 48 examples of the Bible – some complete, some only parts – survive to this day. Hopefully Christie’s novel will bring much deserved credit to Fust and Schoeffer, but it is Gutenberg who lingers in the memory.