MICHAEL SERVETUS WAS born Miguel Serveto Conesa alias Reves on Saint Michael's Day, September 29, 1511, in the small town of Villanueva de Sijena, in the province of Huesca. Huesca is in Aragon, at the northeast corner of Spain, just east of Navarre and about fifty miles south of the border with France. The house in which he was born still stands.
The Servetos were gentry of long standing. There is evidence of their having been given their title, infanzones, or nobles of the second category, as early as 1327. Miguel was the oldest of three sons. His father, Anthon, was a notary; his mother, Catalina Conesa, was also born of noble blood. The second son, Pedro, became a notary like his father; the youngest, Juan, stayed home and became a priest and was appointed rector of a nearby church.
The early sixteenth century was the crossroads where the medieval world, the Renaissance, the Inquisition, the New World, and the modern world all met. Although to most Americans the preeminent figure of the period was England's King Henry VIII, for most of his reign, Henry, despite the six wives, court intrigues, and general theatrics, was an afterthought in European politics. It was Charles V, the last of the Holy Roman Emperors, who dominated the stage. The Holy Roman Empire was the superpower of its time, stretching from Spain to the Balkans, from the Mediterranean to the Baltic.
Charles was a Hapsburg, born into one of the great ruling dynasties of Europe in 1500. His father was Philip the Fair, king of Castile, son of the emperor Maximilian, and his mother was Juana the Mad, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Juana, unattractive and highly unstable, had fallen madly in love with a husband who couldn't stand her. When Philip took up with someone else, Juana retaliated by hacking off his mistress's hair at a public function. Philip got his revenge by locking up Juana in a tower in Spain, where she stayed for the next fifty years.
Then everyone died--Isabella in 1504, Philip two years later, Ferdinand in 1516, and Maximilian three years after that. Charles inherited everything. Before he had turned twenty, he ruled virtually all of Western Europe except England, France, and Portugal. Charles was smart, ambitious, fearless, and intensely Catholic.
Of the three remaining holdouts, France, under Francis I, was by far the most powerful. Six years older than Charles, Francis soon became his nemesis. The French monarch had been raised by a doting mother and sister (the bohemian Marguerite of Navarre) and was taught to be brave, romantic, and chivalrous. He was after Charles from the beginning. When he was twelve, he stole Charles's seven-year-old fiancee out from under his nose, an act that did nothing to improve relations with the future emperor.
Francis understood perfectly that Charles would have liked nothing better than to add France to his empire. But holding vast amounts of territory presents problems of its own, and Charles's resources were always stretched far too thin to mount a full-scale invasion of powerful France. Francis helped maintain this tenuous balance of power by attacking Charles's forces wherever he perceived them to be weak.
For years Charles and Francis tried alternately to outflank, outwit, or outfight each other. They used diplomacy, threats, love, and treachery. Each courted and threatened the pope. But while most of the world was consumed by the shifting alliances and machinations of these two Renaissance heavyweights, another force was at work, bubbling just under the surface. It was a force that was immense and inexorable, and it was made of paper.
ABOUT HALF A CENTURY before, in the mid-1450s, an inventor had just finished a twenty-year struggle to perfect a new device that he was sure would make him a great fortune. The inventor was a shadowy figure--there is no surviving record of his birth, and no accurate image of him exists. He grew up in Mainz, about twenty-five miles west of Frankfurt in the Rhine River Valley. He seems to have been born of good family, but after some unrecorded transgression as a young man, he was forced to move to Strasbourg, about 100 miles to the south.
He seems, from the sketchy accounts that remain, to have been a disagreeable person. He worked in total secrecy--not even his next-door neighbors knew what he was up to. He borrowed heavily, putting off one creditor after another with vague promises of a vast return on investment. In fact, much of what we know about him has been gleaned from surviving court records of the many times he was sued by his partners, or unpaid bills from tax assessors or people to whom he owed money. Toward the end of this twenty-year quest, he seems to have become increasingly desperate, obsessed that someone would steal his idea or that others engaged in similar experiments would perfect the device before he did.
The inventor was Johann Gutenberg, and the invention was the process by which a book could be printed from movable type.
Although popular history often credits Gutenberg with single-handedly creating a new world of books and reading, he was merely responding to a demand that was already strong and growing fast. This was a venture much more entrepreneurial than scientific. When Gutenberg first began to tinker about with his printing apparatus in the 1430s, Europe was in the midst of a great post-plague commercial boom, with people becoming more mobile and worldlier than ever before. Literacy had been on the rise for decades, and new universities had begun to spring up in a number of major cities in Europe. Collecting books and establishing private libraries was now a popular pastime among the wealthy, and there were even glimmers of a thirst for reading material that was devoted to neither theology nor the better-known classics.
To meet this growing demand, publishers in the 1430s and 1440s had no alternative but to scramble about and try to produce as many books as possible using traditional methods. By far the most common of these was the use of scribes to create each copy of a book individually. More demand meant hiring more scribes--one publisher, Vespasiano da Bisticci, employed fifty at a time. But even this was not enough. New trainees were needed, but productive crafts like leather working, weaving, and metalsmithing paid much better than printing. Older scribes were having great difficulty inducing younger men to enter the profession.
Competition to draw from this limited labor pool grew intense, and the power of the scribes grew accordingly. In Paris, home of the most important university in Europe, there were so many of these Bob Cratchits hunched over their desks, copying one scholarly text after another, that they began to organize themselves into guilds.
The scribe system had other painfully obvious drawbacks. First and foremost, a book produced by a scribe was essentially a one-of-a-kind work of art. All calligraphers were hardly created equal, so the work of the more talented scribes was much more in demand, particularly among the aristocracy, than that of inferior artisans. In any case, a book copied by a scribe was a laborious effort, and necessarily limited by how many pages one man--no matter how adept--could produce in a day. Then there was the question of editing and correcting a product created without control or supervision. Error correction was tedious, requiring at a minimum the redrafting of an entire page. It clearly wouldn't do to have lines drawn through the text with little arrows pointing from additions in the margins to the correct spot on a page. As pressure to produce a greater volume of books increased, errors became more and more common--just how common depended upon the diligence or greed of the publisher--and neither buyer nor seller could really be sure that what was in a book, no matter how beautifully rendered, was an accurate reproduction of any given author's work.
Some publishers tried to get around the scribe problem by employing block printing. Block printing involved cutting away part of a wooden block's surface, leaving any desired text or illustration in relief. Ink was applied to the raised portions of the block, which was then pressed against the material being printed. Block printing, which began in Asia, had been used on textiles since about the fifth or sixth century and was being used to print books in China by the ninth. The Mongols used the technique for creating paper money in the thirteenth century. Block printing appeared around the same time in Italy. By the fourteenth century, German printers were using block printing for the text of illuminated manuscripts.
While the advantage of block printing was the ability to produce multiple copies from a single master, there were plenty of shortcomings here too. Creating the master copy was every bit as laborious as employing scribes, if not more so. Carving a block for each page of a four-hundred-page manuscript could take a sufficient amount of work to render all but the most timeless texts out of date. It was an approach that was only justified for texts for which the projected printing runs were quite large. And although the carvers could certainly choose hardwoods, such as oak or maple, wood is still porous, susceptible to wear, and difficult to clean, thus making it unwieldy to produce a large number of copies from a single block. Then, of course, there was the storage problem--what did you do with the blocks after you were done with them? Firewood was often the option of choice.
The inadequacies of both scribes and wood blocks in dealing with the burgeoning demand for printed material were as obvious to fifteenth-century entrepreneurs as the burgeoning demand for motor cars was to Henry Ford. Whoever came up with a better, more efficient, more cost-effective method of producing books was going to make lots and lots of money.
With the stakes this high, Gutenberg was not the only person drawn into the enterprise. All over Europe, inventors raced to come up with an idea that would work. In fact, to this day there are some who insist that there were crude versions of printing from movable type before Gutenberg's momentous achievement in 1455. Other scholars believe that some of these earlier versions were actually Gutenberg's own less sophisticated prototypes.
Since Gutenberg chose to be so secretive, there is no real record of his thought process or of the interim successes and failures he experienced in his two decades of work. It seems, however, that his first step was to create the type itself. This isn't surprising, since Gutenberg was familiar with goldsmithing, and metalsmiths had for some time used punches to deboss their work with an identifying mark. It obviously didn't take long for Gutenberg to realize that these punches could be made as easily in the shape of letters as anything else. Since 1440 is now generally accepted as the year in which he perfected typography, fifteen of the twenty years must have been devoted to figuring out how to make the type uniform. There was also the problem of utilizing the type in a practical and efficient manner.
Whatever the chronology, by 1450 Gutenberg was out of money again. He moved from Strasbourg back to Mainz, where he persuaded a local lawyer/financier named Johann Fust to become the latest in his string of partners. Fust advanced 800 guilders, a hefty sum, to allow Gutenberg to set up shop and buy tools and equipment, all of which were pledged to Fust as security for the loan, as was any product that Gutenberg might develop. Fust further agreed to loan Gutenberg 300 guilders a year for operating expenses. Instead, it seems, Fust loaned Gutenberg an additional 800 guilders in 1452. Whether or not Fust knew of Gutenberg's past associations before he put forth such a sum (which has been estimated at over one million dollars in today's currency) is unclear, but in any event, Fust turned out to be quite able to look after his own interests.
By 1453, Gutenberg had entirely reinvented the process of making books. There was not a single element of the printing process that he had not improved. He not only created the design of the type, he invented the mold used to make the actual letters, an ingenious sliding-walled box that would ensure that each letter was the exact same height as the rest, while accommodating the varying widths of different letters. He developed a linseed oil-based lampblack ink that would adhere to the typeface, transfer to the paper without smearing, and then dry uniform and black. He invented a jig to hold a page of letters, and then developed a press, modeled after a winepress, to hold the paper against the type and create a clean, sharp image. Gutenberg's method of printing was so ingenious, so elegant, that it remained largely undisturbed as the prevailing technology for more than four centuries.
All that was left was to pick a book on which to try the process. Since this was a commercial venture--posterity entered into his thinking very little, if at all-Gutenberg, not a particularly religious fellow himself, selected the Bible for his maiden effort because he thought it would be the easiest book to sell.
Gutenberg began producing printed pages sometime after 1452 and, after extensive tinkering and fine-tuning, was ready in early 1455 to show his work to the world. He took some unbound gatherings (groups of pages not yet bound into book form) to the Frankfurt Book Fair. The response was one of amazement.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Out of the Flames by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. Copyright © 2002 by Lawrence Goldstone and Nancy Goldstone. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.