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First Printers and Their Homes

( Originally Published 1877 )



The Dutchmen

IN the year 1420 there was living in the city of Haarlem an old gentleman, who kept the keys of the cathedral, and who used, after dinner, to walk in the famous wood, that up to this time is growing just without the city walls. One day, while walking there, he found a very smooth bit of beech-bark, on which—as he was a handy man with his Knife —he cut several letters so plainly and neatly, that after his return home he stamped them upon paper, and gave the paper to his boy as a " copy." After this, seeing that the thing had been neatly done, the old gentleman, whose name was Lawrence Coster, fell to thinking of what might be done with such letters cut in wood. By blackening them with ink, he made black stamps upon paper ; and by dint of much thinking and much working, he came, in time, to the stamping of whole broadsides of letters, —which was really printing.

But before he succeeded in doing this well, he had found 'it necessary to try many experiments, and to take into his employ several apprentices. He did his work very secretly, and told all of his apprentices to say nothing of the trials he was making. But a dishonest one among them, after a time, ran off from Holland into Germany, carrying with him a great many of the old gentleman's wooden blocks, and entire pages of a book which he was about to print.

This is the story that is told by an old Dutch writer, who was president of Haarlem College, and who printed his account a hundred and fifty years after Lawrence was robbed. He says he had the story from the lips of most respectable old citizens, who had heard it from their fathers ; and, furthermore, he says that he had a teacher in his young days, who had known, long before, an old servant of Lawrence Coster's ; and this servant would burst into tears whenever he spoke of the way in which his poor master was robbed, and so lost the credit of his discovery.

The Dutch writers believe this story, and hint that the runaway apprentice was John Faust, or John Gutenberg; but the Germans justly say there is no proof of this. It is certain, however, that there was a Lawrence (Custos, or Keeper, of the cathedral), who busied himself with stamping letters, and with engraving. His statue is on the market-place in Haarlem, and his rough-looking books are, —some of them, —now in the "State House" of Haarlem. They are dingy, and printed with bad ink, and seem to have been struck from large engraved blocks, and not from movable types. They are without any date ; but people learned in such matters think they belong to a period somewhat earlier than any book of Faust, or of Gutenberg, who are commonly called the discoverers of printing.

John Gutenberg

JOHN GUTENBERG, at the very time when this old Dutchman was experimenting with his blocks in Holland, was also working in his way, very secretly, in a house that was standing not many years ago in the ancient city of Strasburg. He had two working partners, who were bound by oath not to reveal the secret of the arts he was engaged upon. But one of these partners died ; and upon this, his heirs claimed a right to know the secrets of Gutenberg. Gutenberg refused ; and there was a trial of the case, some account of which was discovered more than three hundred years after-ward in an old tower of Strasburg.

This trial took place in the year 1439. Gutenburg was not forced to betray his secret ; but it did appear, from the testimony of the witnesses, that he was occupied with some way of making books (or manuscripts) cheaper than they had ever been made before.

But Gutenberg was getting on so poorly at Strasburg, and lost so much money in his experiments, that he went away to Mayence, which is a German city farther down the Rhine. He there formed a partnership with a rich silversmith named John Faust, who took an oath of secrecy, and supplied him with money, on condition that after a certain time it should be repaid to him.

Then Gutenberg set to work in earnest. Some ac-counts say he had a brother who assisted him ; and the Dutch writers think this brother may have been the robber of poor Lawrence Coster. But there is no proof of it ; and it is too late to find any proof now. There was certainly a Peter Schoffer, a scribe, or designer, who worked for Gutenberg, and who finished up his first books by drawing lines around the pages, and making ornamental initial letters, and filling up gaps in the printing. This Schoffer was a shrewd fellow, and watched Gutenberg very closely. He used to talk over what he saw, and what he thought, with Faust. He told Faust he could contrive better types than Gutenberg was using ; and, acting on his hints, Faust, who was a skilful worker in metals, run types in a mould ; and these were probably the first cast types ever made. These promised so well that Faust determined to get rid of Gutenberg, and to carry on the business with Schoffer—to whom he gave his only daughter Christine for a wife.

Faust called on Gutenberg for his loan shortly after, which Gutenberg couldn't pay ; and in consequence he had to give up to Faust all his tools, his presses, and his unfinished work, among which was a Bible nearly two-thirds completed. This, Faust and Schoffer hurried through, and sold as a manuscript. They sold it as a manuscript, because manuscripts brought high prices, and because if it were known that this Bible was made in some easier and cheaper way, they could not be sure of so good a price ; and besides, this would make people curious to find out about this easier way of making books, which Faust and Schoffer wished to keep secret.

There are two copies in the National Library at Paris ; one copy at the Royal Library at Munich ; and one at Vienna. It is not what is commonly known as the Mayence Bible, but is of earlier date than that.

It is without name of printer or publisher, and with-out date. It is in two great volumes folio, of about six hundred pages a volume. You very likely could not read a word of it if you were to see it ; for it is in Latin, and in black Gothic type, with many of the words abbreviated, and packed so closely together as to puzzle the eye. I give a line of this printing to show you that it would not make easy reading. Should you chance to own a copy (and you probably never will), you could sell it for enough money to buy yourself a little library of about two thousand volumes.

It was certainly the first Bible printed from movable types ; but poor Gutenberg got no money from it, though he had done most of the work upon it. But he did not grow disheartened. He toiled on, though he was without the help of Schoffer and of Faust, and in a few years afterward succeeded in making books which were as good as those of his rivals. Before he died his name was attached to books printed as clearly and sharply as books are printed to-day.

Of course they are very proud of his memory in the old Rhine town of Mayence, where he labored ; and they have erected a statue there to his memory, — from a design by the great Danish sculptor, Thorwaldsen. This statue was erected in August, 1837 ; and there was a great festival on the occasion —fifteen thousand people crowding into the town to assist in doing honor to the memory of the first printer. The old cathedral was thronged ; the Bishop of Mayence said high mass ; and the first Bible printed by Gutenberg was displayed. On the site where he worked there is now a club-house ; and the gentlemen of the club-house have erected another little statue to Gutenberg in the inner court of their building.

The City of Strasburg

But Strasburg is as proud of him as Mayence ; for in Strasburg the burghers of that city say he studied out the plans which he afterward carried into execution at Mayence. So in Strasburg, in 1840, they erected another statue to his memory, by David, a French sculptor. It is of bronze, and is one of the imposing sights of the city — as you may see from the picture I have given of it.

I have a little copy of the head of Gutenberg as he is represented in this statue, in plaster and wax, which I brought away from Strasburg a great many years ago. It is before me as I write, — a cap trimmed with fur upon the head, a sober and most comely face, a long beard which would have become a Hebrew patriarch. He must have been a man of noble presence ; and, though we know but very little of his personal history, it is certain that his name and his fame will live among those of the greatest inventors. Every book you read is a monument to his memory ; and he is deserving of most kindly remembrance, because he busied himself throughout a long life, in making serviceable. an art which is of the greatest benefit to everybody. Those who made dictionaries of biography in the centuries which followed closely after him didn't think it worth their while to gather up any facts about his life, or even to mention him ; but they spent a great deal of useless labor in inquiries about the lives of petty princes who made wars for conquest, and of students who made wars with words, for conquest in some petty points of theology ; but these princes and bookworms are forgotten now, while John Gutenberg in that noble statue of the old city of Strasburg is looked upon, and thought of, and honored, more than if Dr. Bayle had written one of his longest and fullest folio pages about him.

You will see the statue if you ever go to Strasburg ; and you will see the cathedral too, which is one of the grandest and most beautiful of Europe. The tallest spire in New York would hardly reach half way to its top ; and four or five country church towers, if piled one upon the other, would not make a scaffolding high glimpse of it, as you see it over the quaint roofs of the city, in order that you may associate it with the story of the first printer.

You will see that only one of its towers bears a spire : upon the top of the shorter tower there is a little cottage of entertainment, more than two hundred feet above the level of the pavement. Here, those who venture on a climb to this lofty plateau may rest, and consider — if they will mount still higher into the regions of air, where the great spire will carry them if they choose to go. Some thirty years ago I tried this second climbing ; but the stone-work is as open as a lattice, and the people on the street far below looked like pygmies, and the whole city and spire seemed to reel with me ; and such a degree of dizziness crept over me, that I was glad to get down again to what seemed the solid footing of the deck of the tower.

And was the great cathedral there when Gutenberg was worrying over his types in that ancient city ? Yes : Gutenberg saw it ; very likely he saw some of the last stones placed upon the tower ; for though it was commenced three or four centuries before, and was in course of building when Wallace was fighting so bravely in the glens of Scotland (about which you will remember, if you have read The Scottish Chiefs "), the tower was only completed in 1365.

Another thing to remember about this great cathedral, which throws its shadow upon Gutenberg's statue, is, — Sabina Erwin of Steinbach, a daughter of the great architect, conducted and directed the building of much of it in the years when it was being finished. Think of that when you hear that women can do no grand things ! Think, too, that in those very years, when Gutenberg was printing his first book, that other wonderful woman Joan of Arc, was putting courage into French armies by leading them herself, — and the first printer was very likely one of those who grieved greatly when they learned that the poor, brave Joan had been burned in the city of Rouen, by order of the cruel English commander.

I don't think that Gutenberg ever saw the clock that you may now see in the Cathedral of Strasburg, for it has only been there a little over three hundred years. But it is a famous clock : I would not dare to tell you of all the amazing things its hidden machinery can do. The figures of the apostles march ; a cock claps his wings, and crows ; death (in the shape of a skeleton) appears ; and there are chimes, and sweet jangling sounds; and the moon shows its changes, and the planets too.

But, most of all, think, — in connection with this great church building and the clock and the spire, and the rich pates de foie gras which they give you for dinner in Strasburg, — think of the old long-bearded prince of printers, who by his art and toil and genius contrived movable types, and first made it possible for all the men who can tell stories worth a long life, to repeat them in print, so that you may take them in your hand to study, and dream over, and enjoy.

Old English Printers

But who printed the first English book? And did that follow quickly afterward? Not many years—perhaps twenty. And the man who did this was named William Caxton — a name which has been held in very great honor ever since.

He was in early life apprentice to a seller of dry-goods in London ; but he was an excellent apprentice ; and his master came to be Mayor of London, and left him a fair fortune. His zeal and industry made him a marked man, — so that he was sent by the Government over to Flanders, to the city of Bruges, where Philip the Good of Burgundy was ruling. And there he studied, and there he came to a knowledge of what Gutenberg had been doing, and of what Faust had been doing, in Mayence. And he translated the "Histories of Troye" —for he had made himself a good scholar; and he secured some of the workmen who had been with Faust and Schoffer, after their printing-office was broken up by a war that raged in that day along the Rhine ; and, taking over the workmen into England, he set up a printing-office at Westminster, — in some outbuilding of the famous Westminster Abbey, — and there printed his Histories of Troye, and many another book ; among them a Life of Charles the Great, of which he says, " I have specially reduced it (translated it) after the simple cunning that God hath lent to me, whereof I humbly and with all my heart thank Him, and also am bounden to pray for my fathers and mothers souls, that in my youth set me to school, by which, by the sufferance of God, I get my living I hope truly."

And in this spirit of old-fashioned honesty and zeal, the good printer toiled all the days of his life.

And after his death, the men who had worked with him — of whom Wynkyn de Worde was chief — carried on labor in the same spirit, and looked forward to "the happy day when a Bible should be chained in every church, for every Christian man to look upon."

And this was a great thing to look forward to in that day. Books had borne and were bearing a value which would astonish you now. An old Italian called Poggio had—in those centuries, and not long before—exchanged his manuscript copy of Livy for a country villa near to Florence.

In England, the cost of copying a book in writing was worth the price of two fat oxen. Chaining books to desks was not uncommon ; but it was not in every church they were chained. They were in great religious houses, called monasteries and abbeys ; or they were carefully guarded in the cabinets of kings.

The bindings of many of the old manuscript books, and of the early printed ones, were enriched with very rare carving in ivory or wood, or they were enamelled beautifully on copper and adorned with pearls and rare stones, and their clasps were of silver and of gold. Many bindings of this sort are now kept with great care in European museums, and are very much valued. In the old church of Monza, which is an Italian town very near to Milan, there is a very old and curious piece of book-binding, which, with its manuscript of the Gospels in Greek, was given to the church by Theodolinda, a good and famous queen of the Lombards, who lived twelve hundred years ago. It is of silver and gold, and set over with precious stones, and is, I think, the oldest bound book in the world. ft was a very old book, and a prized book, when Wynkyn de Worde talked about chaining a Bible, some day, in every church.

What would the good old man have thought of Bibles printed and sold for only a few pennies each ? What would the first English printer have thought, if he had been told that within three centuries, in a country un-heard of by him (for Columbus sailed on his first voyage the very year on which William Caxton died), and in a single city of that country, more type would be set up in one day, than was set up in all Europe during the space of a year, in his time ?



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