Revolution in printing

The revolution in printing books with images enabled Agricola to produce a book which gained widespread acclaim for many years.

The early book trade

In the early days, the town of Basel in Switzerland was at the forefront of printing books. The local monasteries and university assisted with proof reading, editing and promoting the books that were produced there. Printers at the time were highly respected and, in addition to being scholarly, they required technical and commercial knowledge. They not only printed the books, but they also acted as publisher and bookseller, often organising the sale of the books and transportation. Unlike today most books were sold as loose sheets and it was up to the customer to have them bound. Around the year 1500 there were about ten bookbinders in Basel, most of them being small family businesses. By 1557 the Froben Printing House in Basel had a catalogue which included a list of twenty-five theological, thirty-nine philosophical and four juridical works. There were also thirteen medical, six historical and five scientific works, among them De Re Metallica.

Source: P. Tschudin, ‘The Basle letterpress printing – the cradle of Agricola’s main works’, Geojournal, vol. 32, no.2, (1994), pp. 169-72.

Following websites contain further information:

Gutenberg and his printing press:

The spread of the book trade across Europe:

Illustration of Basel. Reproduced from Hartmann Schedel, The Nuremberg Chronicle, (Nuremberg, 1493) ©Beloit College, USA

History of the Woodblock Technique

Woodblocks were invented in China in the ninth century A.D. Their use gradually spread westwards and, by the thirteenth century, they were being used in Europe for printing onto textiles. It was only when there was a cheap supply of paper that they became common in book production. Source: Antony Griffith, Prints and Printmaking (London, 1996), p. 16 Early woodcuts were intended to be hand coloured and to resemble miniature paintings. 

Source: Daniel De Simone Lilian Armstrong, Daniela Laube and Paul Needham, A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books (Washington, 2004), p. 48



The printing of movable type, like the woodcut, is a relief process. Once the printing press and movable type were invented in the mid-fifteenth century, woodcuts provided the ideal means for illustrating early printed books. The woodblocks could be placed alongside the type in the flatbed press and printed at the same time. The same image could be used to illustrate more than one text or could even be used more than once in the same text.
Woodcut was a technique popular with artists of the Northern Renaissance, such as the German artist Albrecht Durer. The Northern Renaissance which developed in the countries north of the Alps as the influence of the Italian Renaissance began to spread throughout Europe, was closely linked with the Protestant church.

The process of creating a woodcut

• The artist makes a drawing on a sheet of paper the size of the finished woodcut.
• The drawing is then traced onto a flat wooden block
• A cutter then carves the block, leaving behind a thin ridge of wood following the lines drawn by the artist.
• The surfaces of the raised ridges are then inked and a sheet of paper is pressed onto the inked surface.
• The paper is removed and the image is in reverse from the original drawing

Source: Daniel De Simone Lilian Armstrong, Daniela Laube and Paul Needham, A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books (Washington, 2004), p 26

‘The Miner’ a woodcut by Jost Amman from The Book of Trades (Frankfurt, 1568)
© Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum

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