A Brief History of Wood-engraving/Chapter 2



In the first half of the fifteenth century, before the invention of printing by means of movable type, many books were produced in which the woodcuts and the text were engraved on the same page, or sometimes the text was on one page and the woodcut opposite. They were impressed on one side only of the paper, and the two blank pages were often pasted together. They are usually called Block Books. Many of the cuts are more than ten inches in height by eight inches in width, and were probably cut with a knife upon smoothly planed planks of the pear-tree, or other fine-grained wood, or possibly some were engraved upon soft metal.

The most celebrated of them are:

VIII. Biblia Pauperum.—Bible of the Poor.
VIII. Apocalypsis Sancti Johnannis.—Visions of St. John.
VIII. Ars Moriendi.—The Art of Dying.
IIIV. Canticum Canticorum.—Solomon's Song.
IIIV. Ars Memorandi.—The Art of Remembering.
IIVI. Liber Regum.—Book of Kings.
IVII. Temptationes Daemonis.—Temptations of a Demon.
VIII. Endkrist (only known copy in the Spencer Library).
IIIX. Quindecim Signa.—The Fifteen Signs.
IIIX. De Generatione Christi.—Of the Genealogy of Christ.
IIXI. Mirabilia Romae.—The Wonders of Rome.
IXII. Speculum Humanae Salvationis.—Mirror of Salvation.
XIII. Die Kunst Ciromantia.—The Art of Chiromancy.
XIV. Confessionale.—Of the Confessional.
IXV. Symbolum Apostolicum.—Symbols of the Apostles.

and are supposed to have been issued between the years 1420 and 1440. There is no title-page to any of them, and the dates are generally only a matter of conjecture. Probably they were copies of illuminated manuscripts, and were drawn, engraved, and coloured by the monks in their scriptoria. Doubtless other books of a similar character may be existing in some of the old monasteries on the Continent at the present day.

The Block Books appear to have been made in Germany and Holland, and the most popular volumes passed through many editions. The earliest specimens are printed in a brown ink similar to that used for distemper drawings. It sometimes happened that the blocks used for a book were afterwards cut up and used over again in a different combination (as noticed by Bradshaw in his 'Memoranda,' No. 3, pp. 5 and 6, and by William Blades, in his 'Pentateuch of Printing,' pp. 12 and 13.) A Block-book edition of the 'Biblia Pauperum,' printed at Zwolle, was cut up, and the pieces used afterwards in a different combination. The same was done with the blocks of the 'Speculum nostrae Salvationis,' which were cut up, and the pieces used again for an edition printed at Utrecht in 1481. This was a step in the development of the art of printing.


Biblia Pauperum.—In the Print Room of the British Museum there is a very fine copy of this work, probably the first edition. It is a small folio consisting of forty leaves impressed on one side only of the paper, in pale-brown ink or distemper, by means of friction, probably by a frotton or roller, as we can tell by the glazed surface on the back. The right order of the pages is indicated by the letters a, b, c, &c., on the face of the prints, each of which is about ten inches in height by seven and a-half in breadth. On the upper part of each page are frequently two half-length figures and two on the lower, intended for portraits of the prophets and other holy men whose writings are cited in the Latin text.

BIBLIA PAUPERUM—TENTH PAGE (Reduced from 10 in. by 7½ in.)
BIBLIA PAUPERUM—TENTH PAGE (Reduced from 10 in. by 7½ in.)

(Reduced from 10 in. by 7½ in.)

The middle part of the page consists of three compartments, each of which is occupied by a subject from the Old or New Testament. The greater part of the text is at the sides of the upper portraits. On each side of those below is frequently a rhyming Latin verse. Texts of Scripture also appear on scrolls. The illustration, which is a much reduced copy of the tenth page (k), will afford a better idea of the arrangement of the subject and of the texts than any more lengthened description.

The picture in the middle represents the Temptation of Christ by the Devil; that on the right, the Temptation of Adam by Eve; and that on the left, Esau selling his birthright for a Mess of Pottage, which his Brother Jacob has evidently just cooked in the iron pot suspended over the fire on a ratchet in the chimney-breast. The ham and goat's flesh or venison hanging on the kitchen wall remind us of the Dutch paintings of two centuries later. Esau's bow and quiver will be seen to be of a very primitive character.

On the thirty-second page (to give another example) we find in the middle compartment Christ appearing to His Disciples; on the left, Joseph discovering himself to his Brethren; and on the right, the Return of the Prodigal Son.

At the bottom of the page are these rhyming Latin verses:—

Under Joseph and his

Quos vex(av)it pridem
Blanditur fratribus idem.

Under the Return of the
Prodigal Son.

Flens amplexatur
Natum pater ac recreatur.

Hic ihesus apparet: surgentis gloria claret.

Which have been roughly translated:

Whom he so lately vexed

He charms as brother next.

The wept-one is embraced

And as a son replaced,

Here doth Christ appear, in rising glory clear.

JACOB AND ESAU—BIBLIA PAUPERUM Facsimile of the original cut
JACOB AND ESAU—BIBLIA PAUPERUM Facsimile of the original cut

Facsimile of the original cut

The 'Biblia Pauperum,' although it could not be read by the laity, was evidently issued for their especial benefit, and, with the help of the priests, it afforded excellent lessons in Bible history. It is believed that the first copies were printed at Haarlem about A.D. 1430 to 1440.

Five editions of the 'Biblia Pauperum' are known as block books with the text in Latin; two with the text in German; and several others were printed about 1475 with the text in movable type. At least three editions were printed in Holland, and seven or eight others appear to be of German origin; the earlier are of the Dutch School. There are four copies, differing editions, in the British Museum, one in the Bodleian Library, and one in the Spencer Library. Some of the copies are coloured in a very simple manner.

Apocalypsis Sancti Johannis.—This work consists of forty-eight pages of woodcuts about ten and a-half inches high by seven and a-half broad, printed in ink or distemper of a greyish-brown tint on thick paper on one side only. Each page is equally divided into two subjects, taken from the Apocalypse, one above the other. The cuts are engraved in the simplest manner, without any attempt at shading, as will be seen on examination of our print, which forms the first page of the book. In the upper half St. John is addressing three men and one woman. The words in the label Conversi ab idolis per predicationem beati Johannis Drusiana et ceteri are literally 'Drusiana and the others are converted from idols by the preaching of the blessed John.' The letter a indicates page 1. In the lower half we see St. John baptizing Drusiana in a very small font in a small chapel; outside are six ill-looking men trying to peep in through the chinks of the door. Over the chapel are the words Sanctus Johannes baptisans, and over the men Cultores ydolorum explorantes facta ejus, literally, 'Worshippers of Idols spying on his acts.' Two of the idolaters are armed with hatchets, as if they intended to break open the door. [The Latin words, in accordance with the usual practice of the monks, are contracted in a manner very puzzling to those unused to these mediæval writings.] There are several editions of the Apocalypsis, all apparently of German origin.

APOCALYPSIS SANCTI JOHANNIS One of the earliest of the Block Books
APOCALYPSIS SANCTI JOHANNIS One of the earliest of the Block Books

One of the earliest of the Block Books

Many bibliographers, treating of block books and arguing from the very simple style of the drawings and engravings, consider that the 'Apocalypsis' was the first that was produced. Many worse woodcuts were issued in the eighteenth century. It would be very hazardous indeed to fix a date by the quality of woodcut illustrations.