Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

When TLC Book Tours asked if I’d be interested in reading Gutenberg’s Apprentice I was in the midst of planning a road trip in Germany. The book arrived a few days before I left on my trip, so I took it along. It was a fabulous experience to read this novel, set in 15th century Germany, at night in bed after spending the day driving through Germany and strolling around medieval cities. The sense of time and place Alix Christie captures in her novel helped me imagine the lives that were lived in charming or innocuous looking medieval buildings in cities like Rothenburg, Bad Mergentheim, and Landshut.

From the publisher:
An enthralling literary debut that evokes one of the most momentous events in history, the birth of printing in medieval Germany—a story of invention, intrigue, and betrayal, rich in atmosphere and historical detail, told through the lives of the three men who made it possible.

Youthful, ambitious Peter Schoeffer is on the verge of professional success as a scribe in Paris when his foster father, wealthy merchant and bookseller Johann Fust, summons him home to corrupt, feud-plagued Mainz to meet “a most amazing man.”

Johann Gutenberg, a driven and caustic inventor, has devised a revolutionary—and to some, blasphemous—method of bookmaking: a machine he calls a printing press. Fust is financing Gutenberg’s workshop and he orders Peter, his adopted son, to become Gutenberg’s apprentice. Resentful at having to abandon a prestigious career as a scribe, Peter begins his education in the “darkest art.”

As his skill grows, so, too, does his admiration for Gutenberg and his dedication to their daring venture: copies of the Holy Bible. But mechanical difficulties and the crushing power of the Catholic Church threaten their work. As outside forces align against them, Peter finds himself torn between two father figures: the generous Fust, who saved him from poverty after his mother died; and the brilliant, mercurial Gutenberg, who inspires Peter to achieve his own mastery.

Caught between the genius and the merchant, the old ways and the new, Peter and the men he admires must work together to prevail against overwhelming obstacles—a battle that will change history . . . and irrevocably transform them.

Gutenberg may have invented the moveable type printing press and Fust may have financed the operation, but it was Peter Schoeffer who was the creative workhorse and foreman who brought the dream of printing the Bible to life. There were others around this time trying to create moveable type printing presses, but their efforts were poor. Wood carved letters and inadequate ink didn’t create the crisp and consistent printing on pages that Gutenberg had in mind or the beauty that Peter Schoeffer would gradually come to insist upon. Gutenberg is portrayed as a selfish creative genius, powered more by inspiration and greed than follow-through. Schoeffer is an artist with high standards who has the discipline (or obsession) to see the project through.


The book opens on September 1485. Schoeffer, now 60, reluctantly tells his story of the grueling four year process of printing the Bible to Abbot Trithemius. The next chapter goes back in time to September 1450 when Peter, 25, is called home from Paris by his father to be apprenticed out to Gutenberg.

Young Schoeffer is a scribe, a lover of “real” books, books that are written and decorated by hand, not soulless creations stamped out on vellum. At first he dismisses the new technology, but his curiosity gets the better of him and he’s soon fascinated by the process and the possibilities. Of course what comes to mind when reading this is today’s controversy between paper and electronic books.

Alix Christie has written a wonderful piece of historical fiction. I was instantly swept up in the details of the time period, the relationships between various characters, and the political and religious tensions of the day. But I was mainly fascinated by learning how Gutenberg and his team created the various elements of the printing press–from designing letters that looked graceful to finding the right mix of metals to make the letter castings strong enough to keep their form through various printings, to creating the ink. Today we talk about how many trees it takes to make a paper book. It took 170 calves (as in baby cows) to make enough vellum for one Gutenberg Bible. Also of interest is how bookselling worked in fifteenth century Germany. It made me want to learn more about all of the above.

Through all the experimentation and then production of such a large book, the team had to keep their work secret because what they were doing–printing the word of god–could be seen as heresy or the devil’s work. Disconnecting letters on the page from the hand and the perfection/duplication of pages was considered by many to be unnatural and therefore evil. It was also an undertaking that threatened the income of the scriptoria whose proceeds kept the cloisters and powerful bishops in money and who may have seized the workshop for their own purposes. Think indulgences and papal bulls. You can feel the Protestant Reformation building in this book. (Martin Luther was born in 1483)

Gutenberg’s Apprentice is a must read for those interested in the history of the book and book culture. In an afterword Christie writes a paragraph about the fate of key historic figures in her novel. Peter Schoeffer went on to became the world’s first major printer and founded the book event that is today known as the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The Gutenberg Bible on display at Yale’s Beinecke Library. Photo taken by me in February 2014.

Of the estimated 180 Gutenberg Bibles printed, 48 still exist and only 21 of those are complete. Christie notes that the last time one was auctioned the buyer paid $5.4 million and that was just for the Old Testament. If you want to see if there’s a Gutenberg Bible near you, check out the Gutenberg Bible Census by Clausen Books.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice
Alix Christie
HarperCollins, September 2014
Source: review copy from TLC Book Tours


  1. This sounds like a fascinating read for any lover of the written word.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour! I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

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