5 - The First Renaissance
5.1 The spread of print press in Europe
Sorting rags into grades of varying quality and strength Picture courtesy
- University of Iowa)
The printing press was not the result of a single individual’s insight and effort. It was a combination of several different inventions and innovations - block printing, rag paper, oil based inks, interchangeable metal type and the squeeze press. The act of assembling the existing innovations in a coherent manner led to a completely novel way of thinking. It shifted the collective perspective from a god-centric approach to giving human thought and rights due importance. (01)
In the early 1400s, approximately half a century before Gutenberg invented the revolutionary printing press, the government authorities ordered the burning of 200 manuscripts of, what they deemed to be were heretical writings. Eventually, both the supporters and detractors of this act realized its true impact. 200 scripts that had been collected and handwritten over centuries had been destroyed; they were almost impossible to replace. It was a priceless loss! Trained scribes were employed to try and compensate a part of what was lost. However, most scribes were monks who worked for the Church. It hardly seems feasible that the Church would loan out its scribes to copy the works of heretics. Even if they did try to salvage the works, one could hardly expect them to present an unbiased, objective version of the text. (02)
One of the main reasons that this burning occurred unchallenged was the lack of mass media; if mass media had existed, the significance of this act would have been felt even before it was committed. This unfortunate situation changed a century later. Print media allowed the general public to have access to books and knowledge that had not been available to them before. Public knowledge and individual thought developed like never before. Thanks to the popularity of the printing press, people finally learned to think for themselves rather than relying on others to do their thinking for them. The printing press became all the rage, witnessed tremendous growth and created a colossal impact. The growth of print led to a chain of scientific and technological innovations.
Logical thinking backed with evidence accelerated growth in cultures and societies which promoted printing technology. Paper currency came into existence and accelerated the growth of trade and commerce.
The availability of rag paper worked wonders for the printing press. Since centuries, the Chinese had been making rag paper from the pulp of tree barks mixed with water and discarded rags which was then pressed into sheets of paper. At the battle of the Talas River in 751 AD, the Arabs took a horde of Chinese prisoners, some of whom were skilled in the art of rag papermaking. Hence the technology gradually spread across the Muslim world, moved to Spain and finally into Europe by the late 1200s. (01)
In a surprising turn of events, the Black Death, the plague epidemic of 1350 which almost decimated an entire generation, was responsible for increasing the use and popularity of rag paper. In one of the most devastating epidemics in human history, the Black Death is believed to have killed 30-60% of Europe’s population. Those who survived the pandemic inherited the wealth of the dead; with the textile industry boom people had more clothes to buy and more money to buy them with. The large availability of garments and disposable incomes led to clothes being thrown away quicker and in greater quantities. These rags were then used to make books, replacing parchment (sheepskin) and vellum (calfskin) which had been in use until then. Apparently, Gutenberg’s bible took about 170 calfskins or 300 sheepskins to be printed. The Black Death also affected another element of society; monks died in great numbers due to the claustrophobic conditions within the monasteries. With their deaths, the number of skilled copywriters diminished as did the Church’s influence.
Johannes Gutenberg did not have a completely smooth run with his invention. Gutenberg lost a lawsuit that was filed against him by his investor Johann Fust. Thereafter Gutenberg established a new printing set up backed by another financier. With Gutenberg’s monopoly revoked, printing spread throughout Germany and beyond at the speed of a tornado. Central and Western Europe saw the setting up of Gutenberg’s printing presses in huge numbers. Major towns in particular functioned as centers of diffusion. By 1467, many new printing presses were set up in Rome, a city notorious for its staunch conservative beliefs. The printing technology readjusted the traditional opinions by circulating information about the bible (what it actually said as opposed to what the Church preached) and other literary works. The technology gradually spread across Europe, reaching Venice in 1469, Paris in 1470, Cracow in 1473 and London in 1477. Netherlands had already set up printing shops in 21 cities and towns, while Italy and Germany each had shops in about 40 towns. By 1500, 1000 printing presses were operational throughout Western Europe and had produced about 8 million books. (03)
5.2 The expansion of print press abroad
Initially, printing was considered to be of limited use; it was seen more as an efficient way to mass copy scriptures rather than as a completely new medium which would transform the way people read, wrote and handled texts. The expansion of print, not merely its invention, was the turning point in society; it opened new gates to a different mode of text reproduction. The change from manuscript culture to print culture was gradual, not revolutionary.
Early printers used conventions familiar to the scribal culture as they produced books and journals. Printing allowed mental energies to be more efficiently used by preventing the need for labour and time spent in copying manuscripts. Thanks to the new mechanical reproduction technology, publishers had more time on hand which they could devote to other aspects of text production. This included making the product itself more convenient to consume by concentrating on its appearance, packaging and presentation of text formats. In Samuel Johnson & the Impact of Print, Alvin Kernan talks about the key features that worked in favour of printing:
“The basic elements of print logic as they have been variously defined interconnect and overlap, but writings on the subject like those of McLuhan and Eisenstein regularly emphasize three leading characteristics … multiplicity, systemization and fixity. The way in which these print qualities manifest themselves in the world can be illustrated most immediately and obviously with print’s most characteristic product, the book: multiplicity – the printing press makes many different books and many copies of the same book; systemization – a book is systematically produced and internally ordered, and its existence forces the systematic structuring of knowledge; fixity – the book is objectively, durably, there, always the same or moving toward a ‘true’ form.” (03)
(Hand fed & foot operated Tradel Press)
This made reading a much easier task than it previously was which led to editing conventions that were very different from those used in manuscript production. Kernan further talks about how changing the way printed matter was presented impacted social life:
“Editorial decisions made by early printers with regard to layout and presentation probably helped to reorganize the thinking of readers… Further reflection suggests that the thoughts of readers are guided by the way the contents of books are arranged and presented. Basic changes in book format might well lead to changes in thought patterns.”
Unlike manuscript production, a great deal of attention and effort was spent on proof reading and editing; the printers did not want even tiny errors to pass under the scanner and be reproduced in thousands of copies. The printers also encouraged readers to get involved by asking them to send in the errors they found in the texts. These errors were modified and circulated in pages that acted as supplements to the books that had already been printed and were corrected in future editions. In this way, the printers could boast of publishing the most factually accurate books. In her book The Printing Revolution In Early Modern Europe, Elizabeth Eisenstein explains how this technique not only helped the printers, but also the society at large:
(A Hand Compositor)
“Not every edition, to be sure, eliminated all the errors that were spotted; good intentions stated in prefaces failed to be honoured in actual manufacture. Even so, the requests of the publishers often encouraged readers to launch their own research projects and field trips which resulted in additional publication programs. Thus a knowledge explosion was set off.”(04)
The almost parallel discoveries of sea routes to the West by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and in the East by Vasco da Gama in 1498 and the subsequent establishment of trade links greatly accelerated the global spread of Gutenberg style printing. Colonists, traders and, perhaps most importantly, missionaries exported printing presses to the new European territories overseas and set up new print shops and distributed material required for the printing process. (08)
For a long time, Gutenberg’s movable type printing was mainly adopted by Europeans working from within the confines of their colonies. According to Suraiya Faroqhi, a German scholar, two of the main reasons for the slow acceptance of the printing press outside Europe were lack of interest and religious rigidity. Printing Arabic encountered strong opposition by Muslim legal scholars and the manuscript scribes; it remained prohibited in the Ottoman Empire between 1483 and 1729, initially even on penalty of death. In spite of the resistance, some printed works in Arabic still emerged during the 16th century. Pope Julius II (1503−1512) printed some material in Arabic for distribution among Middle Eastern Christians while the oldest Qur’an printed with movable type was produced in Venice in 1537-1538 for the Ottoman market.(07) In India, Jesuits reportedly “presented a polyglot Bible to Emperor Akbar in 1580 but did not succeed in arousing much curiosity.” However practical reasons also seem to have played a role for this disinterest. The English East India Company, for example, brought a printing press to Surat in 1675. But since the printer was not able to cast type in Indian scripts, this venture failed. A notable exception to the hesitant adoption was the Cherokee Indian Elias Boudinot, who began publishing the tribe’s first newspaper, Cherokee Phoenix, from 1828. The newspaper was partly published in his native language, using the Cherokee alphabet freshly invented by his compatriot Sequoyah. (01)
(A Quality Printer)
By the 1600s, Gutenberg’s printing technology had reached out to almost 40% of the world; the rest adapted this technology by the 19th century. The arrival of the Gutenberg-style press on the shores of Tahiti (1818), Hawaii (1821) and other Pacific islands marked the end of a global diffusion process which had started nearly 400 years earlier. At the same time, the “old style” press (as the Gutenberg model came to be called in the 19th century), was already in the process of being displaced by industrial machines like the steam powered press (1812) and the rotary press (1833), which radically departed from Gutenberg’s design, but were still of the same line of development. (05, 06)
The printing revolution bloomed in the era of modern Europe by making both ancient and medieval texts available to a broader audience; this produced a fertile ground for new ideas and new theories. Marshall McLuhan rightly notes that the shift from a predominantly oral culture to print culture, also affected the nature of human consciousness in that, print represented an abstraction of thought which gave precedence to linearity, sequentiality and homogeneity. Logic might be imagined to exist independent of writing but it did not, James Gleick observes in The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. (05)
Speech is too fleeting to allow for analysis. Logic descended from the written word, in Greece as well as India and China, where it developed independently. This mode of thinking is excessively evident not only through the rationalist philosophy and realistic fiction of the time, but also in the rise of scientific materialism in the following centuries. Printing also led to the standardization of various European languages as works began to be published in these languages, making ‘correct’ spelling and grammar a measure of literacy. “Translation of the Bible into the vernacular languages,” writes Hans Kohn, “lent them a new dignity and frequently became the starting point for the development of national languages and literatures. The literature was made accessible to the people at the very time that the invention of printing made the production of books easier and cheaper.”
Eventually this standardization of vernacular languages contributed towards promoting literature which was used to create national mythologies. Maps had been in circulation since ancient times; however cartography as a science is the child of print revolution. According to Eisenstein, the fact that identical images, maps and diagrams could be viewed simultaneously by scattered readers constituted a kind of communications revolution in itself. Cartographers helped map publishers to bring out accurate maps by sending them maps from their travels and corrections of any errors they encountered. Cartography was not only important in democratizing national boundaries, but also for mapping the territories that were colonized in the new world. (04)