Friday, April 5, 2013

Books from Blocks

Two pages of printed text and illustrations.
Fragments from the Biblia Pauperum
Netherlands, ca. 1460-1470
Wood has been used as a method of communication for time out of mind, typically by expressing an artistic ideal through the the grain and texture of the material. However, as printing evolved, the use of wood to express both a literal and figurative meaning at the same time became more prevalent. The inclusion of both text and imagery on the same block was initially most widespread in Japan, China and other Asian regions, though in Europe it actually flourished most widely at around the same time as movable type was developed. These "block-books" eventually fell into decline and wood came to be employed mainly for creating imagery to accompany the text.

A carved woodblock.
Leaves By The Wayside
Title page block for first book
printed in the Graphic Arts
Workshop at Dartmouth College, 1948.
The process of creating a woodblock for printing is a fairly simple one in concept. The desired image or text is drawn onto the block surface, but reversed from the way it will eventually appear on the paper or other page material and the "white space" is removed with a variety of woodworking tools. The remaining wood surface is then covered in ink and a sheet of paper is pressed onto it. The ink transfers from the wood to the paper, but only on those sections that have not been removed. The thickness of the woodblock is typically matched to the height of the type so that a full page can be printed in one step.

A printed page of Japanese characters.
Prajnapamita Sutra
Japan, ca. 14th century
The more elaborate the design the more care must be taken in executing it.  The wood itself must be chosen and prepared with care to minimize cracking and warping due to the wood's natural movement as it interacts with its environment and the stresses that the block undergoes in the printing process. Even a small press can produce a tremendous amount of force. An example of a block which cracked can be found in our collection of Barry Moser's Alice in Wonderland.

The examples pictured here are taken from various collections. Ask for Val 898.1 D14 U7 (Prajnapamita Sutra), Rare Book Z 241 .B6 (Biblia Pauperum) and Lansburgh 30 (Leaves By The Wayside title page illustration).

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

"Trembling for the Relics of Their Dead"

A handwritten letter.
In 1810, a group of Dartmouth Medical School students was caught removing a body from the Norwich, Vermont, cemetery. Bodies for dissection were hard to come by at the time and grave robbing was not as uncommon a practice as one might think. Normally, medical schools obtained bodies from prisons as condemned criminals were often further punished by having their bodies given over to science. However this offered only a limited supply of cadavers for study. The same year Dartmouth opened its medical school, the state of New Hampshire stiffened the penalties for grave robbing knowing that there would be increased demand for the dead.

This letter of apology is telling of the students' attitudes toward the public. In their apology, stated "with the most pungent sensations" they put the burden back onto the people of the town:
Painful considerations force themselves upon us, with increased effect, when we contemplate our fellow citizens, in the neighboring villages, trembling for the relics of their dead, which, they have long been educated, to hold sacred; the unlawful removal of which, in their view, can be nothing short of sacrilege.
A page of handwritten text.
The villagers are reduced to trembling, uneducated peons who seem unable to differentiate between the relic and the reality. It seems the medical students are not so much sorry about what they did, but that the superstitious townspeople believe it wrong.

There are gruesome stories in the Archives. This letter is featured in the current exhibit, The Body: Depressed, Flayed, and Stolen from the Grave curated by members of Sienna Craig's "The Values of Medicine" class.  It will be on display through June 20th, after which you can ask for Mss 810900.6.