The printer’s devil

Anyone who deals with the printed letter, either with its reproduction as an author or editor, or with its consumption as a reader, knows well the printer’s devil, at least from the scattered traces of his sacrificial and tireless activity. However, I met him in person yesterday in York.

The devil was sitting on top of the column of a Renaissance shop portal at the corner of Stonegate and Coffee Yard. He did not wear Prada on his red body, but only an elegant black iron chain around his waist. His spread legs showed the absence of his reproductive organs, as he sat up there before the soon-to-be-started witch trials denigrated him as the corruptor of the unfortunate women dragged into court. He wore a carefully trimmed humanist’s round beard, and he carefully scanned the passersby on the other side of the streets. They, however, did not look back at him, because in York even the child knows that whoever looks into the eyes of the red devil will be in trouble that day.

The shop at 33 Stonegate, when the devil sat upon its portal, was a print shop. Book printing took root in the important university and episcopal city of York in the 1500s, and most of the printing presses operated on Stonegate. And the presses had their own devils. Not only because book printing was considered somehow magical and in league with the devil, but also because the masters had young assistants to mix the printing ink, smear it on the lead letters, then took them apart and, if necessary, remelt them. These smudgy guys were called the devils of the printing press. And if there was a mistake in the typesetting, the master spread the blame on the printer’s devil. And since the assistants also swore that they did everything right, the printer’s devil gradually became a mysterious and elusive being, an invisible inhabitant of the printing house, who leaves his handprints even on the most carefully set and twice proofread text, precisely on the page where the reader first opens the book.

In that period there was no house numbering yet. The houses and shops were marked with colorful signs, as we still see today in the Old Town of Prague. Think about it, what self-irony and courage it took for the Stonegate master to choose the manufacturer of printing errors, considered as shameful anomalies, for the emblem of his craft. True, by doing so, he slipped aside from blame. Whoever orders a job from a workshop dedicated to the Printer’s Devil, should not be surprised at the result.

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