(Cross-posted to my blog.)
I'm having a good time reading Philip Gaskell's New introduction to bibliography, the first third of which is nothing more (and nothing less) than an exhaustive explanation of the entire process of making a book during the Hand-Press Era (1450-1850, or so).
Although it is not social history, per se, Gaskell endeavors at points to portray not only the process but also something about the people.
"It may be as well to emphasize at this stage," he states, digressing from his discussion of compositing, "that real (as opposed to theoretical) printing was a complex craft carried out by fallible and inconsistent human beings of widely different capabilities." Gaskell then catalogs some of the foibles of the "old printers", who encountered "moments of disastrous clumsiness" and who "improvised and botched without hesitation whenever their tools or materials did not precisely meet the needs of the moment."
It is easy to imagine the early print shop as busy yet oddly contemplative places. This is in part, I think due the way printing presses are portrayed in illustrations of the period. Often they show the print workshop as a quiet ballet, in which the various professionals of the shop, the compositors and pressmen, work in tandem to create the print-master's Opus. But many engravings of the print shop served a didactic function (and continue to do so), and so were more concerned with presenting a complex, dynamic craft as a static tableau, in which each separate activity and role (both professional and social) can be examined.
But there is also, particularly among bibliophiles, a tendency to view printing as something of a sacred art. After all, what could be more noble an activity than making ideas indelible? I suspect that many of us who work in the "Information-Industrial Complex" feel that we are, in some way, heirs to that tradition.
But the reality of the early print shop was surely something far more exciting, and dangerous. Print shops were, often quite literally, liminal places, where rootless strangers came and went at odd hours, journeymen who lived often transitory lives. Relationships between master printers and their journeymen were notoriously difficult to manage; journeymen would often strike, or simply not show up to work, if they felt they were not being compensated well enough for their work. However, this was not the only thing master printers had to worry about; drunkeness and hooliganism were also frequent problems.
Gaskell tells us of a certain journeyman, relating,
the curious behaviour of Plantin's compositor Michael Mayer, who in June 1564 spent Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in a brothel, then went to sleep on a box in his room on Thursday morning and finally packed his things and left the establishment without saying a word to anyone.
One wonders whether prudence has led Gaskell to omit some details between Wednesday night and Thursday morning. Regardless, the real lesson of the story is yet to come: "Mayor… was hired again later by Plantin." That is, despite questionable behavior, the kind which we only experience and get away with is while we are in our "journeyman" college days, a journeyman compositor's skill was often enough to compensate for foibles committed in other spheres of life.
But it was not only journeymen who could live larger than life. Master printers – themselves journeymen who had achieved the right to set up their own shops — had by force of circumstance to be strong personalities, willing to cajole partners into gambling sums of money in the hopes of making a good return on an edition. Many printers must have been temperamental figures. A final story Gaskell finds in an early printer's autobiography demonstrates a falling out among two such figures, over a joint venture:
a quarrel which took place in about 1540 between Thomas Platter and Balthasar Ruch, partners in a printing business in Basel…
I [Platter, quoting from his autobiography] was correcting a proof at about eleven o'clock when Balthasar began needling me, and finally swearing and saying, "I don't know what you're on about…" I answered his nastiness back.
He says nothing, but taking hold of a heavy pine board he gets behind me while I am working on the proof and is on the point of bringing it down on my head with both hands. Then I look round and see the blow comping, I jump up and ward it off with my arm. Then we were hitting each other and struggling; he scratched my face badly and tried to gouge my eye out with his fingers. When I saw what he was up to, I drew back for a punch and his himi so hard on the nose that he fell on his back and lay there for some time, so that his wife stood over him and cried out, "Mercy! You've done my husband in!"
I find this a thoroughly charming — if somewhat three-stoogian — vignette. But, like almost every other contemporary portrayal of an early printer's shop, this one also has a didactic function. For the next day the two bruised companions are paid a visit by their investment partners, who were thoroughly displeased, "that we should be the masters, and should behave towards each other in this way." Gaskell, returning as ever to concerns bibliographic, comments, "One wonders whether that proof was ever properly read."
[Quotations from: Philip Gaskell, A new introduction to bibliography (Delaware: Oak Knolls Press, 1995): p. 43-49.]