The Children of Jupiter - detail

An Introduction to Blockbooks

What is a Blockbook?

A blockbook is a book made up from pages which have been printed entirely - both pictures and text - from woodcut blocks.

Blockbooks of mid-fifteenth century Europe were often printed, not with a press, but by laying the sheet of paper over the inked block and rubbing the back of the paper with some rounded object (a "rubber" or "burnisher") to transfer the ink. (The technique will be familiar to many people who have done some introductory experiments in printing, perhaps in school art classes.) When you print this way, you can only print on one side of the sheet, since the rubbing of the "verso" would damage the printing on the "recto". A common way of binding books printed with this technique involved stacking the sheets so that alternate openings of the book would reveal a pair of printed pages, then a pair of blank backs. These blank openings were frequently glued closed.

Why Blockbooks?

The blockbook technology was not, as you might imagine, an early stage of printing from which printing with moveable type evolved. In fact, the age of the blockbook in Europe was contemporary with the first two or three decades of printing from moveable type; most blockbooks are dated in the 1450's, 60's or 70's. The appearance and persistence of this rather painstaking technology in the face of what has proved to be a superior way to print, can be explained on economic grounds.

Although it is more versatile to have a font (or several fonts) of type and a stock of blocks which can be used in more than one publication, or several times in the same publication, blockbook printing does not require the publisher to own either type fonts or press. In addition, one can conveniently print in small editions, without incurring the labor cost of setting the type. This reduces tremendously the financial risk of printing at a time when the cost of paper was a major factor in the economics of publishing (Hindman). (Modern technology has produced the potential for an analogous situation, with the emergence of publication-on-demand formats.)

In addition, the reading public (whose tastes, preconceptions, and prejudices publishers are known to have catered to) must have found the appearance of the blockbook familiar, with its manuscript-like text and its vivid coloring over a print which resembled a sketch.

Children of Mercury - detail

Sources and Further Reading

  • Blockbuecher des Mittelalters : Bilderfolgen als Lektuere. Exhibition catalog, Mainz, Gutenberg-Museum, June-September 1991. Mainz: Von Zabern, 1991.
  • Hind, Arthur Mayger. An Introduction to a History of Woodcut, with a Detailed Survey of Work Done in the Fifteenth Century. New York: Dover Publications, 1963.
  • Hindman, Sandra L., ed. Printing the Written Word: The Social History of Books, circa 1450-1520. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.
  • Palmer, Nigel F., ed. Apokalypse, Ars moriendi, Biblia pauperum, Antichrist, Fabel vom Kranken Loewen, Kalendarium und Planetenbuecher, Historia David : Die Lateinisch-Deutschen Blockbuecher des Berlin- Breslauer Sammelbandes : Staatliche Museeun zu Berlin, Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, Cim. 1, 2, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12. Munich: H. Lengenfelder, 1992.
  • Schreiber, Wilhelm Ludwig and Theodore Musper. Handbuch der Holz- und Metallschnitte des XV. Jahrhunderts. Manuel de l'Amateur de la Gravure sur Bois et sur Metal au XVe Siecle. Stuttgart: A. Hiersemann; Nendeln: Kraus Reprint, 1969-1976.

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