The printers of the Rhine – introduction

To Byron it was ‘the wide and winding Rhine’, while Longfellow compared it to ‘the stream of time’. For millennia the mighty Rhine has been a primary artery for the movement of people and goods in Europe. Mainz itself is on the river’s bank, and it is to other commercial centres along the Rhine and its tributaries that printing spread most rapidly in the decades after Gutenberg. Strasbourg, where Gutenberg had lived at one time, had its own press by 1460. Five years later printing had begun in Cologne, and the city went on to become the leading 15th century printing centre in the German-speaking world – and incidentally the place where William Caxton would discover about printing.

Before the end of the decade Basel on the Rhine and Nuremberg on one of its tributaries had become important printing centres, as had Augsburg, lying closer to the Danube than the Rhine.

No-one could set up a press without acquiring the know-how, and this was most readily avail­able, initially, in Mainz. So it is no surprise that several of the early presses in other towns were set up by men who had trained in Mainz, either in the Fust-Schoeffer workshop or under Gutenberg himself. Three of these offshoot presses were in the Rhineland towns of Cologne, Strasbourg and Bamberg. Though still often described simply as ‘printers’, the men who set up and ran these enterprises were much more than this, taking charge of a press in the sense of a publishing house, rather than just a press as a machine for printing. ‘Printer-publisher’ would be a more accurate job description.

Setting up a press in a new location meant raising the finance, acquiring or making the plant – not least the actual metal type – and employing the men to operate it, deciding which books to print, finding reliable existing copies to use as originals (most books were already available as manuscripts), editing and proof reading, and finally selling the product, either directly or through agents at home and abroad. Eventually the functions of printer and publisher would become separate (though not until 1989 in the case of Oxford, where the University Press continued to do its own printing until that date).

In its first fifty years, printing was dominated by German-speakers, working at home or abroad. By 1500 they had produced some 11,000 different books.