Book Review: Gutenberg’s Apprentice


Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie, is a tale of superstition, corruption, power struggles and fear of change. Set in fifteenth century Mainz, it chronicles the events that led to the production of the Gutenberg Bible, credited as being the first major book printed in the West using movable type.

The story is told from the point of view of Peter Schoeffer, a talented young scribe who is apprenticed to Johann Gutenberg by his foster father, Johann Fust. Each of these men is key to the endeavour by which the first run of one hundred and eighty bibles were produced over a four year period.

In order to bring Gutenberg’s idea for a printing press to fruition, the utmost secrecy was necessary. A power struggle between the hierarchies of the church and the local guilds of tradesmen threatened to bankrupt Mainz as each tried to extract profit from the citizens whilst limiting the cost to themselves. It was recognised that both would wish to exert control over this new invention when they realised its potential.

The creation of the press and the production of the bible were lengthy processes and suffered many setbacks. To get across the grinding nature of the tasks required, the book goes into repetitive detail on the struggles encountered. These included the challenges of the living and working conditions, the battles between the ruling classes, and the never ending need to finance such a long and costly venture that could show no return until completion. The author succeeds in conveying the frustrations but at a price. The book contained much of interest, but the slow process described made for heavy reading at times.

There were lighter moments, such as Peter’s courtship and his relationship with his father’s young wife and her children. It did seem though that there was little understanding or trust in the town. Even knowing from history that the bible would eventually be produced, I felt exhausted from the constant battles of wills described.

This is a beautifully produced book that tells a tale that will be of interest to any bibliophile. Between hunger, plague and the squalid conditions it is a reminder of how hard life was even for the wealthier citizens in the middle ages. The corruption of the powerful seemed all too familiar.

The invention of the printing press enabled books to be produced that could be afforded by the many. It also made redundant the skills of the scribes whose artistry had graced all books before. Machines replacing man is a tale that continues, with quality and skills being lost as cost becomes king. This invention though is hard to regret, ushering in as it did the wider dissemination of literacy and news. It is the actions of man that are to be feared, not his creations.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.



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