Many novelists create timelines as they’re writing. I had a big brown paper scroll on my study wall on which I tracked the historical actions of the pope, the archbishop, the guilds, and Gutenberg’s printing workshop. But the real timeline, the one that made my heart beat fast, was something much smaller and more arcane: two taped sheets of paper that by now are soft with folding and scribbling and use. (One half is here above, the full thing is below)
These scanned images don’t do justice to my enlargement of the production schedule for the Bible of 42 lines first developed by the German bibliographer Paul Schwenke in 1923. This was the key to it all: the secret heart of Peter’s story, his and my Holy Grail. Schwenke had analyzed the typesetters’ peculiarities and come up with 6 compositors with different stylistic tics; each had a number of “production units” assigned to him. A testament to Schwenke’s brilliance arrived sixty years later, when physicists at UC Davis analyzed the composition of the ink in two different copies of the Gutenberg Bible. What they found blew everyone’s mind: they could actually identify pages that had been printed with the same batch of ink; this occurred at two different places, marked with a big dot and a star. Even more incredibly, perhaps, their analysis absolutely confirmed Schwenke’s ordering of when each quire had been set and printed.
For me this chart was heaven-sent. No one to my knowledge had done what I did next: determine which books of Scripture corresponded to the pages. You can imagine the nerdish pleasure I derived in puzzling this all out: which compositor was setting exactly which pages on what day. They were not, of course, printed in reading order, but parceled out to different compositors; thus the Book of Jeremiah, for example, was set concurrently with Luke and some of the Psalms. I also had to establish a larger timeframe for when the crew began the actual printing and finished it: this was made easier by a recently rediscovered letter from the Kaiser’s secretary, Piccolomini, asserting that he’d seen quires in Frankfurt in October 1454. I was able to overlay a calendar at the top, in smudged pencil, incorporating political events and specific proven moments in the Bible production, like the decision to increase the size of the edition just after three quires had been printed.
Closely studying this chart, one can observe many things. There were pauses and breaks; there were moments when one compositor took over the work of another. There were periods where two presses were used in a curious zigzag fashion, printing each other’s recto and versos, as proven by the ink. There are days of long and short light, freezing days of winter and boiling days of summer, and on each of these days I could make an educated guess at which exact gospel texts these men were reading as they set them. I felt so privileged that in my omniscient capacity as author I gave a similar chart to Peter, too, to hang up in the workshop. Making a book, whether in the 15th century of the 21st, is what the French call “un oeuvre de longue haleine” ––a work of long breath. It helps to have a chart to see the end.