Monday, January 29, 2018

Operating a Renaissance Printing Press

Renaissance era printing presses required a team of skilled workers for operation. Each press was manned by two journeymen, aided by an apprentice. One journeyman would fit a forme of type set by the compositor into the press bed and ink the forme with sheepskin dabbers. A second journeyman would attach a sheet of damp paper to a frame that folded over the inked forme, slide the tray under the screw, and yank the bar to lower a heavy plate onto the paper, pressing it against the inked type. Once the puller raised the plate, the apprentice would remove the wet page and hang it to dry, allowing the journeymen to begin the process anew. A seasoned team could pull upwards of three thousand pages a day. An average sized printing shop had three presses in operation; a large enterprise, five to six.

Compositors, or typesetters, sat before staggered bins of type filling the formes for each press. As soon as the initial page was drawn from a new forme, a proofreader would read and correct it. Following the proofreader's marks, the compositors would remove and replace erroneous letters before the final draw. The duties of both compositor and proofreader demanded a thorough familiarity with classical languages and literatures. Noted scholars often served a "guest stint" as corrector at a printing house. The contribution of their expertise to the production of texts elevated the shop's reputation.

Much of my novel takes place in a printing shop in Lyon, a center of the French book trade. Jollande Carlet, a spirited young widow who dreams of publishing her own poems, proofreads at the Sign of the Fountain, the small but esteemed establishment owned by her godfather. When Gabriel Orland, a court poet commissioned by the queen to investigate the Fountain's rumored role in the distribution of banned books, arrives to assume Jollande's position, sparks fly. Good thing the paper's damp, because these two spar over far more than spelling.