‘Werck der bücher’ Transitions, experimentation, and collaboration in reprographic technologies, 1440–1470

This new academic project, led by Stephen Mossman (Manchester), Nikolaus Weichselbaumer (Mainz), Vincent Christlein (Erlangen) and Edward Potten (York), was awarded around £600,000 across three years (2022-2025) by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in the UK-German Funding Initiative in the Humanities competition for 2020/21.

The Project aims to redefine what is understood as the invention of printing: the single most important technological innovation of the European Middle Ages. The enduring idea that this invention was a sole point of revolution, in which the technology of printing with movable type was brought into the world fully-fledged by Johannes Gutenberg in 1452, is no longer accepted. Instead, the generation between c.1440 and c.1470 must be conceived as a period of ongoing technological experimentation across and between reprographic media. A whole range of such media flourished in that generation: books printed from carved wooden blocks (blockbooks); texts and images printed on single leaves from wooden blocks (woodcuts) or punched metal plates (metalcuts), books and documents printed with movable type (incunabula), and hybrids of all of these. Furthermore, there was almost certainly more than one different method of printing with movable type in existence. These individual printing crafts have been treated hitherto as discrete entities. Hence it has been supposed that the relationship between them, and thus between their creators, was competitive. Yet how these technologies intersected in this seminal period is currently a matter of conjecture, not knowledge. 

The project will draw together expertise from across what are currently considered to be separate disciplines – the study of leaves printed from woodblocks and metal-cuts, the study of blockbooks, and the study of printing with moveable type – to produce an holistic analysis of reprographic technology. Creating a synergy of both collections and expertise in Manchester, Mainz and Erlangen, it will develop and deploy cutting-edge digital analysis techniques for the first time to interrogate the entirety of the material output from this period. The objectives of the project will be twofold. First, to analyse digitally every printed edition produced with moveable type between 1440 and 1470, using pattern recognition approaches to be developed at Erlangen. In combination with experiments in historical printing, this will allow us to identify and define how many different technologies were actually at play, and by whom, when and where they were invented and developed. Second, to survey systematically the paper stocks used by the producers of single-leaf woodcuts and metalcuts, blockbooks and incunabula in the same period. This material investigation will allow us to determine whether these different technologies were being employed by separate workshops competitively, or, as we hypothesize, in the same workshops, to achieve different medial ends: a radically different picture of the economic history of early print culture.