- L’Europe de Gutenberg: Le livre et l’invention de la modernité occidentale
Today the ubiquity of the printed word—on cards, cups, T-shirts, well beyond the sphere of literature—seems almost like that of grass or leaves, a natural phenomenon. And yet mass printing and the social, political, and other developments resulting from it have all grown from the work of one man, working in the midvalley of the Rhine within a few short years: “To the degree that we can reconstitute the facts, Gutenberg . . . began to print in Mainz, starting in 1449” (136); “printing was born in the valley of the middle Rhine, in Mainz or in Strasbourg” (192). (All translations are the reviewer’s.)
In his new book on the impact of this development, Frédéric Barbier shows that before Gutenberg’s invention text was reproduced only in conjunction with images by means (such as xylography) that allowed only minimal diffusion of brief text, even if “the decisive invention [was] in the air, to use Henri Jean Martin’s fine expression. . . . Groups of inventors and entrepreneurs [were] working on technical problems of all sorts, papermaking, fabricating mirrors, polishing precious stones, techniques of firearms, improvement in the stamping of bindings, and the search for a new method of multiplying texts” (118).
After tracing how the importance of the written word grew in Europe along with cities and, with them, universities, how books moved from monasteries to the marketplace, and how, toward the end of the eleventh century, paper finally made its way from China to Europe, Barbier narrows the focus to technical innovation as he approaches the decisive point in this story. “Despite all that has been said, the person responsible for the invention of typography in moving type can by right be identified as the Mainzer Johann (or Henne) Genfleisch zur Laden, called Gutenberg, from the name of the house where he was born (Zum guten Berge—at the good mountain) in Mainz, between 1394 and 1400” (123).
Political events drove the adult Gutenberg to Strasbourg, and so Mainz must share the glory of its native son’s invention with that city, where he seems to have done his first experiments and found his first investors. In retelling Gutenberg’s well-known tale, Barbier highlights its echoes of corresponding developments in today’s Internet world and compares the German concept of Aventur with the modern idea of research and development funded by venture capitalists: “In Avignon as in Strasbourg and later in Mainz, the perfection of a new technique is [End Page 242] financed without knowing if the research and the trials will ever produce a result” (131)—much as with today’s startups, Barbier says (lest the point be missed). (He later refers to presses as “hardware” and the text necessary for their output as “software” and calls the valley of the Rhine “paper valley”; such comparisons, far from seeming forced or self-consciously “relevant,” are convincing, not least because he uses them sparingly.)
Certainly, Gutenberg’s own story is more that of an innovative entrepreneur than of any one “eureka” moment. Along with stuttering technical progress came mundane business matters: rifts with partners and lawsuits. Gutenberg’s business savvy was also reflected in the lighter but salable works he produced while perfecting the technique that would finally allow him to show, in 1454, samples of a decisive proof-of-concept: the forty-two-line Bible. Both the market and the trade immediately recognized the revolutionary nature of this new technology; orders for the Bible (years in the actual making) poured in, and the technique used to produce it was soon adapted in neighboring areas before Paris, Venice, and other major cities finally became the chief centers of printing.
Still, the larger point of Barbier’s tale—densely and energetically told—is the impact this innovation had not only on the very idea of what made up a book but also on far wider spheres. Though the first printed books largely...