[Germany: about 1470, impression about 1478–80]

Blockbooks, books with text and images printed together from incised wood blocks, followed a separate but parallel development from those printed with moveable type. Blockbook leaves were printed on one side only, with iron-gall ink, in a handpress or by rubbing. Most were hand-coloured in a style that mirrored a long tradition of illustrated Apocalypse manuscripts.


Blockbook printing, which in its purest form meant the production of books with text and pictures entirely printed from incised wood blocks, emerged in parallel to typographic printing with moveable type, around the middle of the fifteenth century. The earliest such book to have survived completely intact is a blockbook Apocalypse printed in the Low Countries and datable on the basis of paper evidence to about 1450-1452, which puts it about four years earlier than Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible. Text and images of the blockbook Apocalypse were borrowed from the tradition of English illustrated Apocalypse manuscripts, in particular a small group of ‘picture book’ manuscripts in which the explanatory text was integrated into the pictures rather than being set out separately. The mode of printing was entirely different from that of the regular printed book: the leaves were printed on one side only, with a water-based ink quite different from printing ink, and most examples appear to have been printed in a hand-press or by rubbing.

With the conventional printed books of the incunable period the type had to be dismantled after each set of sheets had been printed, which involved manufacturing all copies of an edition at once, but there was no need for this with blockbooks. One set of blocks would be used again and again to produce small runs, or issues, distinguishable from one another only by the state of the blocks and the paper stocks employed. The blockbook Apocalypse went into six editions in all, each edition entailing the execution of a new set of twenty-four or twenty-five wood blocks, each with two pages.

The early editions of the Apocalypse were ‘stacked-sheet’ blockbooks, in which the pages were printed in pairs, side by side, on one side of the paper, and the printed sheets then folded and placed one after another to be bound. The blank pages were usually pasted together. The book illustrated here is particularly unusual in that it was printed on both sides of the paper on double leaves, with a single image to the left on each side of the sheet, so that when assembled all printed images are versos, and thus positioned to the left when the book is open. The opposite pages, the rectos, remained blank. This is one of only four copies of blockbooks known to have been assembled in this manner.

Essay by Professor Nigel Palmer

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