Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie

20483102In 1485, Peter Schoeffer visits a friend at Sponheim Monastery and takes the opportunity to set the record straight about his work with Johann Gutenberg. Thirty years after Gutenberg’s Biblia latina was published, the man is famous as the inventor of moveable type. Schoeffer does not remember the man fondly. As he recounts the real story to Trithemius, we get to see the squabbling and backstabbing and labor that went into what would be the most famous book ever printed. Alix Christie’s Gutenberg’s Apprentice is a blend of fiction and real history. It can be a little dry at times, but the story is fascinating. Printing is taken for granted in our century, especially now the digital publishing has taken over. Gutenberg and his crew had to make several innovative leaps in order to bring the Biblia latina to the world.

We meet Peter Schoeffer in 1450, as he is returning to Mainz after apprenticing to be a scribe in Paris. He is not happy. He loves his work but he can’t say no to his adopted father, Johann Fust. His worst fears come true when Fust informs him that he will be apprenticing with Fust’s new business partner, Gutenberg, on his new project. Peter likes the project even less when he learns what Gutenberg and Fust are up to. Moveable type will be the end of scribes. At first, Peter views printing as soulless, cheap, unworthy of being used to create sacred texts. It doesn’t help that his first job in the workshop is smelting metals for the type.

Printers, c. 1568

As Peter’s responsibilities at the workshop increase, he finds his place. Peter grows to view printing as his calling once they start to work on the Biblia latina. Unfortunately, just as the project gains traction, the partnership between Fust and Gutenberg begins to disintegrate. Printing 180 copies of the Biblia takes two years. They manage to complete the project, but just barely. Fust nearly goes bankrupt and Gutenberg compromises their secrecy to print an order of indulgences for the local Archbishop to make some quick guilders.

It’s impossible not to see the conflict between scribes and printers as analogous to the current one between print books and ebooks. Gutenberg’s Apprentice doesn’t settle the debate, of course. Instead, it shows that printing was inevitable. At one point, Peter muses that all it would take was for some woodcut artist to decide to cut the elements of the block apart to work out moveable type. Christie doesn’t mention the Chinese or the Koreans at all, but they’d already worked out moveable type by this time. I also saw some of the origins of the Reformation here, as Peter gets offended at the indulgence trade. Introducing a cheaper, easily available copy of the Bible to Peter’s world is like introducing a match to an arsenal.

What Christie does do in this book is give personality back to the founders of Western printing as we know it. Gutenberg is portrayed as a manic genius who gets bored with ideas once they’re worked out. Fust is a frustrated merchant who still believes in what the project could grow into. Peter is an artisan, who wants to make the Biblia as beautiful as possible, to give soul to printing. You will need to be prepared for a lot of medieval German and ecclesiastical politics and read up on indulgences as you read Gutenberg’s Apprentice.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 23 September 2014.