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Wood Block Books

Among the reasons that contributed to the development and flourishing of book art, the primary include the spread of Christianity. It is noteworthy that the adoption of the modern form of book, called the codex, corresponds with the rise of the new religion. The early Christians started using codices for their literature from the very beggining. Thanks to benefits of the codex, it gradually replaced the scroll, so that, in medieval culture, the codex was already a common form of book. A large number of various versions of the Scriptures, whether they were the manuscript collections or separate canonical books of the Bible, or extracts from the Bible needed for liturgical practice, was caused by extraordinary demand on religious literature, which, in turn, exceeded copyists' capabilities. By the 13th century, a new form of the sacred text occured. It was the so-called "Bible of the Poor", a handwritten anthology of fragments from the Bible, which was cheaper and, therefore, much more widely available. A collection of such texts can not be called the Bible in the strict sense of the word. The Bible of the Poor was rather a free adaptation of the Gospel stories or its the most important passages, or a presentation of the most striking scenes of the Old Testament. A common attribute of these "bibles" were numerous illustrations. A translation often turned into a series of drawings provided with explanatory titles, which, of course, contributed to the popularity of these books among the poorly educated people. In addition, the Bible of the Poor was used as a guide by priests and monks of the mendicant orders, who regarded it as improvised material for sermons.

Canticum Canticorum [Bruxelles, XV]. Wood block edition of Song of Songs. Canticum Canticorum [Bruxelles, XV]. Wood block edition of Song of Songs. Illustration to Chapter 5. Apokalypse [Germany, ca.1474]. Wood block edition of Apocalypse.

Cheap images of scenes from the Scriptures were in particularly high demand in Germany where, at the end of the 14th century, Bibles of the Poor began to appear in the form of bock books printed from a single carved wooden block for each page. The technique of printmaking and, therefore, the plate with the image or inscription has been in existence for thousands of years: it is enough to mention that stamps and seals were commonly used in the ancient world. To obtain an impression, an engraved board was covered with paint and stamped onto paper (sometimes by burnishing the back of the paper using a roller). Folded sheets were gathered together and sewn at the spine. It was impossible to make prints on both sides of the paper, so, in the earliest bock books, empty pages were interspersed with full pages. Block publications were relatively cheap, primarily due to the low price of the material - the paper. In addition, carved engravings were not of high artistic value and completely satisfied an unpretentious taste of buyers of such books.

Bibles of the Poor was one of the earliest publications issued in Europe. A wood block edition of Apocalypse also enjoyed extraordinary success.

By the middle of 15th century, lot of bock books of this kind circulated in Western Europe. However, woodcut printing was unable to publish the full text of the Bible: not many copies could be made by blocks of wood: the carvings on the woodblock became worn quickly, reducing the quality of each subsequent image, so blocks required to be replaced. Meanwhile, there was a need to spread the verified and standard text of Scripture, free from errors and omissions unavoidable in uncontrolled copying. The problem of publishing the full text of the Bible was solved only with the emergence of new technological possibilities: the first book printed on a printing press was, of course, the Bible.