Four hundred and fifty years ago, a dishevelled entrepreneur called Johann Gensfleisch arrived at the huge Frankfurt trade fair to launch a project he had been working on with a team of skilled craftsmen for four years. Some thought it blasphemous; many marvelled and a lucky few put down a deposit for their own copy. The exhibit was the monumental Gutenburg Bible, the first to be set in moveable type. For once, it is no exaggeration to say that the world would never be the same again.
The basic technique Gutenburg developed, that of making castings of each individual letter in metal, arranging them in rows, then in frames, inking them and pressing the letters against vellum or paper, remained in use with various technical modifications until the 1960s. Even now, well into the digital age, we use terms derived from the process. We talk about upper case and lower case letters, referring to the way that the hundreds of metal casts were stored; we talk about going to press, print runs and inking contracts. It is hard for us to imagine, as we tap away at our keyboards, how filthy, noisy, exhausting and technically demanding printing used to be. Many years ago, I joined a tour of a newspaper works and still recall the excitement as midnight approached, the enormous presses roared into life and the first edition was pulled from the rollers, little knowing that I was witnessing the end of an era.
Gutenburg would have known all about ending an era. Both the Catholic Church and the powerful trade guilds in his native city of Mainz were prepared to play dirty to get their hands on his revolutionary printing press; secrecy and subterfuge gave way to hard bargaining and deals on the side; the Catholic Church, as the world’s largest bureaucracy, knew that their power rested on the mass production of indulgences as much as illuminated religious texts. At first, the fledgeling enterprise bought off the local trade associations to prevent rumours circulating. The end of the world as we know it is always going to upset somebody. And this technology was definitely in that league. Within 50 years of the Bible being shown, a mass of small printers had sprung up throughout Germany and the authority of Catholicism was being challenged. Information revolutions, and the debates they lead to, are not confined to the digital age.
How apt it seems, therefore, that the writer of the wonderful novel I’ve just finished, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, was born in Silicon Valley. She has worked as a journalist and as a printer, on her own 1910 letterpress. Her account of Gutenberg’s Bible, seen through the eyes of the three real people at the eye of the storm, is masterly. At its heart is Peter Schoeffer, plucked from his promising career as a scribe by his hard-nosed adoptive father, Johann Fust, and ordered to join Gutenberg’s workshop.
At first Peter hates it and plots his escape by sneaking out to beg work from his old contacts in the scriptorium. No wonder – he has gone from a highly skilled and refined job to a Stygian hellhole of filth and fire where his boss’s idea of discipline is to lose his temper and burn his arm with boiling metal. Gradually, however, Peter forms bonds with his fellow workers and a grudging, if guarded, respect for his near-impossible boss. Ultimately he sees the production of the Bible as his life’s calling, and part of the tragedy of the novel is that eventually betrayal and disagreement break the fellowship of labourers, even as their finished project ignites the Western world.
One of the best things about Alex Christie’s book, and this sets it apart from most historical novels, is that at its heart it’s about the joy and brotherhood connected with finding truly meaningful work. Not that it lacks in drama, romance and political manoeuvring; it has all those spades, but the beating heart of the story, and of Peter’s life, is the crucible of innovation and the bond forged by the intensity of work on a project that pushes them to the limit in every imaginable way. Nothing is romanticised; this is emphatically not the glib story of some lone genius having a lightbulb moment. We see this revolution through the eyes of Peter, whose skill and commitment see it through against almost impossible odds and Fust, the financial backer whose wheeling and dealing make everything happen, rather than Gutenburg himself. Far from being presented as a hero, Gutenburg comes over as a medieval Steve Jobs whose abrasive personality threatens the success of the great Bible as much as facilitates it, and Peter’s developing role as his fixer and executive director becomes utterly draining as the challenges escalate. Christie’s marvellous story will transport you to medieval Europe, and a characteristically German story of craftsmanship, engineering brilliance, and innovation. It joins Hilary Mantel’s prizewinning Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies as part of a new wave of realistic historical fiction, casting great figures of the past in a refreshingly modern mould.