Early Printing

A new champion of bibliophilia

A man is writing whilst two others hold a book.

When Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1400-1468) perfected the technique of artificial writing in 1455 with his mechanical movable-type printing press, Western Europe entered a Printing Revolution.

Productivity in the early years of printing was extraordinary. Books like the University's Fables, biblical texts, personal devotionals, natural histories, and illustrated epics were commissioned for both personal and university libraries, as well as monasteries. The latter amassed the largest book collections throughout the medieval period.

From the outset, early printers understood the commercial potential of combining images with type. Illustrated incunabula refers to the combination of woodcut illustrations and movable type into a single book. These printers were ready and eager to illustrate everything from the lives of martyrs, natural histories, and public festivals to popular fables.


Pronounced tahy-pog-ruh-fee

The process of printing with type; letterpress printing. From the Greek typos: impression, cast and -graphia (-graphy): writing.

Also the design of letter forms to be organized into words and sentences to be disposed in blocks of type as printing upon a page.

So how were 15th-century books printed?

Two key processes were involved in making incunabula like the University's Fables. Discover the history behind them below.

This in-depth introduction to early printing with Stephen Fry follows in the footsteps of Johannes Gutenberg. From the technicalities of printing presses to the secrecy around the very existence of such an invention, he journeys through time and place to lift the veil on the extraordinary history of the first printing press.

The typography of the University's Fables has three main components. The first two can be seen used in the text of the fable ‘The Wolf and the Lamb’ shown here. Can you see the difference between the capitals and the main text? Here, the printer made a stylistic choice by using two different typefaces. All capital letters appear to be ornate Lombardic capitals, typically found in medieval manuscripts, whereas the text is composed in a different style.

Click full information to learn more about what makes Lombardic capitals so distinct.

Although Europeans used the technique for printing images on paper, woodblock printing was originally used in antiquity in China as a method of printing on textiles. The earliest surviving examples from China date to before 220 AD. Only much later was this method used for printing books and other texts, as well as images.

This video demonstrates this historic printing process.

You can now explore the story of The Wolf and the Lamb and Aesop’s other fables for yourself. Navigate from page to page and zoom in to look closely at its details by visiting the University’s digitised copy.