Books About Books: Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

Some of you might remember in 2019 I concluded my review of Margaret Leslie Davis’s The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey by mentioning I needed to follow it up with Alix Christie’s 2014 debut novel Gutenberg’s Apprentice, a novel I purchased for my Kindle back in 2015. Needing something representing Germany for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge last week I finally made do on my promise. While I didn’t enjoy Christie’s debut novel as much as I’d hoped I must tip my hat to her for crafting such a well-researched novel. 

It’s the 1450s Peter Schoeffer, is a young German scribe in Paris more interested in the frequenting the city’s brothels than copying it’s holy scriptures when he’s recalled to his native Mainz by Johann Fust, his deep-pocketed foster father. As a successful merchant with an eye for the next big thing Fust has decided to underwrite a promising new book making operation headed up by craftsman Johann Gutenberg. In return for Fust’s financial backing, Gutenberg agrees to take on Fust’s adopted son as an apprentice. In the beginning Peter loathes his new assignment, chafing under Gutenberg’s tyrannical rule, ineptly fumbling his way around the workshop and hating what little life has to offer in the provincial backwater of Mainz. Eventually, as his skills improve and with it his confidence he takes more and more pride in his work. But more importantly, he begins to understand what Gutenberg and his fellow underlings are trying to do, if successful will revolutionize the world. 

A wise history professor once told me the Reformation couldn’t have happened without the printing press. Be that true or not by the time Gutenberg and his men began casting type Mainz and its surroundings was ripe for Reformation. The Catholic Church was seen by many locals as corrupt and oppressive, too often serving the interests of the capricious and repressive nobility. Locals resented the widespread selling of indulgences by Papal representatives seeing it as just another scheme to transfer wealth from German households to Roman coffers. But just as Gutenberg’s new invention could enrich the Church by supplying it with Bibles cheaply and quickly, in theory anyway, so could it with the laity. Any monopoly the Church had over God’s Holy Word could be challenged. Even more embolden critics could use the printing press to publish their own translations as well as partisan pamphlets and broadsheets. The world would never be the same.

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