Archives for category: Book printing
Printed 31-Line Indulgence. Mainz: Johann Gutenberg 1455. The Morgan Library & Museum.

The theory was that an indulgence is “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and all of the saints”. Effectively it was a bit of paper recording your “purchase” of forgiveness for some sin or other.

The printing press was just made for the printing of indulgences. No longer did your poor pardoner have to spend time writing the damn things out — they could be bought in their thousands from the local printer with blank spaces left where the name of the “sinner” and the date could be filled in. Somewhat unsurprisingly this lead to a sharp increase in their use, and in consequence also of the revenue which would be raised by the “charitable gift” it had become conventional to make after receipt of your shriving.

Printing indulgences was a great job: set it up, one sheet only, one side only, and let it run for days. Of course you had to buy paper, but apart from that indulgences were pretty much pure profit. Gutenberg is said to have interrupted the printing of his Bible to knock off a few thousand of them. You’ve got to pay the rent after all.

Famously Martin Luther objected to the Catholic church’s indulgence business model. In another printing press success story, after he was painted by Lucas Cranach, versions of Luther’s portrait became one of the most widely circulated woodcuts, making his the most recognized European face up to that time, even though he rarely left Wittenberg.

“In 1391, 2.3 million sheets of paper arrived at the port of London: a page for every person in England. Most of it was probably low-quality brown paper used as a packing material to protect foodstuffs and ceramics as they juddered along cartways into the city. A small amount, some 3,500 sheets, was the ornamental paper used for decorations at feasts and known as papiri depicti (Chaucer refers to elaborate ‘bake-metes and dish-metes . . . peynted and castelled with papir’ in ‘The Parson’s Tale’). The rest – hundreds of thousands of sheets – was writing paper.”

Tom Johnson, in his London Review of Books review of Paper in Medieval England: From Pulp to Fictions by Orietta Da Rold (Cambridge University Press, 2020), continues “Only a hundred years earlier, paper was hardly known in England”. (Link via LitHub.) The point here (well, my point anyway) is that demand for paper skyrocketed long before printing à la Gutenberg got going in the 1450s. One might almost suggest that the revolution in printing was a response to the demand for paper and all the things you could do with paper, rather than the opposite. The other point is that in medieval Britain nobody much saw the need for paper: they had parchment.

Paper had been invented in the second century BCE in China, and by the fourth century CE its use there was widespread. Paul M. Dover informs us in his fascinating The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe (CUP, 2021) “During the late sixth century the civil service of the Sui Dynasty provided one emperor with 300,000 paper copies of an edict condemning an imperial rival”. This far eastern origin was known in Europe when paper arrived there: what was glossed over when it arrived in the West was the fact that it came via the Islamic world where it had importantly been adapted to use rags as its raw material. After the 1258 sack of Baghdad by the Mongols paper making in the Middle East largely shut down, and they began importing paper from Italy. Spain was another early source of European paper. When Toledo was “liberated” by the Christians in 1085 they found a paper mill working away there.

Although parchment held the field in Europe, it was expensive, and this tended to militate against any kind of casual use. In 1471 the Innsbruck imperial court bought 86 sheets of paper for the same price as a single sheet of parchment, and as time went by the price differential got worse. Expensive stuff: fine for the laws of the country — Britain’s parliament only decided to stop writing its laws on parchment in 2016 — but lousy for shopping lists, letters, aide memoires or any other less formal usage. Parchment has also the advantage/disadvantage that it’s easy to scrape off a typo and write in a new word. Ink gets absorbed into the fibers of paper, and thus becomes a more reliable witness to the original condition of things. For legal, financial, business and government documents this was by no means a disadvantage.

The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries ushered in a frenzy of note taking, and partly because there was finally something on which you could write a note without sacrificing a lamb. Much of the initiative came from bankers and merchants, who realized that as their business grew so did their personal memory become less and less adequate for the facts they needed to retain. Writing notes, once paper became available, could become an obsession. Herman Weinsberg (1518-97), a Cologne lawyer, became a sort of life blogger avant la lettre: his Gedenkbuch in three volumes was a sort attempt to record everything that happened to him and his family. “In less than eight months, Weinsberg filled more than 700 folio pages with anecdotes from his earlier years; he described his own habit of daily writing as like being a fish in water”. People wrote letters, made memoranda, wrote diaries, drew up accounts, listed topics to be dealt with that day, and did all the sorts of things you can imagine doing with paper yourself. The Chinese had even had toilet paper for at least half a millennium by then.

Parchment’s demise may in the end have been hastened by the development of printing: the inks required to adhere to metal types were less successful in adhering to parchment than they were with paper — and of course paper by then was so much cheaper. 

I wonder what it was like living in Scotland and hearing about this new invention, the use of movable metal types for printing. Probably nobody much cared. Even before 1507 when Walter Chepman and Androw Myllar set up the first press in Scotland in Cowgate, Edinburgh, about sixty years after Gutenberg’s “invention”, Scottish books managed to get printed but they tended to be sent to France for execution. The first book printed in Scotland was John Lydgate’s Complaint of the Black Knight which came off Chepman and Myllar’s press on 4 April 1508. In England William Caxton had printed a book, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, 35 years earlier.

Here, from “The Great Tapestry of Scotland”, a must-see for the tourist stuck in Galashiels, is an official depiction of the event. The Tapestry is on display in a spanking new custom-built gallery next to the Post Office at the head of Channel Street. The world’s longest tapestry, it depicts the history of our nation in 160 panels of embroidery. Brain child of Alistair Moffat and Alexander McCall Smith, it was designed following drawings by Andrew Crummy, and sewn by more than a thousand people throughout Scotland.

Chepman and Myllar received a patent issued by James IV on 15 September 1507, reading in part:

Wit ye that forsamekill as our lovittis servitouris Walter Chepman and Andro Myllar burgessis of our burgh of Edinburgh, has at our instance and request, for our plesour, the honour and proffit of our Realme and Liegis, takin on thame to furnis and bring hame ane prent, with all stuff belangand tharto, and expert men to use the samyne, for imprenting within our Realme of the bukis of our Lawis, actis of parliament, croniclis, mess bukis, and portuus efter the use of our Realme, with addiciouns and legendis of Scottis sanctis, now gaderit to be ekit tharto, and al utheris bukis that salbe sene necessar, and to sel the sammyn for competent pricis, be our avis and discrecioun thair labouris and expens being considerit.

Which translated, reads “Know you that forasmuch as our beloved subjects Walter Chepman and Andro Myllar burgesses of our burgh of Edinburgh, have at our instance and request, for our pleasure, the honour and profit of our realm and lieges, taken on themselves to furnish and bring home a printing press, with all stuff belonging thereto, and expert men to use the same, for printing within our realm the books of our laws, acts of parliament, chronicles, mass books, and breviaries after the use of the realm, with additions and legends of Scots saints, gathered to be added to them, and all other books that shall be seen as necessary, and to sell the same for competent prices, by our advice and discretion, their labours and expense being considered.”

Myllar was a book dealer who had supplied books to the King. He had previously arranged for books to be printed in Rouen. Chepman, a textile merchant, can be thought to be the money man. It is assumed that they would have “brought home” the press also from France, whence no doubt also came “the expert men to use the same”.

The most valuable volume in The National Library of Scotland is the so-called “The Chepman and Myllar Prints” which contains nine of Chepman and Myllar’s chapbooks bound into a single volume alongside two other pamphlets from Scotland in the sixteenth century. This volume was donated to the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh in 1788 and since 1925 is in the National Library of Scotland.

The volume contains the following texts of Chepman and Myllar’s press, all written in either Scots or English. The National Library of Scotland speculates that some of these chapbooks may have been test-pieces for the press.

  • “The Porteous of Nobleness”. An anonymous Scots translation of Alain Chartier’s “Breviaire des Nobles”. A guide to courtly manners.
  • “Golagrus and Gawain”. An anonymous chivalric romance.
  • “Rhyme Without Accord”. A work of John Lydgate’s.
  • Eglamour. An anonymous chivalric romance.
  • “Balade”. A fragment of an anonymous ballad.
  • William Dunbar’s “The Golden Targe” An allegory of love.
  • ‘”De regimine principum bonum consilium” or “Ane Buke of Gude Counsale to the King”. A commentary on statecraft.
  • Lydgate’s The Complaint of the Black Knight.
  • “When by Divine Deliberation”. A short religious poem.
  • The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy.
  • Robert Henryson’s “The Praise of Age”.
  • “Device, Prowess and eke Humility.” A fragmentary anonymous poem.
  • Henryson’s Orpheus and Eurydice.
  • “The Want of Wise Men.” A short anonymous moral piece.
  • Dunbar’s “The Ballade of Lord Bernard Stewart”.

The volume also contains two other Scottish booklets from the 16th century, which were printed elsewhere:

  • Dunbar’s The Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, with Lament for the Makaris and “The Testament of Mr Andro Kennedy”, with “Kynd Kittok”, erroneously ascribed to Dunbar.
  • “A Gest of Robin Hood”. A ballad of Robin Hood.

The largest surviving product of the Chepman & Myllar press is The Aberdeen Breviary, a two-volume, two-color book printed between 1509 and 1510, the last book we can prove they printed.

You can see they had a little registration problem on this sheet.

One wonders whether King James felt he’d gotten his due from the “prent” he’d authorized: maybe there are “bukis of our Lawis” and “croniclis” galore yet to be discovered. Neither he* nor the press were around very long thereafter however.


* King James IV became the last British king to die in battle when he went down with all the rest of flowers of the forest at the Battle of Flodden in 1513; a catastrophe that can raise a tear in a Border eye to this day.

William Blake was an original in all things, and his printing technique was no exception. He incorporated the text and the illustrations into a single copper plate, whereas anyone else would separate the two. For each page he’d create a copper plate, normally used for engraving, drawing everything in reverse, and stopping the printing image with varnish. Then he’d bathe the plate in an acid solution to remove everything but the parts to be printed, down to a shallow depth. Each plate was etched in two stages. After the first bite the mordant was discarded and the text and design were checked for any underbiting, which would risk damage to the edges of the raised printing image. Stop-out varnish would be applied to any vulnerable areas and the plate bitten again. He’d then print the page letterpress, from the carefully inked raised images. In following this method he was essentially reproducing the process used for the pre-Gutenberg block book. Blake’s process is described at William Blake Prints where they also tell how we were able to reconstruct the procedure from the chance survival of a single partial plate.

Blake had served a seven-year apprenticeship as an engraver starting when he was fourteen, and then made his living from this trade, where most of his work would be aimed at the production of intaglio plates.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser. (Video from The British Library.)

Blake owned a Starwheel rolling press, and printed his works at home. The colors would be applied later with water color and a paintbrush. Not a methodology suiting itself to long runs but as he was pretty much ignored during his life time, not inappropriate.

CorelDraw offers you a free ebook, Preparation for Offset Printing. Go to their website and fill out the form.

I haven’t done this, so I can’t comment on the value of the book, but at that price what’ve you got to lose?

In the 16th and 17th centuries, almanacs were printed in huge quantities, and sold by street vendors as well as by booksellers. Paul M. Dover in The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2021) warns us against too narrow a focus on print as solely the book medium. Of course lots of books were printed, but so too was a wide variety of other material, much of it designed to be written upon and thrown away, leading to our relative ignorance of its importance since so few examples have survived.

Daniel Browne, A new almanacke and prognostication, for the yeare of our Lord God 1628 (London, 1628) showing handwritten annotations by a satisfied customer. (Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC, STC 421)

Dr Dover is interviewed at The Collation, where they include an extract from his book, of which this is a part:

[Almanacs] were specifically designed to be written on, functioning as diaries as much as books. Some included writing tables, with spaces to be populated with the requisite data. Because many of the pages in an almanac were date-specific, owners of these texts often cut or tore out individual pages or sections for limited-time use. It has been estimated that by the 1640s 300,000 almanacs were sold in England every year, each between 40 and 50 pages long and costing about two pence, well within the price range of a laborer. By the second half of the seventeenth century, it has been estimated that one in three English households purchased their own almanac. Almanacs accounted for 40% of the English Stationers’ Company’s paper budget between 1673 and 1682. Many pieces of paper included in the almanacs were deliberately left blank in the printing; the most popular printed text in Restoration England was an almanac that was designed to be filled out in manuscript. One quarter of all titles published in Sweden in the seventeenth century were almanacs. The Venetian printer Girolamo Albizzi, working with the friar Vincenzo Coronelli, starting in the 1660s, produced a tourist yearbook and almanac that would remain in print for 43 years. This publication incorporated blank spaces for travelers to recount their own experiences while visiting the locales covered in the text.

Designed to be used, and rarely retained beyond the year in question, rather than simply read, such items survive in extremely small numbers in relation to the vast numbers of them originally produced. For example, Leonard Digges’ A Progostication Everlasting, first published in 1555, went through 33 editions by the year 1619. It offered predictions of weather via astrology, as well as recommendations as to when to bleed, purge and bathe, along with a wealth of practical information regarding sunrises, sunsets, and moon phases. Of the 1576 edition, only seven are known to have survived. David McKitterick has discovered that of all the sheet almanacs printed at Cambridge University before 1640 (30,000 printed in the period 1631–33 alone), only a single, imperfect, copy has survived. This is despite the fact that in the years 1631–33 alone, approximately 30,000 of them were printed, and then presumably marked up in manuscript by their owners.

It will be interesting to see in this digital age how well “books printed to be written in”, a.k.a. diaries, appointment books, aide memoires, receipt books, cheque books, notebooks, jotters, puzzle books, coloring books, etc. survive, and still draw folks who feel compelled to record their life and thoughts by making marks on paper. Personally, though I acknowledge that my age may make me a less than ideal witness in this case, I don’t see a digital record as in any way as permanent and “safe” as a written one.

One example of a book made to be disposed of is the ration book. Rationing was introduced during the war, for obvious reasons. You were issued a book which contained coupons entitling you to by this much but no more of various items. Notice how you were not allowed to cut out the coupons — the shopkeeper had to do that — obviously any loose coupons could easily have been clipped from your neighbor’s book. I wonder what sort of security arrangements there were behind the shop counter. My book dates from 1952-3, which must have been the last year of rationing because there are a few sweetie coupons left over — they are the ones that have been cut out — the whole of page 20 and half of page 21. Had the program not come to an end why on earth would I have chosen to leave these few unused?

See also Farmer’s Almanacs, old and young.

Sorry I missed this, but last year marked the 500th anniversary of the printing of the first book in Cambridge. The University itself alerted us to the occurrence in a piece by Colin Clarkson and Struart Roberts. In 1521 John Siberch, the son of a German wool merchant, borrowed £20 from Cambridge University and set up the first printing press in the city. With rather ponderous wit the University Printing House repaid the £20 on the 450th anniversary — a timely move as they no longer existed at the 500th.

The first work ever printed in Cambridge was a speech delivered by Henry Bullock of Queens’ College to welcome Cardinal Wolsey when he visited the city in the autumn of the previous year.

Cambridge’s first printer was born Johann Lair around 1476, but when he enrolled at the University of Cologne, he adopted the surname of Siegburg, the town in which he grew up (just south of Cologne).He started life as a traveling book salesman, and in 1520 he was involved in arranging for the printing of a Greek grammar by Richard Croke, recently appointed to a lectureship at the University of Cambridge. It is speculated that this connection is what caused Siberch to move to Cambridge. He doesn’t seem to have stayed in town too long — there’s no record of him in town after 1523 — and there are only about a dozen works he’s known to have printed. Siberch returned to Germany, where by 1538 he’d taken holy orders, and he was serving as priest at the parish church of St Servatius in Siegburg at the time of his death in 1554. Still however small his printing output (and there’s no record of him ever engaging in printing anywhere else) — his output does represent Cambridge’s stuttering start down the publishing path. Printing in Cambridge didn’t resume until 1584.

The transition from letterpress to offset lithography for book manufacturing took maybe sixty years. The transition from offset to ink jet will end up being a lot quicker: indeed it may now to all intents and purposes be over. Printing Impressions sends us an update. (I’m not sure we know how long the transition from handwriting to letterpress took, but we all know it wasn’t by any means instantaneous.)

One trend in book manufacturing over the past twenty years has been a growing focus on printing shorter and shorter runs, and digital printing, whether by toner or ink jet, represents a huge leap forward in this regard, enabling even the economical manufacture of a single copy at a time. Speed of makeready has been our holy grail for so many years that it feels odd now to have just passed the grail by and to be racing off in pursuit of other goals.

Click on chart to enlarge

Long print runs have always been tied up with unit costs — the total production bill divided by the number of copies you get: the more you print the “cheaper” each copy becomes — except when you come to face the harsh reality that you’ve got to sell all those damn things. I do think that publishers have grown into the habit of scrutinizing unit costs simply because they are there. There are so few things in our business which can be accurately measured, and unit cost is one of them. Obviously it does have some crude relevance: if it costs you $10 to produce each copy of your book, you’d be dumb to sell it for $9.50. But if you priced it at $34.95, what would your profit be if your unit cost was $10? If that does present a problem the solution should never be to print more (unless you know you can sell them).

The unit cost of a book is divided into two notional halves 1) the basic paper, printing, binding etc. and 2) the frills you add on to the package like foil stamping on the jacket, heck, a jacket at all, a ribbon marker, “nice” paper, headbands, lavish design leading to a greater page count, and other optional add-ons. The nature of digital printing is that you can count on a unit cost of $4.78 today being a unit cost of $4.78 tomorrow*, so if you are happily selling the book at $34.95 you can, when you come to reprint it, count on still being able to sell it at $34.95. Fussing about with profit-and-loss calculation is nothing more than time wasting. Conservatism in business practices among publishers is a well established problem, and it’ll probably take a generation of stupid P&L costings before some notice that the answer is the same in every instance, and that there’s no point in asking the question.

See also Digital book printing and Ink jet.


* Well of course general price increases do happen from time to time.

The melody for the Christmas carol “Hark! The herald angels sing” was written by Felix Mendelssohn as part of Festgesang zum Gutenbergfest, (Celebratory song at the Gutenberg festival) — or to give it its full title, Festgesang zur Eröffnung der am ersten Tage der vierten Säcularfeier der Erfindung der Buchdruckerkunst auf dem Marktplatz zu Leipzig stattfindenden Feierlichkeiten*) an oratorio composed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of printing with movable types. The work, for male chorus and two brass orchestras, was first performed in the Leipzig market square on 20 June 1840. The second section of the oratorio, with the melody of the Christmas carol, goes by the “title” Vaterland in deinen Gauen — the first four words of its text by Adolf Eduard Proelss (1803–1882). The text may be found at Wikipedia.

Vaterland, in deinen Gauen
brach der goldne Tag einst an.
Deutschland, deine Völker sahn
seinen Schimmer niedertauen.
Gutenberg, der deutsche Mann,
zündete die Fackel an.
                  which may be said to mean
Fatherland, in thy precincts
the golden day once dawned.
Germany, your people saw
the dew of its brilliance shimmer down.
Gutenberg, that German man,
Had ignited the torch.

The text we now recognize as “Hark! The herald angels sing” was written by John Wesley as “Hark how all the welkin rings”, and was published in 1739 in his Hymns and Sacred Poems. The herald angels were incorporated in 1758 by George Whitefield. In 1855 William Hayman Cummings adapted Mendelssohn’s melody from Festgesang to fit the Wesley/Whitefield text. Thus every December do we unwittingly pay tribute to the importance of printing.

I find it hard to believe this but such is the success of Mr Cummings’ adaptation that it seems to have completely crowded out the original on the internet. Search under “Vaterland in deinen Gauen”, “Festgesang zum Gutenbergfest” or “WoO 9, MWV D 4” with or without Mendelssohn, and you won’t find a single recorded version using the original German text. All you’ll get is “Hark! The Herald Angels” whatever the label may say — so here you are: you’ll just have to substitute the German text as you sing along.

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As far as I know Mendelssohn (1809-47) has not been reached for comment on this move from secular to sacred.


* Anglice: Celebratory song for the inauguration which will take place on the first day of the festival marking the fourth centenary of the discovery of the art of book printing, celebration of which will take place on the market place at Leipzig.

Catchy title!

How best to print your book?

Jane Friedman’s blog has a guest post by the marketing director of Gorham’s Printing setting out the pros and cons of PoD, offset and digital printing. The post is substantially designed as a clarifier for self publishers — if only because production employees in a publishing house will almost never be asked to (allowed to) make such a fundamental determination.

Of course, for book publishers, having such thoughts is a bit of a luxury in today’s market. Who cares what printing technology is used — we just want to get the books. I’ve heard of one book manufacturer who has announced they can accept no more orders for hardback books for delivery before the end of next year, 2022. I don’t know any details, but it could just be down to staffing problems leading them to put such bindery workers as they have onto the (less labor demanding) paperback lines. Clearly they don’t expect the labor market to improve quickly. Staff shortages, paper shortages — shortages of everything except for orders! Prices look like they’ll be going up by about 10% for next year. Look for price increases at the retail end too.