Lately I’ve been looking at a lot of medieval manuscripts. And thinking about mostly just… medieval manuscripts. Which is great; I’ve seen amazing things in the last few days and my dissertation is coming along nicely. But I’d like to think about something else for a bit, so while this topic is actually kinda still medieval, at least it’s a form of printing.
Blockbooks appeared in northern Europe at almost the same time as movable type, during the mid-fifteenth century, and may have developed from the printing of patterned fabric, individual devotional images, and playing cards. They can be differentiated from other types of early printed books because they didn’t use movable type: text was always carved into the block along with the images. This process is labor-intensive and sort of a bitch if you screw up or decide to change something, but it allowed for quick, cheap reproduction. Pages were printed on one side by rubbing the paper against the carved and inked block, and the blank sides were often glued together before binding. Hand-coloring of the illustrations was also common. These were cheap, popular, and ephemeral publications, similar in that way to the broadsides that would become ubiquitous in later centuries. Blockbooks were probably owned by a range of people, including the illiterate, and may have been common teaching aids. This is mostly speculation, though, as few copies remain and we have little material evidence of their use.
Blockbooks developed into a handful of extremely specific genres, usually based on older manuscript books and traditional illustration cycles. Here are examples of a few:
Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying): You’d think that once at the deathbed there couldn’t be much left in the way of sin. After all, you can’t move enough to commit murder or adultery, and you’re probably not in the mood for gluttony. Unfortunately, this is incorrect. In the medieval Christian worldview death was a time of significant temptation and obviously the most important time to resist. The Ars moriendi were guides to a good death, explaining the types of sin that the dying could fall into, and counseling both the sick and his or her family on how to behave at this crucial time. In the illustrations saints and demons fight over the soul of a dying man, who eventually goes to heaven. In the image below, from the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel (which has a nice selection of digitized blockbooks), the dying man is tempted by devils into deathbed-specific sins such as despair, impatience, and pride.
Apocalypse: These blockbooks are based on the Book of Revelation, one of the most visually interesting parts of the Christian Bible, and their format and illustrations come from manuscript traditions that are extant in an illuminated Apocalypse held by the Bodleian Library. The image below, of the mouth of Hell, is from a hand-colored Apocalypse at the University of Glasgow, which was featured as their website’s book of the month in August 2005. The site includes lots of images and a really excellent discussion of this particular book of the Bible and the blockbooks it inspired—highly recommended.
Danse Macabre (Dance of Death): This was a widely popular series of illustrations that originated in the late Middle Ages, probably as a response to widespread mortality during the plague, and it appeared in many variations in books and artwork. In each image Death takes someone, from children, paupers and farmers to merchants, scholars, knights, kings, and popes; the lesson being that Death can come at any moment and he doesn’t care how much money or power you have. Potentially humbling for the rich, darkly humorous for the downtrodden. BibliOdyssey has posted a nice set of images from a German Totentanz at the University of Heidelberg: below, death takes (what I assume is) a haughty queen. Interestingly, in most of the pictures Death looks jovial, but here he seems pretty annoyed by the queen’s attitude. The coloring in these is also nicely done.
Biblia Pauperum (Poor Man’s Bible): Some might say it’s the ideal Bible for the easily distracted internet generation. The Biblia Pauperum compresses the the whole thing into 40 pages— mostly illustrations of the life of Christ. From the Herzog August Bibliothek, a page featuring a scene from Genesis. I really like the serpent, though a it’s bit odd that Eve seems to be the one offering the fruit. Here you can see that the quality of script carved into a piece of wood could easily be less than optimal. The text in the Ars moriendi above is much better.