A chance discovery of an old biography at The Strand inspired journalist Alix Christie's debut novel, Gutenberg's Apprentice, which tells the story of the invention of moveable type and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible. In this essay, Christie explains how her lifelong love of letterpress printing left her uniquely suited to fictionalize this remarkable true story.
I set my first line of metal type in the mid-1970s, under the watchful eye of my grandfather, who had just retired from running America's foremost hot type foundry in San Francisco. For the next 20 years or so we printed books by hand together. There's something incredibly satisfying about making something from nothing, forming letters into words, inking them and stamping them into paper. I was mainly a hobbyist, though: my interest seemed to lie more with the words themselves. My life led away from letterpress toward writing, first as a journalist and then as a writer of fiction. Still, I never really thought that this early love of printing would lead me to tackle the immense subject of its invention in medieval Germany 560 years ago.
Alix Christie and her 1910 Chandler & Price printing press
Like so many stories, Gutenberg's Apprentice began with a chance item I read in the paper: Scholars at Princeton suspected that the world's first printing types were not as sophisticated as they had thought. As an occasional practitioner of the "darkest art", I was intrigued, and squirreled this tidbit away.
A few years later, in New York's venerable used bookstore, The Strand, I stumbled across a forgotten biography of a printer named Peter Schoeffer, who had worked with Johann Gutenberg, and started looking more deeply into the history of the Gutenberg Bible. Very quickly I discovered that there was vastly more to this story than met the eye.
Printing with moveable type, the most important invention since the wheel, had not been the work of just one lone genius. It was a huge undertaking, a collaboration between the inventor, his financial backer and that little-known scribe-turned-printer, Schoeffer. Even more dramatically, this historic partnership had blown up spectacularly, ending in an acrimonious lawsuit in which Gutenberg lost his workshop.
Printing with moveable type, the most important invention since the wheel, had not been the work of just one lone genius.
This invention was an event of such importance, and what happened to those partners so compelling, that I felt it simply had to be told—not as biography or nonfiction, but as a narrative of human ingenuity and passion. I felt incredibly lucky to have the background to understand this technology, which ended the Middle Ages and ushered in the Renaissance, transforming society through mass literacy and ultimately enabling free thought and democracy.
Nobody really knows what went on in that workshop in Mainz, nor exactly how the first metal letters were forged. But I tried very hard to respect the few known facts, and the evidence of the surviving printed books, while imagining the kind of drives and motivations that might explain the tragic ending to this partnership that changed the world. Fiction grants us access to people who, though living in a different age, nonetheless felt much the same emotions as we do; it allows us to subtly investigate the reasons why people do the things they do.
From the start I felt a great affinity for Peter Schoeffer, Gutenberg's apprentice, through whom we hear the tale. I saw his story as deeply moving, torn as he was between two father figures: a brilliant master and the financier who had placed him in that Bible workshop. The deeper layers of the novel came with time, as I began imagining the feelings of that young and gifted scribe as he watched his way of life destroyed by new technology. For Peter Schoeffer lived at a time much like our own: he stood on the unsettling edge beween the old ways and the radically new. Five hundred and sixty years later, we are experiencing similarly rapid and profound change. Digital technology is transforming everything we once held sacred, bringing new rhythms, relationships and ways of communicating into our lives. It's both exciting and terrifying, and leads, for me at least, to feelings of ambivalence toward these new magical devices. I hoped that Peter's story would help us to think our own way forward, balanced as he was between the wonder of the truly new and rejection of those "crude words crudely wrought" of metal type.
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