Block book

In the second half of the fifteenth century there were three different ways to make a book: copy the text in writing, print it with movable type, or print it from woodblocks. Of manuscripts or codices one copy was made by a copyist, whereas Johann Gutenberg's invention to print with movable type made it possible to have a few hundred copies of the same text in a short time, and at the end of the fifteenth century sometimes many more.

The third way, the printing of block books, stands between the manuscripts and incunabula qua number of copies. Block books were made by cutting text as well as illustrations in a block of wood. This was subsequently inked, and a sheet of paper was laid on top of the block. A print was made by rubbing the paper. As the water-based ink blotted the paper, this was only printed on one side. The blank backs of the sheets were often glued together.

Few block books have come down to us. Yet more than 120 copies or fragments of the Biblia pauperum are listed in the catalogue of the exhibition Blockbücher des Mittelalters, organised in the Gutenberg-Museum in Mainz, in 1991. But those surviving copies belong to different editions or states. There is no conclusive evidence of their chronological order, as dating block books is very problematical. Paper research has resulted in dating Dutch block books to between 1460 and 1470. It is very difficult to discern the watermarks in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek copy, because the backs of the pages have been glued together. In the thirty-eight extant pages (two of the original forty are missing) an anchor watermark can be distinguished eleven times.

The *Biblia pauperum *or literally translated, the Bible of the poor, is not actually a Bible, nor was it meant for the poor. It is a complex presentation in text and illustrations of related scenes from the Old and New Testament. On the illustration reproduced on the opposite page we see Jesus being baptized by John in the centre, with on the left Moses leading the Jewish people out of Egypt, and the pursuing Egyptians being swallowed by the Red Sea. On the right Joshua and Caleb are returning, richly laden, from their expedition to spy out the land on the other side of the river Jordan.

Block book. Biblia pauperum. [The Netherlands, c. 1460-1470]. 2º, 40 (-2) leaves. Provenance: Tongerlo collection, 1828. - 168 E 1:2, fol. i

Block book.Biblia pauperum. [The Netherlands, c. 1460-1470]. 2º, 40 (-2) leaves. Provenance: Tongerlo collection, 1828. - 168 E 1:2, fol. i


Biblia pauperum: a facsimile and edition (ed. A. Henry). Aldershot 1987
Blockbücher des Mittelalters. Mainz 1991.