Archive for February, 2010

From the Reading Room: Block Book Printing

Contributed to Early Modern at the Beinecke by Morgan Swan.  Morgan, who completed his doctorate in the Yale University English Department, works in the Beinecke Library Access Services department and is finishing his Master’s of Library Science.

From the Reading Room: This series of postings highlights the research of students, research fellows, and other scholars working in the Beinecke’s early modern collections.

Johannes Gutenberg’s refinement of the printing process in 1450 profoundly altered the relationship between reader and text in the western world.  However, the division between manuscript and printed text was not nearly as clean-cut as is often believed. Block books were books that contained both images and text, all printed from the same carved wooden blocks. These liminal books had been in production for several decades before Mainz’s most famous son began issuing his Bibles; they represent an often overlooked link between the cultures of manuscript and print.

These books, also known as xylographic texts, were mainly printed in the Netherlands and Germany during the first half of the fifteenth century. The printing process was simple: one purchased a carved set of blocks from the woodcutter, wet them with ink, placed a sheet of paper on top, and rubbed the back of the paper vigorously with an implement until the ink was transferred from the raised ridges on the block to the surface of the paper. For this reason, most block book pages have printing only on one side, although some later versions were produced in a printing press and therefore have images on both sides. The simple, stark nature of the images, combined with the rough and sometimes illegible text, belied the artistry that was necessary to shape such an unforgiving medium as wood.

Because each block had to be carved by hand, the artisans who carved and sold these images would often only create sets that they knew would sell. As a result, there are only a limited number of books remaining from the era of the block book. One such text is the Dutch Apocalpysis Sancti Johannis, known to English readers as the Apocalypse of St. John (or the Book of Revelation) and considered to be the most extensive and artistically pristine of block books. The examples above and immediately below are from a facsimile (a rarity in its own right) held by the Beinecke, depicting Revelation 16:8-11.

In addition to the facsimile copy of this popular block-book, the Beinecke Library holds an original single sheet printed from a different set of blocks:

Note the coloration in this second example. Decoration would have been commissioned by the buyer or printer of the block book or, as seems to have been the case in this example, done with their own unskilled hand. Another point of interest is the variation in the style of the woodcutters of the two blocks. The Beinecke’s artisan appears to have had greater skill than that of the facsimile’s original creator; note the delicate width of the fingers on the lower angel, for example. It is a shame that the illustrator of the Beinecke page lacked the same degree of finesse, even if the splashes of vivid red on the mouths of blasphemers in the lower right image, representing their bloody tongues rent in anguish, are disturbingly appropriate.

Ironically, the advent of Gutenberg’s moveable type also signaled a step backwards for such a sophisticated artistic interrelation of text and image. It would be many centuries before printers would find a way to intertwine the two in so closely-knit and stylistically satisfying fashion as is found in the block book.

Item 1: H. Theodor Musper, Die Urausbagen der hollaendischen Apokalypse und Biblia pauperum (Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1961); Beinecke call number: X183 A64 +961.  Item 2: Apocalypsis Sancti Johannis.  Netherlands, ca. 1470?  Beinecke call number: Zi +40.