|Missal printed for the diocese of Turku, Finland, 1488, commissioned by the local bishop|
Free press photo by University of Jyväskylä, Finland.
One of my best friends from undergraduate days, and long suffering former tutorial partner, now makes his living writing historical novels/thrillers, under the name Tom Harper. About four years ago, Tom and I by coincidence became interested at the same time in the early printing industry in fifteenth-century
Europe, in contemporary perceptions of what printing might be useful for, and how people thought it would change their world. It’s been interesting to see where those shared questions have led us, in our respective professional ways of doing history.
Tom’s Book of Secrets was published in 2009. It has a split narrative - a modern-day story line in which the New Yorker Nick Ash hunts for his missing ex-girlfriend, with a picture of a 15C playing card as his only clue, and a mid 15C thread which follows a Mainz entrepreneur as he struggles with debt and technical mishap to develop a functioning moving type press. I hope it’s not giving too much away to say that my favourite part of the novel is the haunting description of the “Devil’s Library”, a library full of heterodox and dangerous texts thought to have been lost, but which have in fact been spirited away. Tom’s account of the building in which the Devil’s Library was housed reminded me a bit of the Codrington Library in All Souls College, a series of grand vaulted rooms where you have a sense of being almost outside time. Its twisting stairwells look Escher-like to anyone crossing Radcliffe Square on a dark night. I'm not sure in the Devil's Library is a comforting thought or not to those, like me, who regularly find that early printed books they desperately want to see have been declared lost, the last known copies vanished without trace. Tom's book was about a dark side to early printing and the church's fear of the new technology.
Gutenberg and early printing have taken me in a different direction, meanwhile, and I ended up writing an article, ‘From Strassburg to
: Bishops, Printing and Liturgical Reform in the Fifteenth Century’, which was published just before Christmas in the journal Past and Present. My article argues that we have overlooked the significant and inventive ways in which the top clergy of the Roman church used the early printing industry well before the Reformation. It explores how and why bishops all over Trent Europe commissioned official liturgical (or church service) books from printers, and the intriguing ways in which these prelates thought a manuscript differed from a printed book. I had a lot of fun poring over dozens of incunabula in London, Oxford, Cracow and the Vatican – from tiny breviaries printed in Augsburg or Nuremberg before 1500 which would fit in your pocket, to a vellum Toledo missal in the British Library so monstrously large and heavy that I needed a special trolley to manoeuvre it to my desk. Unlike Nick Ash, I didn’t come across evidence of any terrible conspiracies around early printing, only of the more mundane ways in which historians and societies can forget whole episodes from the past. Nonetheless, following a trail of documents and incunabula from the 1470s, with their crisp pages and crumbling leather spines, at times felt every bit as exciting as (if a whole lot less dangerous than) being in a historical thriller.