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Typo: A Monthly Newspaper and Literary Review, Volume 4

Early French Printing

page 129

Early French Printing.

The sumptuous volume of fac-similes just published, at a comparatively moderate cost, by the French Department of Instruction and Fine Arts, of the works of the 15th-century presses in France, is a fine example of the service which may be rendered by a public authority for those whose interests it is created to serve. In many respects, M. Thierry-Poux's Album is the best work of its kind we have seen. The excellent fac-similes of typographical monuments issued not long since by the State Printing Office at Berlin covered a wider field, and included specimens of the masterpieces of early printing all over Europe. The present work is more useful in this respect, namely, that it is entirely national. It illustrates the débûts of printing in Paris and the provincial towns of France with a series of fac-similes so admirable and so comprehensive that the student has in it a complete illustrated history of French printing in the 15th century. Every one of the forty-one towns in which the art found a home during that period is represented. Paris, of course, heads the list, and no fewer than fifty-nine fac-similes from books printed in that city alone are given; Lyons, which follows, is represented by twenty-five specimens, and so on, down to the two specimens of the press at Valenciennes in 1500 which close the series. An exact bibliographical account of each of the 167 books illustrated greatly adds to the value of the work, which is made all the more complete by its excellent concordance and the alphabetical lists for reference to the plates.

Perhaps no higher tribute could be paid to M. Thierry-Poux's work than to say that it gives to French typography what Holtrop gave to the typography of the Netherlands. The latter book, no doubt, possesses an interest which no other work of the kind can claim. It is to most students the only available source of information respecting that mysterious and romantic group of books known as the Costeriana, which, despite all the dogmatism and special pleading of partisans, still demand to be accounted for in the settlement of the question, who was the inventor of printing. France can boast no such romantic origin for her press. The young art had emerged into clear daylight long before the three foreign artisans carried into the sombre precincts of the Sorbonne the secrets of Gutenberg's craft. The only mystery, if mystery there be, attaching to the first achievements of these men was that they began to print in the new-fangled Roman characters, and reverted presently to the Gothic. But that was a theological rather than a typographical problem.

M. Thierry-Poux, however, calls attention in his preface to a comparatively new discovery, which, if it can stand the tests of the critics, is likely to necessitate the rewriting of one chapter in the early history of printing very considerably in favor of the land of the Estiennes and Didots.

A tract was issued early in the present year by the Abbé Requin with the startling title L'Imprimerie d'Avignon en 1444. Now, as the Letter of Indulgence at Mayence, the first admitted product of that press, was only printed in 1454, and the earliest date claimed for Haarlem by the most ardent Costerians is 1445, this bold claim on behalf of a small French provincial city is, to say the least of it, disturbing. The Abbé, however, does not quote without his text. He cites the documents on which he relies in their original Latin; and as the substance of his discovery may be new to many of our readers, we briefly summarise it here; premising that the authenticity both of the dates and the records claims to be vouched for on high authority, and is shortly to be demonstrated by a volume on the subject now in the press.

At the beginning of the year 1444 (says the Abbe), a jeweller from Prague, named Procopius Waldvogel, in business at Avignon, disclosed to a Jew of that city, Davin de Caderousse by name, the details of a new method of « artificial writing. » Two years later, in March, 1446, he undertook to provide Davin with the necessary material for the reproduction of Hebrew texts by this new method; that is to say, to supply twenty-seven Hebrew characters, cut in iron, together with the necessary tools and apparatus of wood, iron, and tin. The Jew promised the most profound and absolute secrecy as to the practice of the new art. In the same month Procopius exacted a renewal of the promise on the occasion of delivering to him further material necessary to the production of Latin texts by the new method.

Nor was the Jew his only confidant. As early as 1444 he had communicated the mystery to two other inhabitants of Avignon— Ferosse, a locksmith, and Georges de Jardine, both of whom bound themselves to preserve the secret. The partnership of these three men, which was disturbed both by financial difficulties and occasional mutual suspicion, continued at any rate till 1446, when we find them purchasing jointly the tools and apparatus of yet two more practitioners in the same mysterious art. These two, Vitalis and Coselhac, were scholars in the town, who had, like the rest, been initiated into the secret by Procopius, and probably set up by him in the apparatus which they now sold back. This apparatus is described as consisting of two A B C's in steel, two iron « forms, » a steel screw (?press), forty-eight « forms » in tin, and several other forms. In surrendering these, Vitalis took an oath on the four Evangelists that the art of « writing artifically » was a genuine and useful art—a precautionary testimonial apparently exacted by Procopius in view of the suspicious attitude of the Inquisition towards any new invention.

What does all this mean? Was the new « artificial writing » a method of stamping the copy letter by letter, instead of writing it, by means of separate punches? or does all this apparatus, and the variety of metals referred to, point to a still nearer approach to typography, in the casting of types from matrices and moulds?

As we have said, this strange story has yet to undergo the examination of critics competent to decide on its value. At the present stage it is only necessary to state what the nature of the new claim is. If it be sound, then we shall have to admit that in 1444, at Avignon, these men hit upon a device which (whether it resulted in the production of books, or was only a labor-saving experiment of the Scribes) was, if not typography itself, something so near it as to entitle the Pontifical metropolis of France to rank among the places which dispute the honor of having been the cradle of the Art Preservative.