Friday, February 18, 2011

Laurens Jansz Koster (or Coster) (1370-1440) and Johann Gutenberg

Photograph by versluis © 2011

In the market-place of the city of Haarlem, The Netherlands, adjacent to the great St. Bavo Church stands a bronze statue of Laurens Jansz Koster, who apparently was the first European to print with movable type. In his hand he holds up the letter “A”, representing this fact in that Alpha (beginning) is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. The base of the statue has this Latin inscription: Memor’uc sacrum Typographia, are artiuin omnium coneervutrix, hir. primum invenla, circa annum 1440.

Obviously, Johann Gutenberg is known as the originator of movable type and the beginning of modern Western printing. In 1450 he produced the first typographic book (1). However, running contrary to this fact is that for centuries the Dutch in Haarlem have claimed and honored Koster as the first European to print books using movable type. Never mind that the Chinese and perhaps the Koreans were developing movable type characters around 1040 A.D., 500 years before Gutenberg (2).

According to Gutenberg expert Albert Kapr:

A monument still stands in Haarlem’s Grote Markt to the ‘inventor of the art of printing’. The Frans Hals Museum in the Groot Heiligland has a fine collection of blockbooks and prefigurations of printing from movable type, including copies of the Biblia pauperum and Donatus, an Abecedarium, a Septem vitia mortalia [Seven Deadly Sins], and the previously mentioned Spieghel onzer behoudenisse. In the Vleeshal, where the Enschedé Museum is housed, reposes an over-lifesize sculpture of Laurens Janszoon Coster, who holds a piece of type, and Hadrianus Junius, book in hand. The Coster legend lives on. (3)
As an aside, my mother’s maiden name is Koster; very likely no relation, but I like to think that there is.

For a brief biography of Koster please see Koster, Or Coster.
  1. Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. 2nd ed. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992. 65. Print.
  2. Ibid. 28.
  3. Kapr, Albert. Johannes Gutenberg: Persönlichkeit und Leistung. Trans. Douglas Martin. Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1996. 106. Print.

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