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The Book of Secrets Deleted Scenes

It's rare that I cut a complete scene purely for length (which won't surprise anyone who's noticed how long Book of Secrets is). During the edit, redundant scenes either get chopped because the story's changed and they no longer make any sense, or I rework them. But with this book, there were two scenes which would have fitted into the story fine, but which I cut for pacing. One sees a young Gutenberg visit Konstanz; the other gives more detail on the workings of the printing shop.

Gutenberg in Konstanz

In the original draft of Chapter 4, Johann only saw one man burned in Frankfurt. The chapter then continued with a visit to Konstanz at the time of the great church council, where he saw the Czech reformer/heretic Jan Hus burned at the stake. I cut this because I wanted to get back to Nick's story as quickly as possible to keep the momentum going in the early chapters. As I still wanted to keep the analogy between men being burned for debasing gold and debasing the word of God, some of the detail got transferred to the description of the anonymous heretic burned in Frankfurt in the final version.

Four years later I saw my second burning. This man also was a heretic, though his sins were far more notorious than the poor mintmaster’s, infamous across Christendom. And, in a small way, I was his accomplice.

It happened this way. My father had come to Konstanz, a thriving town at the neck of the Bodensee, where the lake quickens into the upper reaches of the Rhine. It was and is a precarious city – balanced between the river and the lake; between the forest and the mountains, which loom in the distance on a clear day; between the Pope to the south and the Emperor’s realm to the north.

I say the Pope, but in fact at that time there were three men claiming the throne of St Peter, each elected and in his turn denounced as anti-Pope. This situation was abhorrent to God and men alike – it was authoritatively rumoured that no man had entered heaven in more than thirty years because of the schism. So the Emperor summoned the rivals to a council in Konstanz. They brought great retinues – dukes and cardinals, bishops and barons – and they in turn brought the hordes of merchants and vendors that swarm like fleas about any body of men.

My father was among them. The Emperor Sigismund, not satisfied with consolidating the messy profusion of popes, also wished to re-order the coinage. My father came with a delegation from the Mainz mint to vie for the honour of producing the new coins: I accompanied him. I was fifteen, a scrawny age, my whole body as thin and useless as the spindly stubble that defaced my cheeks. I think my father had already lost interest in my potential as an heir; when other merchants brought their sons with them to the taverns and tables where they did their business, I was left to explore the city alone.

I was happy enough. Konstanz during the council was a marvellous place. Every day the square outside the cathedral where the bishops met was a fairground where the whole world offered its wares. All normal tolls and restraints had been lifted for the duration of the council, so that a man might engage in any craft he chose without sanction of his guild. In one corner of the square, a journeyman group of goldsmiths, painters, illuminators and ivory carvers banded together and styled themselves the Guild of Angels. Each shared his designs with all the others, combining their strengths, so that it was possible to see the same bird or animal executed in enamel on a drinking cup, in ivory on a casket, in delicate strokes of aquamarine and crimson in the borders of a manuscript. I loved to stand by their workshop and watch the images in their many forms, shifting and changing each time they materialised. Most of all, I loved seeing them take shape in gold. Even then, I had an eye for workmanship.

I had no craft but an earnest adolescent honesty. In the perpetual market of Konstanz that too could be bartered. The craftsmen came to recognise me, then trust me, and paid me pennies to deliver commissions to the customers billeted around the town. In this way I met the heretic.

It happened on a Thursday in June, a lazy afternoon when heat made the city steam. My father was with his companions in a tavern; I wandered through the courts around the cathedral, watching butchers swat flies off their meat, bakers sweating over their ovens and scribes hanging out their manuscript pages to dry in the sun. Inevitably, my path took me past the place where the Guild of Angels had raised their stall. A stooped man with paint in his beard beckoned me across into the back corner where the painters whitewashed their panels. The thick smell of linseed oil left me lightheaded.

‘I have a job for you, little Henchen.’

I did not know him, nor how he knew my name, but the coin in his ink-stained fingers was familiar enough. I took it and nodded.

‘A simple errand.’ He hiked up his tunic and unhooked a small bag from a belt he wore inside his clothes. It gave me a glimpse of more than his purse. He extracted a small packet bound in oilcloth and handed it to me.

‘Do you know Bela the pastry maker?’

I shook my head.

‘He carries his oven on a cart and sells his pies under the sign of the green fish, by the dock. Take him this package, and in return say you would like a pasty for Brother John. He will tell you where to take it. Follow the road by the river, and if any man stops you throw the package in the Rhine at once. Do you understand?’

I took the coin and the package. He had not told me to hurry, so as soon as I was out of sight I slipped down to a little jetty on the banks of the See-Rhine. I often went there with the Guild’s objects to see how they were made, letting my fingers brush the soft enamelling or the sharp incisions of an engraving, feeling the burnish of the gold leaf in the illuminations, so smooth I could see my own face reflected in it. I loved these things.

I undid the oilcloth wrapping and peeled it apart. Between the folds emerged a plain book, no larger than my fist, with black-edged pages. There was no tooling on the binding, and when I thumbed the pages I saw no flash of gold or blazes of colour. Nothing but rows of black text in a minuscule hand, so squeezed in it seemed the words must burst off the edges of the page. I leaned closer to read it – but the tiny words defied me, jarring my mind with incomprehension. It was not Latin, nor even German. When I tried to sound out the words they stuck on my tongue.

I snapped the book shut – too loudly for a still summer’s day. A heron that had been feeding on the riverbank flew up squawking. I scrambled to my feet and hurried down to the harbour, avoiding the gaze of any man I passed, and did not rest easy until I had got rid of the parcel to a gap-toothed pastry maker at the sign of the green fish.

Two weeks later I saw the book again. It was a Saturday afternoon in a farmer’s field, and the crowds stretched almost back to the city walls. They had come to see the end of the arch heretic Jan Hus, who had preached rebellion against the church in Bohemia. My father was there – he had a taste for savage entertainments – and again he used his brute strength to push us almost to the front.

But even he could not make it into the front rank. A double ring of armed guards cordoned off the centre of the field, holding back the crowd with interlocking staves. Over their plated shoulders I could see a tall pole standing erect like an armless cross. Logs and kindling lay stacked around its base, while a little to the side an iron brazier made the air shimmer. Nobles and dignitaries circled on horseback. In front of them all stood the man they had come to see.

He was a modest figure in a black coat, cut from good cloth that must have been sweltering in the sun. Given what was to come, I suppose he did not care. He had a closely trimmed beard and a sad demeanour – he looked more like a counting-house clerk than an unrepentant heretic. But then, as I found out later, the devil takes many forms. The only sign of his wickedness was the hat he wore, a tall white mitre with devils painted on it and the word ‘Heresiarch’ strung between them, to show that he was the Archbishop of all heretics.

A priest approached and offered him confession. The heretic gestured to the crowd, pressed tightly around him. The priest nodded and shouted to the guards, who drove against us with their staves to push back the circle. They almost crushed the breath out of me.

The heretic bowed his head. The priest offered him confession.

‘I do not need it, for I am no sinner.’ His head snapped up and he stared out at the crowd. ‘I abjure nothing and renounce nothing. You my disciples, do not grieve for me but remember what I have taught you and preach it – everywhere. Do not conform to the world but be transformed by God’s power. Do not–’

Behind me, the murmurs of the crowd turned to angry shouts – some condemning him, but more in sympathy, for it was rumoured there were many Bohemians in the city at that time who had come to rescue their false prophet. The priest shouted something at the executioner, who leaped forward and dragged Hus to the waiting pyre. The heretic did not resist. The executioner set him on a stool among the firewood and bound him to the stake, scattering pitch at his feet. The guards in front of me stood shoulder to shoulder. Their faces were invisible under the low visors of their helmets, but the hands that held the staffs were white.

The executioner pulled a brand from the brazier and threw it on the fire. The noise in the crowd reached a climax, then died suddenly as if blown out by a wind when they saw it was ended. The crowd recoiled; one of the horses reared up at the smell of smoke. I thought I heard it screaming, then realised it was the heretic returning to Hell. I watched his body shrivel in the flames, though by some devilry the mitre on his head remained untouched.

Shielding his face from the immense heat, the priest was still throwing fuel onto the fire. It scarcely seemed to need it, until I realised it was not twigs he was adding but books. They caught the flames and were destroyed. Some of the pages came loose and flew into the air with sparks and embers, dancing like devils above the fire. I wondered if those were the pages that contained no error, for I had heard it said that a book of true religion does not burn in fire but emerges unscathed.

I looked back to the priest. The drift of smoke had driven him around the circle, only a few paces away from me. He had a bundle of books under one arm like a basket of eggs, from which he drew at random. He plucked another one out, and I caught a glimpse of a small leather-bound book, no larger than my fist, with black-edged pages.

I cried out at the sight of it; I thought that tongues of flame would lash out from the stake and drag me in to Hell. No-one heard, or if they did they put it down to the smoke. The priest coiled his arm and threw. I followed the book, praying it would jump out of the fire and absolve me. But the moment it touched the fire it vanished in the coals.

Later in my life I watched other men burn for their unnatural sins. And each time, a small part of my soul withered in sympathy.

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A Day in the Life of the Print Shop

In my mind's eye I saw this as a sort of tracking shot, following a page of the Gutenberg Bible from blank page to finished product. I wanted to capture the idea of the house as one giant mechanism humming away, Gutenberg's perfect invention. But it repeats a lot of information that's already been given, and makes the cardinal sin of foregrounding the research. So I cut it. Thus far, I haven't had too many complaints that the book needs more detail on medieval printing techniques.

In the beginning was the Word – a small manuscript Bible I bought for twenty gulden. Just as we broke the text down its every letter, so too the Bible had long since been cut apart into its individual pages. Gunther had calculated roughly how many of our pages each would take, and he apportioned them to the compositors. These men – painstakingly precise, with a meticulous knowledge of Latin – would hang the pages from a visorium over their desks. Then they would take a ruler with raised sides, as long and as high as a row of text, and slot the metal types onto it.

We sorted the types in wooden cases that Saspach made. Gunther the priest had discovered by careful counting that certain letters occurred far more frequently, and that the work of compositing the lines went much faster if these were nearest to hand in larger compartments in the lower part of the case. Rarer letters and ligatures were fewer and further up, and capital letters went in the upper rows.

I loved to watch the compositors at work. Slow at first, their hands now danced over the trays like hens pecking grains from the ground. After so many months they could have picked out words in the dark. It was all the more admirable for the fact that the letters had to be composed backwards, so that by the contrary laws of punch and form they would imprint correctly on the page.

When the line was completed on the stick, the words carefully spaced so that they abutted both ends, the compositor transferred it a wooden tray. Forty two lines made a column; two columns a page. They bound the completed page together with thin cords and took it to the proofing room. Gunther’s assistant inked it and took a soft impression, pressing the paper against the type with a brush. Only when Gunther himself was satisfied that the text was immaculate did we screw it into a wooden frame, the chase, and surround it with boards so that the whole assembly exactly mimicked the size of the page. Then it went to the press.

I loved to stand in the press room. I loved the tacky smell of the ink; the clatter of machinery; the calls and responses of the press-men as they readied each page. I loved watching piles of blank pages go down while piles of written pages grew in response. I felt like Jonah, standing in the belly of an enormous beast and watching its heart squirt life through it.

At first the sheets stayed in the press room four days, one for each of the pages they would yield when folded. Later, when we had greater quantities of type and experience, we were able to reduce that to two days by printing the pages out of sequence. The sheets spent another two days in the drying room, weighted down so that the paper or vellum would not warp. Then they were gathered in quires of five sheets – twenty pages – and folded together.

And so finally to the room we christened the library, a brick storehouse fitted floor to ceiling with deep shelves. These held the finished gatherings, each one labelled in chalk on the shelf. So tightly were they packed that the wall itself had begun to resemble the face of an enormous book, bristling with pages.

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