Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Early Printing.

There is some probability that this art originated in China, where it was practised long before it was known in Europe. Some European traveller might have imported the hint.1 That the Romans did not practise the art of printing cannot but excite our astonishment, since they actually used it, unconscious of their rich possession. I have seen Roman stereotypes, or immoveable printing types, with which they stamped their pottery.2 How in daily practising the art, though confined to this object, it did not occur to so ingenious a people to print their literary works, is not easily to be accounted for. Did the wise and grave senate dread those inconveniences which attend its indiscriminate use? Or perhaps they did not care to deprive so large a body of scribes of their business. Not a hint of the art itself appears in their writings.

When first the art of printing was discovered, they only made use of one side of a leaf; they had not yet found out the expedient of impressing the other. Afterwards they thought of pasting the blank sides, which made them appear like one leaf. Their blocks were made of soft woods, and their letters were carved; but frequently breaking, the expense and trouble of carving and gluing new letters suggested our moveable types which, have produced an almost miraculous celerity in this art. The modern stereotype, consisting of entire pages in solid blocks of metal, and, not being liable to break like the soft wood at first used, has been profitably employed for works which require to be frequently reprinted. Printing in carved blocks of wood must have greatly retarded the progress of universal knowledge: for one set of types could only have produced one work, whereas it now serves for hundreds.

When their editions were intended to be curious, they omitted to print the initial letter of a chapter: they left that blank space to be painted or illuminated, to the fancy of the purchaser. Several ancient volumes of these early times have been found where these letters are wanting, as they neglected to have them painted.

The initial carved letter, which is generally a fine wood-cut, among our printed books, is evidently a remains or imitation of these ornaments.3 Among the very earliest books printed, which were religious, the Poor Man’s Bible has wooden cuts in a coarse style, without the least shadowing or crossing of strokes, and these they inelegantly daubed over with broad colours, which they termed illuminating, and sold at a cheap rate to those who could not afford to purchase costly missals elegantly written and painted on vellum. Specimens of these rude efforts of illuminated prints may be seen in Strutt’s Dictionary of Engravers. The Bodleian library possesses the originals.4

In the productions of early printing may be distinguished the various splendid editions of Primers, or Prayer-books. These were embellished with cuts finished in a most elegant taste: many of them were grotesque or obscene. In one of them an angel is represented crowning the Virgin Mary, and God the Father himself assisting at the ceremony. Sometimes St. Michael is overcoming Satan; and sometimes St. Anthony is attacked by various devils of most clumsy forms — not of the grotesque and limber family of Callot!

Printing was gradually practised throughout Europe from the year 1440 to 1500. Caxton and his successor Wynkyn de Worde were our own earliest printers. Caxton was a wealthy merchant, who, in 1464, being sent by Edward IV. to negotiate a commercial treaty with the Duke of Burgundy, returned to his country with this invaluable art. Notwithstanding his mercantile habits, he possessed a literary taste, and his first work was a translation from a French historical miscellany.5

The tradition of the Devil and Dr. Faustus was said to have been derived from the odd circumstance in which the Bibles of the first printer, Fust, appeared to the world; but if Dr. Faustus and Faustus the printer are two different persons, the tradition becomes suspicious, though, in some respects, it has a foundation in truth. When Fust had discovered this new art, and printed off a considerable number of copies of the Bible to imitate those which were commonly sold as MSS., he undertook the sale of them at Paris. It was his interest to conceal this discovery, and to pass off his printed copies for MSS. But, enabled to sell his Bibles at sixty crowns, while the other scribes demanded five hundred, this raised universal astonishment; and still more when he produced copies as fast as they were wanted, and even lowered his price. The uniformity of the copies increased the wonder. Informations were given in to the magistrates against him as a magician; and in searching his lodgings a great number of copies were found. The red ink, and Fust’s red ink is peculiarly brilliant, which embellished his copies, was said to be his blood; and it was solemnly adjudged that he was in league with the Infernals. Fust at length was obliged, to save himself from a bonfire, to reveal his art to the Parliament of Paris, who discharged him from all prosecution in consideration of the wonderful invention.

When the art of printing was established, it became the glory of the learned to be correctors of the press to eminent printers. Physicians, lawyers, and bishops themselves occupied this department. The printers then added frequently to their names those of the correctors of the press; and editions were then valued according to the abilities of the corrector.

The prices of books in these times were considered as an object worthy of the animadversions of the highest powers. This anxiety in favour of the studious appears from a privilege of Pope Leo X. to Aldus Manutius for printing Varro, dated 1553, signed Cardinal Bembo. Aldus is exhorted to put a moderate price on the work, lest the Pope should withdraw his privilege, and accord it to others.

Robert Stephens, one of the early printers, surpassed in correctness those who exercised the same profession.6

To render his editions immaculate, he hung up the proofs in public places, and generously recompensed those who were so fortunate as to detect any errata.

Plantin, though a learned man, is more famous as a printer. His printing-office was one of the wonders of Europe. This grand building was the chief ornament of the city of Antwerp. Magnificent in its structure, it presented to the spectator a countless number of presses, characters of all figures and all sizes, matrixes to cast letters, and all other printing materials; which Baillet assures us amounted to immense sums.7

In Italy, the three Manutii were more solicitous of correctness and illustrations than of the beauty of their printing. They were ambitious of the character of the scholar, not of the printer.

It is much to be regretted that our publishers are not literary men, able to form their own critical decisions. Among the learned printers formerly, a book was valued because it came from the presses of an Aldus or a Stephens; and even in our own time the names of Bowyer and Dodsley sanctioned a work. Pelisson, in his history of the French Academy, mentions that Camusat was selected as their bookseller, from his reputation for publishing only valuable works. “He was a man of some literature and good sense, and rarely printed an indifferent work; and when we were young I recollect that we always made it a rule to purchase his publications. His name was a test of the goodness of the work.” A publisher of this character would be of the greatest utility to the literary world: at home he would induce a number of ingenious men to become authors, for it would be honourable to be inscribed in his catalogue; and it would be a direction for the continental reader.

So valuable a union of learning and printing did not, unfortunately, last. The printers of the seventeenth century became less charmed with glory than with gain. Their correctors and their letters evinced as little delicacy of choice.

The invention of what is now called the Italic letter in printing was made by Aldus Manutius, to whom learning owes much. He observed the many inconveniences resulting from the vast number of abbreviations, which were then so frequent among the printers, that a book was difficult to understand; a treatise was actually written on the art of reading a printed book, and this addressed to the learned! He contrived an expedient, by which these abbreviations might be entirely got rid of, and yet books suffer little increase in bulk. This he effected by introducing what is now called the Italic letter, though it formerly was distinguished by the name of the inventor, and called the Aldine.

1 China is the stronghold where antiquarian controversy rests. Beaten in affixing the origin of any art elsewhere, the controversialist enshrines himself within the Great Wall, and is allowed to repose in peace. Opponents, like Arabs, give up the chase when these gates close, though possibly with as little reason as the children of the desert evince when they quietly succumb to any slight defence.

2 They are small square blocks of metal, with the name in raised letters within a border, precisely similar to those used by the modern printer. Sometimes the stamp was round, or in the shape of a foot or hand, with the potter’s name in the centre. They were in constant use for impressing the clay-works which supplied the wants of a Roman household. The list of potters’ marks found upon fragments discovered in London alone amounts to several hundreds.

3 Another reason for the omission of a great initial is given. There was difficulty in obtaining such enriched letters by engraving as were used in manuscripts; and there was at this time a large number of professional scribes, whose interests were in some degree considered by the printer. Hence we find in early books a large space left to be filled in by the hand of the scribe with the proper letter indicated by a small type letter placed in the midst. The famous Psalter printed by Faust and Scheffer, at Mentz, in 1497, is the first book having large initial letters printed in red and blue inks, in imitation of the handwork of the old caligraphers.

4 The British Museum now possesses a remarkably fine series of these early works. They originated in the large sheet woodcuts, or “broadsides,” representing saints, or scenes from saintly legends, used by the clergy as presents to the peasantry or pilgrims to certain shrines — a custom retained upon the Continent to the present time; such cuts exhibiting little advance in art since the days of their origin, being almost as rude, and daubed in a similar way with coarse colour. One ancient cut of this kind in the British Museum, representing the Saviour brought before Pilate, resembles in style the pen-drawings in manuscripts of the fourteenth century. Another exhibits the seven stages of human life, with the wheel of fortune in the centre. Another is an emblematic representation of the Tower of Sapience, each stone formed of some mental qualification. When books were formed, a large series of such cuts included pictures and type in each page, and in one piece. The so-called Poor Man’s Bible (an evidently erroneous term for it, the invention of a bibliographer of the last century) was one of these, and consists of a series of pictures from Scripture history, with brief explanations. It was most probably preceded by the block books known as the Apocalypse of St. John, the Cantico Canticorum, and the Ars Memorandi.

5 This was Raoul le Fevre’s Recueil des Histoires de Troye, a fanciful compilation of adventures, in which the heroes of antiquity perform the parts of the preux chevaliers of the middle ages. It was “ended in the Holy City of Colen,” in September, 1471. The first book printed by him in England was The Game and Playe of the Chesse, in March, 1474. It is a fanciful moralization of the game, abounding with quaint old legends and stories.

6 Robert Stephens was the most celebrated of a family renowned through several generations in the history of printing. The first of the dynasty, Henry Estienne, who, in the spirit of the age, latinized his name, was born in Paris, in 1470, and commenced printing there at the beginning of the sixteenth century. His three sons — Francis, Robert, and Charles — were all renowned printers and scholars; Robert the most celebrated for the correctness and beauty of his work. His Latin Bible of 1532 made for him a great reputation; and he was appointed printer to Francis I. A new edition of his Bible, in 1545, brought him into trouble with the formidable doctors of the Sorbonne, and he ultimately left Paris for Geneva, where he set up a printing-office, which soon became famous. He died in 1559. He was the author of some learned works, and a printer whose labours in the “noble art” have never been excelled. He left two sons — Henry and Robert — also remarkable as learned printers; and they both had sons who followed the same pursuits. There is not one of this large family without honourable recognition for labour and knowledge, and in their wives and daughters they found learned assistants. Chalmers says —“They were at once the ornament and reproach of the age in which they lived. They were all men of great learning, all extensive benefactors to literature, and all persecuted or unfortunate.”

7 Plantin’s office is still existing in Antwerp, and is one of the most interesting places in that interesting city. It is so carefully preserved, that its quadrangle was assigned to the soldiery in the last great revolution, to prevent any hostile incursion and damage. It is a lonely building, in which the old office, with its presses and printing material, still remains as when deserted by the last workman. The sheets of the last books printed there are still lying on the tables; and in the presses and drawers are hundreds of the woodcuts and copperplates used by Plantin for the books that made his office renowned throughout Europe. In the quadrangle are busts of himself and his successors, the Morels, and the scholars who were connected with them. Plantin’s own room seems to want only his presence to perfect the scene. The furniture and fittings, the quaint decoration, leads the imagination insensibly back to the days of Charles V.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53