Early Printed Books

These web-pages are not intended to be a definitive account of early printing. Rather, the intention is to give a short history of early printing, to present a few example pages from early books, with the history of the books that they come from, as well as the history behind the content of those pages. More importantly, what are displayed below are the images of those pages with their beautiful pictures and script.

Around 1455, in Mainz, Germany, a certain Johann Gutenberg produced a two volume Bible. This work, known as the "Gutenberg Bible" were the first books printed using movable type. This allowed individual letters to be fitted into a matrix. Once complete the matrix was inked and a sheet of paper placed on top, and they were pressed together, probably using a modified wine press.

No evidence has survived as to how Gutenberg made individual letters (a font or fount is a complete set of letters). However they were probably made by creating a set of master punches that would have been used to punch the letterforms into soft copper. There would have had to have been some sort of rectangular device with a cavity to place over the punched letter in the copper to create the bulk of the finished type. Finally molten lead-tin-antimony alloy would have been poured in to finish the job (this "hot metal" process has given it's name to modern "html" web pages).

Printing itself was not unknown; this had been achieved by carving the letters along with any pictures into a wood block and this method continued even after Gutenberg's invention. However with movable type, printing moved into true mass production with an incalculable effect on the Renaissance and the scientific and industrial revolution.

The first books effectively copied the style of the Bibles produced in the Middle Ages in monasteries. Spaces were left for hand painting of illuminations, rubrics (dividing lines) and decorated capitals.

When printed books first appeared (and after) the majority of the population was illiterate. After all there was nothing much to read unless you lived in a monastery, were a scholar at a university or were lord of the manor. Therefore what really gave the new books appeal (apart presumably from the price) was not just the printing but the pictures! Pictures were initially printed using woodcuts. This involved making a line drawing on a block of wood (mirror image) and carving away the wood leaving the drawn lines proud. Pictures would be printed in the same way as the type; the high points would be inked and pressed against the paper. The advantage of this is that one or more woodcuts could be fitted in the matrix or frame and printed all in one go. Woodcuts were used in the examples below: Schedel's World History and the Wittenberg Bible. Looking at them it seems incredible that such fine line work could be achieved by this method.

Later pictures were produced by copper plate engraving. This, as the name implies, involved engraving the pictures in fine lines on a copper plate. Of course, inking the high points would no longer work. Ink had to be squeezed into the lines and the excess wiped off the surface of the plate and the plate and the paper squeezed together. The problem with this was that the picture and the type had to be printed separately. This obviously caused problems with positioning as can be seen below in some of the pages of de Bry's Grand Voyages.

True colour printing was hundred's of years into the future and the pictures you will see below were hand-coloured, sometimes contemporaneously or sometimes later. The printer just printed the pages of a book. A book-binder had the job of making them into a finished book (sometimes the printer would print instructions as to how the book should go together). It may be that the printer or his agents sold the books directly. But printers also sold "pages only" so that a customer could have the book bound in the way he wanted. Individual pages were also sold to the public who were attracted by the pictures as we are today.

The Examples

The following links show pages from four early books.

1493 Nuremberg Chronicle (Schedel's World History)
1572 The Wittenberg Bible
1588 Michael Eytzinger: Of Leone Belgico, eiusque topographica atque historica..
1617 Theodore de Bry: Grand Voyages to the New World -Introduction and pages on Raleigh, Drake and Pizarro
1617 Theodore de Bry: Grand Voyages to the New World -Florida and the French: le Moyne's pictures
1617 Theodore de Bry: Grand Voyages to the New World -Mexico