Block printing

10 November 2010 § 1 Comment

Dutch: blokdruk

A page from the block book 'Biblia Pauperum'

Before the advent of modern western methods, a whole series of techniques had occured in China: engraving, writing by hand, multicolour printing, lithography, printing with individual fonts and block printing. These two last inventions, together with the use of paper, are fundamental in the process leading to the current book.

In the third quarter of the fourteenth century, the block print-technique also occures in Europe. However, there’s a lack of indication that the technique came to Europe from outside.

Chronologically blockprints come before incunables, but people kept using this primitive technique, while the typography was already blooming. Since the first quarter of the fifteenth century, a few block books (the result of block printing) occured in The Netherlands, at first in the south, somewhat later in the northern regions.

Block printing is a form of relief printing, the oldest of the printingmethods, whereby the ink is being transfered on raised parts of the printing surface, whether of wood or metal. Block books were made by hand, as separate wood engravings (Einblattdrucke). A piece of paper was put on the inked block, with some more pieces of paper on top of that for protection and then this got rubbed over with a brush or another round object. This way the ink from the block got tranferred onto the first paper.

From the beginning of the fifteenth century in The Netherlands, block prints were leaflets (mostly wood engravings from holy figures) and booklets on wood blocks, initially engraved with images, but later on also with words, sentences or whole pages of letterprint. Block prints were very laborious and therefore expensive in relation to the the small yields of only a text: after printing, the cut block became worthless. With soaring demand for inexpensive, large books one came to the discovery of printing with movable type.

From the few block books that have been made, there are only a couple left, also in a limited number of copies. A few examples of remaining block books are: the Apocalyps, presumably produced around 1440, with probably the underlying of the drawings from the ‘master of Catherina van Kleef’, the Biblia Pauperum (approx 1460), the Canticum Canticorum (approx 1465) and the Speculum humanae salvationis (approx 1460-70). They were all found in what is now Germany and The Netherlands.

Sources and further reading:

Braches, Ernst. Inleiding geschiedenis van de letter. Blokdruk en blokboek voor 1500 in Europa. Amsterdam, 1991.

Hellinga W. Gs., Kopij en druk in de Nederlanden. Atlas bij de geschiedenis van de Nederlandse typografie. Amsterdam: Federatie der Werkgeversorganisatiën in het Boekdrukkersbedrijf, Vereniging van Nederlandse Chemigrafische Inrichtingen, Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers Mij, Amsterdam 1962.

Overdiep, G.S., Geschiedenis van de letterkunde der Nederlanden. Deel 3. Antwerpen/Brussel: Standaard Boekhandel, Den Bosch: Teulings’ Uitgevers-maatschappij 1944.

Poortenaar, Jan. Van prenten en platen. De grafische technieken in voorbeelden, afbeeldingen en beschrijving. Naarden: Uitgeverij In den Toren, fourth edition.

Wu, Che-fu, De geschiedenis van het Chinese boek. (translated into Dutch by Koos Kuiper). Leuven/Apeldoorn: Garant 1993.


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