Letters in Wood

Collectors of blockbooks


Watermark in Bodleian

Xylographic printing

The lack of imprint information in block books fuelled speculation in later centuries as to whether they represented the earliest form of book-printing in Europe, or a separate type of printing that co-existed with typographic books. Current scholarship dates the earliest European blockbooks to the early 1450s, and sees the technology of xylographic printing as complementing the production of typographic books, especially the development of book illustration, rather than representing a distinctly earlier evolutionary form.

Some collectors of blockbooks were motivated by a wish to find the earliest examples of printing or clues to how printing became a technology used throughout Europe. The Oxford antiquary Thomas Hearnes notes, written in 1714, contain his speculations about early methods of printing.

This edition of the Speculum humanae salvationis, printed with woodcut pictures, 20 xylographic (woodcut printed) leaves and the remainder of the text leaves printed from metal type, represents a hybrid between xylographic and typographic printing. This copy was printed in the 1470s.

In the 20th century, scholars used evidence of the watermarks of paper on which blockbooks were printed to argue that some of these were made contemporary with or later than, not before, the earliest books printed by Gutenberg.

15th-century xylographic printing of text alone is represented here by copies of an indulgence issued in the 1480s.

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