The University of Manchester - The University of Manchester Library
First Impressions

Types of early printed book

Books were 'printed' in Europe before Johann Gutenberg produced his Bible in c.1455. 'Blockbooks' or xylographic books were printed from woodblocks (a technique that had been developed in China centuries earlier). An entire page - illustrations and text - was carved in mirror-image onto a block of wood, which was then inked and the paper pressed onto the block. Most of these books were unsophisticated and contained mainly images, often scenes from the Bible. They were used by priests and clerics as a visual means of conveying messages to their congregations, who were largely illiterate. Blockbooks first appeared a few years before Gutenberg's development of movable metal type, and continued to be produced until around 1480. They stood in marked contrast to the expensive and elaborately decorated manuscript book. Individually hand-made by scribes and often produced to order for a wealthy patron, manuscripts were expensive and time-consuming to create. Authors might produce a single copy of their original work, and a second, deluxe copy for the patron to whom it was dedicated, in the hope that the patron might pay a scribe to make more copies of it.

The Church and wealthy private patrons were the markets that Gutenberg and his successors targeted. The earliest dated specimens of printing by Gutenberg were papal indulgences issued in Mainz in 1454. Indulgences were granted by the Catholic Church to give sinners relief from punishment in purgatory, usually in return for a payment. The abuse of indulgences to raise money for the Church was one of the causes of the Reformation.

The most popular types of book were those used by the Church (bibles, missals and prayer books), scholarly works of history, philosophy and literature, mainly Latin classics, school textbooks, and practical guides for those practicing law and medicine. Many early books were printed in Latin, the language of the Church and of the legal profession. However, in the late fifteenth century, as printing spread throughout Europe, the thirst for knowledge about a host of different topics.

Printers from Germany moved to France and Italy and found a captive audience amongst university students who needed a steady supply of legal, theological and philosophical textbooks. In some cities such as Paris this academic patronage constrained their freedom to publish a wider range of titles, but the quality and practicality of the Books of Hours produced in the city made them popular; affordable and finely illustrated with woodcuts depicting scenes from the Old Testament. In the south of France, Lyon had forty printing presses by the end of the fifteenth century. Less influenced by academic needs, they produced works in the local language on health and husbandry and popular subjects such as romance. In contrast the printers in Italy, influenced by the humanist revival of interest in ancient learning, produced large numbers of classical texts by authors such as Vergil, Cicero and Euclid.

Printing came to England relatively late when William Caxton established a press in Westminster in 1476. He became acquainted with the printing business in Cologne, and set up his first press in Flanders. He printed his first book in 1473, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, his own translation of a well-known French romance, in Bruges or Ghent. The following year he published his second work The Game and Playe of the Chesse. This was one of many books about games, cooking, hunting and dancing that show how the scope of publications expanded and earned the printers of early books new audiences. In time Caxton's printing house produced over ninety books, seventy-four of which were printed in English, making England the first place commonly to print books in its own language.