Saxon Chronicles

A leaf from Chronecken der Sassen (Chronicles of the Saxons) by Conrad Botho, printed by Peter Schoeffer in Mainz in 1492 (284 x 199 mm)

Two months after Fust and Schoeffer published the 48-line Bible, the city of Mainz was convulsed by violence as rival archbishops vied for supremacy. Four hundred citizens were slain in a single night, and many more, Gutenberg included, driven into exile. Fust and Schoeffer were soon back in business in Mainz however, though not for long because Fust died in 1466, probably of the plague which he contracted while on a sales trip to Paris.
Peter Schoeffer carried on the business on his own. He married Fust’s daughter Christina who bore him four sons, one of whom would eventually take over the business. In a long career he published some 300 titles, including in 1492 a history of the Saxon kings from which this leaf comes.

Schoeffer was one of the most important early printers and publishers – some rate him a better typographer and printer than Gutenberg himself. He was responsible for many innovations, artistic, technical and commercial.

A comparison between this leaf and the preceding one shows how much has changed in thirty years. No longer does the printed page pretend to be a manuscript. Gone are the colours, and the need for laborious adornment of the page by hand once it has been printed. The huge decorative initials are now printed along with the text, and woodblock illustrations of considerable artistic merit abound. The text itself is no longer in the Latin of monks and clerics, but in the everyday language of the people for whom the book is intended, in this case Low German, spoken in Northern German and Dutch regions. (Marginal notes neatly written in by a reader, perhaps in the 16th century, appear to be in German too.)

The large page size typical of manuscript books has been replaced with something more manageable. The typeface for the text, described as ‘semi-cursive’, now appears without the extensive use of abbreviations. Schoeffer designed it specifically for books printed in German.

Chronicles are an important genre in early printing. The Chronecken der Sassen was the first German one to be printed and records events from 527 to 1489 AD. With nearly 600 pages and hundreds of woodcuts, it was Peter Schoeffer’s last major project. This leaf covers the years 1326-8. The woodcuts of Otto and Roleff are not necessarily likenesses, but indicate status: Otto was an archbishop and Roleff a duke.

Despite the preeminence of Schoeffer himself, Mainz was no longer a leading printing centre in 1500. The new craft flourished best in busier, more stable and more commercial places, where there were plenty of people with money to buy books.