In the middle of the 15th century, scribe Peter Schoeffer is dismayed to be instructed by his father to give up his beloved profession of illuminating texts in Paris. Instead he is to travel to Mainz in Germany to be apprenticed to Johann Gutenberg, an entrepreneur who has invented a new process for producing books – the printing press. Working in conditions of extreme secrecy, the men employed by Gutenberg daily face new challenges both artistic and physical as they strive to create the new books to the standard required by their master. In a time of huge turmoil in Europe and around the world, Gutenberg is relentless in pursuing his dream and wooing the powerful religious leaders whose support is critical. Peter’s resistance to the project slowly dissolves as he sees that, with the guidance of a scribe such as himself, the new Bibles could be as beautiful in their way as the old. Today we can see that beauty in some of our museums, but few know the astonishing tale of ambition, ruthlessness and triumph that lies behind it.
The invention of the printing press with movable type was arguably one of the biggest impulses that brought about the advent of the Renaissance and one of the biggest change agents in civilisation.The ability to print texts in large quantities quickly and at a markedly reduced cost changed medieval society in much the same way as the advent of the internet did ours. As an English Lit major specialising in book history, Gutenberg is naturally a person of interest to me, so when I saw Alix Christie’s Gutenberg’s Apprentice on the Headline site I knew I had to read it. Within its covers I found a riveting tale of a man driven by vision and ambition and the apprentice who was pressed into his service against his desire.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice works on several levels. The most obvious one is Peter’s story, his involuntary apprenticing to Gutenberg, his slow growing appreciation of the printing arts, and his finding a place for himself in this changing world. The second level is the story of the transmutative nature of the age. The middle of the fifteenth century was a tempestuous era in which politics and religion were all in a state of flux and the world seemed on the constant precipice of war. Through Gutenberg and Peter’s story we witness how unsettling these times were for the people living through them. Lastly, the narrative functions as a mirror on our recent history. The book is very much a reflection of our society’s reaction to the advent of the internet. There is fear, horror, and disgust, but also great enthusiasm for this new art, utter devotion to the idea and an acknowledgement of its limitless possibilities.
The characters of Peter Schoeffer and Johannes Gutenberg are at the heart of the story, which is told from Peter’s point of view. Christie manages to convey his anger, frustration, and confusion with his new status and master very well and makes it easy to let the reader identify with him. Peter was trained to be a scribe and his love for his craft and his pride in the manuscripts he produces shines through. As a scribe he’s also in a unique situation to understand the meaning of Gutenberg’s invention, though even Peter doesn’t foresee its eventual consequences to society. Peter is a sympathetic character: a dutiful son to his adoptive father, a hard worker, but also ambitious and not always as good a friend and suitor as he should be. I loved the stormy relationship between Peter and Gutenberg, which goes from reluctant to true respect and even a strange kind of affection to ultimately anger and resentment.
Gutenberg is a bit of a Steve Jobs avant le lèttre – a visionary, ambitious, ruthless, and driven to complete his vision to perfection. His is clearly a brilliant mind, but a troubled one and one that doesn’t play well with others. The way he set up his workshop, essentially closeting his workers away for the duration, so as to not let the secret of his invention spill out was somewhat maniacal and disturbing. Yet at the same time, despite his mercurial moods and foul temper, the workshop where Peter labours with about a dozen others is a harmonious and fascinating place and the scenes where we just witness the men at work on creating their bibles were some of my favourite in the book.
Like today, business espionage was rife and in the days before the invention of patents, anyone could steal your design, which explains Gutenberg’s obsession with secrecy. Yet, his secrecy was also due to political machinations. Gutenberg was an odd duck, a patrician working as a tradesman, yet not part of any Guild, something that creates no end of tension between him and the Guilds in the novel, both due to the Guilds’ innate trust of those from the social strata above them and the fact that they couldn’t control – and profit – from his trade. Additionally, there are the politics of the Church and the Holy Roman Empire, which were largely clerical, but manifested in secular affairs as well. Gutenberg has his spoon in all of these boiling pots, stirring them this way and that to gain as much advantage as he can and not always with a positive result. It creates added tension in the story and lends urgency to the narrative as Gutenberg, Peter, and the crew strife to finish their work before it is discovered.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice is sneakily compelling. Christie’s prose is evocative and atmospheric, drawing the reader into Gutenberg’s workshop and the streets of Mainz. While this review has focused mostly on Peter and Gutenberg, there are several more wonderful characters, such as Peter’s adoptive father, Johann Fust, and Peter’s sweetheart, Anna to name but two. Gutenberg’s Apprentice shows a world on the cusp of a major technological revolution and if the book is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the book, is it just as much a compelling read for those who are interested in societal change and the forms it takes. I loved Gutenberg’s Apprentice and I highly recommend it. Alix Christie is certainly an author whose work I’ll be keeping an eye on in the future.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.