Story of Liberty - Charles Coffin

What Laurence Coster and John Gutenberg
Did for Liberty

Laurence Coster is a Dutchman, and lives in the old town of Haerlem, in the land of the windmills, where the people have built great dikes enclosing portions of the Zuyder-Zee, set the windmills to pumping out the water, and laid out the lands into farms. The whole country is intersected with canals, where the boats come and go, bringing cabbages, cheeses, hay, and wood to market. The Dutchmen are very industrious. The boys and girls, as well as the men and women, work in the fields and gardens, or tug at the canal-boats. They harness their dogs into teams, and make them tug at the ropes.

Haerlem is a sleepy old town. The boats lie at the quays, and now and then a cart rumbles along the streets. The housewives rub and scrub their pots and pans in the canals before the doors. They keep their houses neat and clean, and wash the pavements every morning.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Laurence Coster lives in Haerlem with his family. He resolves to have a day with them in the country. He goes out on one of the canal-boats with the children, and sits beneath the trees, to hear the birds sing and to breathe the fresh air; and while the children are playing the carves their names in the bark of the trees with his knife! An idea comes to him, and this is what he says to himself:

"I might carve the letters of the alphabet, each letter on a separate block, ink them over, and then I could stamp any word in the language."

This is in 1423. He goes home, prepares his blocks, carves the letters, ties them up with strings, and prints a pamphlet. Up to this time all the books in the world have been written with a pen on parchment. How slow! Men have spent a lifetime in writing one book, beginning when they were young, working till they were old, and dying with their work unfinished. The Egyptians and Chinese, hundreds of years ago, carved letters on blocks and printed from the blocks; but this Dutchman of Haerlem is the first one to tie letters into words, and print from them. Laurence Coster succeeds so well that he employs John Gutenberg, a young man from Mentz, to help him. Laurence keeps his secret well. The people see pamphlets for sale; little do they imagine, however, that they were not written with a pen.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Coster dies, but his secret does not die with him. The apprentice, John Gutenberg, is not a boy to forget what he has been doing. He goes up the Rhine. We may think of him as being on a boat that slowly makes its way up the stream, past the old towns and castles. Rheinstein, with its battlements and towers and strongholds, secure from all attacks, looms far above the stream. He gazes upon the vineyards, sloping from the river up the steep hillsides. In the autumn the peasants gather the purpling grapes, and sing their songs as they bear the baskets to the wine-press. He comes to Bingen, where the little old church with bells in its steeple looks down upon the peaceful river; but, not stopping them, he passes on to Strasburg, whose cathedral spire rises almost to the clouds, as it were. In that old city John Gutenberg begins to set up type on his own account. He thinks night and day, turning over a perplexing question. Wood wears out, and the types will not bear the pressure of the printing-press. They must be of metal. How shall he make them? To cut each type separately by hand is too expensive and too slow a process. He must make a mould and cast them, and, of course, mast have a mould for each letter. That is expensive; but once getting the moulds, he can cast thousands of types. Of what material shall they be cast? Lead is too soft. He must experiment with different metals.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Very soon his money is gone. He would like to keep his secret and his plans to himself, but that he cannot do. He must have money. There is a rich man in Strasburg—John Faust, a goldsmith, who knows about metals. He will go to him. The goldsmith sees the value of the invention, and supplies John with money, and the printer goes on engraving the letters for his moulds, experimenting with metals, meeting difficulties at every step, taking so much of John Faust's money that the goldsmith begins to think that he never will see it again. But perseverance surmounts all difficulties. One day Gutenberg shows the goldsmith his first proof. There it is—each letter as perfect as if done by a pen. It is in 1450 that they begin to print their first book, in an out-of-the-way chamber, where no one will be likely to find out what they are about.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Sixty-six years have passed since Doctor Wicklif died, and twenty-five since the monks dug up his bones. There is not much more liberty now than there was when he was alive, for kings do pretty much as they please, and the people are taxed as heavily as ever.

Charles VII. is King of France. He is a suspicious man. He is afraid that somebody will put poison in his food, and so makes his servants Taste of it before touching it himself, and he eats so little that he will die of starvation by-and-by. One day a traveller, who has a valuable book which he would like to sell to the king, comes to the royal palace. It is the Bible on vellum, and contains six hundred and seven leaves. It is such a beautiful book that the king buys it, and pays seven hundred and fifty crowns for it. The man takes his money and goes away; the king puts the book in the royal library, and is greatly delighted to know that he has such a magnificent copy.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


A traveller knocks at the archbishop's palace with a book which he would like to show his lordship—a beautiful copy of the Bible. The archbishop is delighted. He never saw a more perfect book. The letters are even. What a steady hand the writer must have had! How clear and distinct—not a blot, not an error anywhere! It must have taken the writer a lifetime to write it. He pays the price. Now he will have something to show his friends which will astonish them. The archbishop calls upon the king.

"I have something to show you—the most magnificent book in the world," says the king.

"Indeed!" The archbishop is thinking of his own book.

"Yes; a copy of the Bible. It is a marvel. The letters are so even that you cannot discover a shade of a difference."

"I have a splendid copy, and if yours is any more beautiful than min, I should like to see it."

"Here is mine. Just look at it;" and the king shows his copy.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The archbishop turns the leaves. "This is remarkable. I don't see but that it is exactly like mine." The pages are the same, the letters the same. Can one man have written both? Impossible. Yet they are alike. There is not a particle of difference between them. "How long have you had this?" the archbishop asks.

"I bought it the other day of a man who came to the palace."

"Singular! I bought mine of a man who came to my palace."

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Neither the king nor the archbishop knows what to think of it. They place the two Bibles side by side, and find them precisely alike. There are the same number of pages; each page begins with the same word; there is not a shadow of variation. Wonderful! But the archbishop, in a few days, is still more perplexed. He discovers that some of the rich citizens of Paris have copies of Bibles exactly like the king's and his own. More: he discovers that copies are for sale here and there.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


"Where did you get them?" We bought them of a man who came along."

"Who was he?"

"We don't know."

"This is the work of the devil."

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The archbishop can arrive at no other conclusion. The Bible is a dangerous book. None but the priests should be permitted to read it. But here is the Evil One selling it everywhere; or, if not himself in person, some man has sold himself to Satan for that purpose. He soon discovers that it is Doctor John Faust, of Strasburg.

"You have sold yourself to the Evil One, and must be burned to death."

Till this moment the great invention has been a secret; but Doctor Faust must divulge it, or be burned. He shows the archbishop how the Bibles are printed; and John Gutenberg has printed so many of them that the price has been reduced one-half. The archbishop, the king, and everybody else is astonished. So Faust saves his life; but the idea of his selling himself to the devil has gone into story and song. It was the translation of the Bible into English by Doctor Wicklif that gave the first uplift to liberty; and, singularly enough, the Bible was the first book printed by Gutenberg.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Laurence Coster, when he cut the letters of the alphabet in wooden blocks and tied them into words, had no conception as to what would come of it; but the idea was like the bursting-forth of a fountain in a desert. The stream that issued from it has refreshed all the earth. With the setting-up of the printing-press began the diffusion of knowledge. Knowledge leads to liberty. Men begin to comprehend that they have natural rights, which other men—nobles, barons, kings, emperors, bishops, archbishops, and popes—are bound to respect.

One day William Caxton, a merchant of London, comes over to Holland to buy cloth. He sees some of the new books, and goes into a printing-office to see how they are made. He is greatly interested, buys some of the types, and sets up a printing-press in London, in a chapel in Westminster Abbey. Quite likely the printer's workmen do not have a very high regard for the monks and friars that swarm around Westminster, for if there is a blot on the page, they call it a "monk;" and if there is a blank, they call it a "friar." And the boy who brings the ink rip from the cellar, and gets his face and hands black from handling it, they call the "devil"—words which are in use to-day in printing-offices.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The first book printed in England was entitled "The Game of Chess," in 1474. The type used was very coarse. Printers then took great delight in having large illuminated capital letters at the beginning of a book or chapter. They were printed in blue, green, and gold, and made the page very beautiful. Caxton printed a Bible, which he presented to the king.

The setting-up of the printing-press soon put an end to all the writing in the cloisters of the monasteries. The monks lay aside their pens. The printing-press turns out thousands of copies of a book almost while they are sharpening their pens and getting their parchment ready. People begin to read, and from reading comes thinking, and from thinking comes something else.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Four hundred and fifty years have passed since Laurence Coster carved the names of his children in the bark of the trees in the gardens of Haerlem—since John Gutenberg printed his first book in that out-of-the-way chamber; but through all the years that discovery of using types to express ideas has been, like the flowing of a river, widening and deepening. Through the energizing influence of the printing-press, emperors, kings, and despots have seen their power gradually waning, and the people becoming their masters.