Neo Gutenberg - Chapter Four

Jayraj Salgaokar is the publisher and founder of Kalnirnay, India's largest selling multilingual publication. He has been a Marathi author since he started writing in 1976. He completed his post graduation in Economics from the University of Bombay in 1978. As an eclectic thinker, his interest in writing ranges from biographies, culture, economics, politics, socialand contemporary trends. In his book Neo Gutenberg, he pays tribute to the history of print through a contemporary lens.

30 Oct 2013 | By Jayraj Salgaokar

4 - The Pioneers

4.1 Peter Abelard

“Assiduous and frequent questioning is indeed the first key to wisdom ... for by doubting we come to inquiry; through inquiring we perceive the truth.”
- Peter Abelard

Early Life

Peter Abelard was one of the most eminent philosophers and logicians of his time. Born in Brittany, France in 1079, he was the eldest son of a wealthy lord. While he was encouraged to study The Liberal Arts, Abelard was always expected to follow in his father’s footsteps.

However, Abelard decided to give up his inheritance and a future of knighthood to pursue his academic ambitions. His early scholastic pursuits saw him wandering throughout France, learning what he could from scholars and debating those he did not agree with. Abelard was blessed with a sharp mind and an even sharper tongue. Well aware of his talents, he did not let go of any opportunity to display his intellectual aptitude.
Abelard’s travels led him to Paris while he was still a teenager. He settled down at the great cathedral school of Notre Dame under the tutelage of William of Champeaux, disciple of the famed Anslem of Laon who had been a leading proponent of Realism. However, Abelard didn’t agree with Anslem’s beliefs and soon locked horns with his master.

He bested William in a series of debates. A twenty-two year old Abelard further antagonized him by setting up his own school in direct competition to William. Abelard had found his calling. His teaching career was tremendously successful and people came from all over the country to become his pupils. His sermons were extremely After an ill-fated love affair with Heloise, a brilliant scholar of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, Abelard chose to bury his troubles by joining a monastery. Even here, he continued his non-conformist actions by attacking the traditions respecting their founder and patron saint.

Abelard was one of the chief historical proponents of scholasticism. Scholasticism believed in the school of thought that disagreements should be resolved by holding reasoned debates between people who held different points of view. Scholastic thought is also known for drawing out conclusions based on rigorous analysis of a concept. In writings and even in the classroom, this took the form of intellectual debates where a topic is posed in the form of a question, the opponent presents his response, his response is countered, and an opinion is then offered for rebuttal. Scholasticism was eventually applied to many other fields of study.
According to Charles Homer Haskins in The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, “He was daring, original, brilliant, one of the first philosophical minds of the whole Middle Ages. First and foremost a logician, with an unwavering faith in the reasoning process, he fell in with the dialectic preoccupations of his age, and did more than anyone else to define the problems and methods of scholasticism, at least in the matter of universals and in his text, Sic et non. The question of universals, the central though not the unique theme of scholastic philosophy, is concerned with the nature of general terms of conceptions, such as man and horse.

Are these, as the Nominalists asserted, mere names and nothing more, an intellectual convenience at the most? Or are they realities, as the Realists maintained, having an existence quite independent of and apart from the particular individuals in which they may be for the moment objectified?

A mere matter of logical terminology, you may say, of no importance in the actual world. Yet much depends upon the application. Apply the nominalistic doctrine to God and the indivisible Trinity dissolves into three persons. Apply it to the Church, and the Church ceases to be a divine institution with a life of its own and becomes merely a convenient designation for the whole body of individual Christians. Apply it to the State, and where does political authority reside, in a sovereign whole or in the individual citizens? In this form, at least, the problem is still with us. Practical thinking cannot entirely shake itself free from logic, and conversely, logic has sometimes practical consequences not at first realized.”

Going against the popular line of medieval thought, Abelard insisted that an individual did not just exist to be of assistance to the Church or the community. He asserted that an individual was a complete entity with a whole world within himself and that he existed within his own right.
Abelard’s dialectical analysis of the mystery of God and the Trinity in his book Theologia was held to be erroneous. The book was formally condemned as heretical and burned by a council held at Soissons in 1121 while he himself was placed under house arrest for a while. (02)

Abelard wielded an enormous influence over his contemporaries and on the course of medieval thought. Many of his pupils included men of future fame, such as the English humanist John of Salisbury. However, he also antagonized many people through his criticism of other masters and his suggested revisions of the traditional teachings of Christian theology. (01)
“During the Middle Ages, European social life was based on several dominant ideals. These ideals were inspired by the Christian faith as interpreted by the Church. Not everyone lived up to these ideals, but everyone was affected by them. Ordinary men and women might sin but they were more than careful to do penance before the situation got out of hand. The Church ordered everything - sight and sound, time and space, fell under the control and word of the Church.

In her book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, historian Barbara Tuchman wrote that:
‘Christianity was the matrix of medieval life: even cooking instructions called for boiling an egg “during the length of time wherein you say a Miserere.” It governed birth, marriage, and death, sex, and eating, made the rules for law and medicine, gave philosophy and scholarship their subject matter. Membership in the Church was not a matter of choice; it was compulsory and without alternative, which gave it a hold not easy to dislodge.’ (02)
With Tuchman’s quote in mind, the dominant force in this climate of opinion was clearly the Christian Church. But, the religion of the 12th century was undergoing a gradual transformation. Whereas in an earlier time, man was becoming more Christian, in the 12th century, there were efforts underway to make Christianity more human. That is, more oriented toward man. During the historical Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries, this sentiment would be expressed by the word humanism.”
12th century Europe embraced a relatively new optimistic faith. There were many people who could neither accept nor believe that the majority of mankind would be damned forever, Abelard among them. He wrote a book called Ethica or Scito te ipsum (Know Thyself), in which he analyzed the notion of sin and reached the drastic conclusion that human actions do not make a man better or worse in the sight of God, for deeds are in themselves neither good nor bad.

What counts is a man’s intention; sin is not something done; it is uniquely the consent of a human mind to what it knows to be wrong. “We call the intention good which is right in itself, but the action is good, not because it contains within it some good, but because it issues from a good intention. The same act may be done by the same man at different times. According to the diversity of his intention, however, this act may be at one time good, at another bad,” he believed. (01)

His radical notions concerning individualism and original sin went on to affect some of the greatest minds of the modern age. People started to look beyond what the Church taught them and engaged in religious enquiry of their own. Thinkers started to push for the rights of individuals. The winds of change were slowly but surely beginning to blow.

4.2 Roger Bacon

"The conquest of learning is achieved through the knowledge of languages.” 
- Roger Bacon
Early Life
English philosopher and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon dedicated his life to scholastic pursuits. He graduated from the Oxford University, became a master there and then went on to the University of Paris. He was also fluent in several languages. However, he was majorly grieved that the holy texts and works of Greek philosophers were heavily corrupted. Numerous mistranslations and misinterpretations meant that the true essence of the message was lost. His writings urged for a reform in theological study. (02)
Bacon withdrew from his scholastic life and decided to immerse himself into the study of languages. A few years later, he became a friar with the recently founded Franciscan order. The order emphasized poverty and education, both of which he hoped would provide a suitable setting for his intellectual interests.
However, once he became a friar, he could no longer hold a teaching position. In 1260, the order passed a statute that prohibited friars from publishing any material without it being approved. This proved to be a hindrance in Bacon’s academic path. He got into a dispute with the Franciscan order and was banished to a convent, charged with performing menial tasks. His exile ended unexpectedly when Guy Le Gros de Foulques, a former admirer of his work, became Pope Clement IV. The new Pope wanted to read Bacon’s thoughts about and remedies for the “current conditions”. This led to Roger Bacon’s famous work, the Opus Majus. It covered everything from astronomy to zoology, medicine to perspective. It also reflected his belief in the primacy of mathematics in science and knowledge, the need to be open-minded, the importance of communication and the necessity of experimentation.
Bacon was a firm proponent of scientific enquiry and experimental research. He urged theologians to study all sciences closely and to add them to the normal university curriculum. With regard to the obtaining of knowledge, he strongly championed experimental study over reliance on authority, arguing that “thence cometh quiet to the mind”. Bacon did not restrict this approach to theological studies. He rejected the blind following of prior authorities, both in theological and scientific study, which was the accepted method of undertaking study in his day.
“The 840 page Opus Majus was divided into seven parts. Part IV contained an elaborate treatise on mathematics, the alphabet of philosophy as he called it, maintaining that all the sciences rest ultimately on mathematics and progress only when their facts can be subsumed under mathematical principles.

He illustrated this by showing how geometry is applied to the action of natural bodies, and demonstrated certain laws of physical forces using geometrical figures. He also proposed how his method could be used to determine some curious, long-discussed problems, such as the light of the stars, the ebb and flow of the tide, the motion of the balance. He closed this section of his work with two comprehensive sketches of geography and astronomy. The one on geography was particularly interesting; it was read by Christopher Columbus, who was strongly influenced by its reasoning.”(02)

“Part V of the work dealt with perspective. Bacon was very proud of this section, most of which he owes to the Arab writers Kindi and Alhazen. (02)The treatise began with an overview of psychology and then went on to describe the anatomy and functions of the parts of an eye; while the anatomy was well done, the functions were not completely accurate. Bacon then discussed topics like vision in a right line, the laws of reflection and refraction, and the construction of mirrors and lenses. In this part of the work, as in the preceding, his reasoning depended essentially upon his peculiar view of natural agents and their activities. His fundamental physical maxims were matter (which he called by various names) and force. He believed that change, or any natural phenomenon, was produced by the impression of force on matter - the result being the thing known. Physical action was, therefore, impression, or transmission of force in lines, and must accordingly be explained geometrically. Bacon considered this view of nature fundamental, and it formed the root of his whole philosophy.”

“Part VI spoke of experimental science. He wrote about the existence of two methods of knowledge: the one by argument, the other by experience. He believed that mere argument was never sufficient; it may decide a question, but it gave no satisfaction or certainty to the mind, which could only be convinced by immediate inspection or intuition which is what experience provided. “Argument is conclusive... but... it does not remove doubt, so that the mind may rest in the sure knowledge of the truth, unless it finds it by the method of experiment. For if any man who never saw fire proved by satisfactory arguments that fire burns, his hearer’s mind would never be satisfied, nor would he avoid the fire until he put his hand in it that he might learn by experiment what argument taught,” he explained.” (02)
Bacon is often considered the first European to describe a mixture containing the essential ingredients of gunpowder. According to Science and Civilization in China by Joseph Needham, Bacon had most likely witnessed at least one demonstration of Chinese firecrackers, possibly obtained through other Franciscans, like his friend William of Rubruck, who had visited the Mongols. The most telling passage in Bacon’s work reads: “We have an example of these things (that act on the senses) in [the sound and fire of] that children’s toy which is made in many [diverse] parts of the world; i.e. a device no bigger than one’s thumb. From the violence of that salt called saltpetre [together with sulphur and willow charcoal, combined into a powder] so horrible a sound is made by the bursting of a thing so small, no more than a bit of parchment [containing it], that we find [the ear assaulted by a noise] exceeding the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning.” (01)

“Bacon, to be sure, did have a sort of laboratory for alchemical experiments and carried out some systematic observations with lenses and mirrors. His studies on the nature of light and on the rainbow are especially noteworthy, and he seems to have planned and interpreted these experiments carefully. (03)
But his most notable experiments were never actually performed; they were merely described. He suggested, for example, that a balloon of thin copper sheet be made and filled with ‘liquid fire’; he felt that it would float in the air as many light objects do in water. He seriously studied the problem of flying in a machine with flapping wings. He was the first person in the West to give exact directions for making gunpowder (1242); and, though he knew that, if confined, it would have great power and might be useful in war, he failed to speculate further (Its use in guns arose early in the following century.) Bacon described spectacles (which also soon came into use); elucidated the principles of reflection, refraction, and spherical aberration; and proposed mechanically propelled ships and carriages. He used a camera obscura (which projects an image through a pinhole) to observe eclipses of the sun.” (03)
However, his thought experiments did not go in vain. He advocated modern scientific methods at a time when most of his contemporaries were still stuck in the medieval mindset. His innovative ideas inspired others to bring his vision into fruition. His work encouraged others to conduct their own experiments, both physical and mental. This spearheaded revolutionary ideas and processes and eventually helped in bringing about the Renaissance.

4.3 Marco Polo

“I have not told half of what I saw.”
– Marco Polo
Early Life
Born in Venice in 1254, Marco Polo was the original adventurer extraordinaire. One of history’s first travel writers, Polo is best known for his journeys through Asia. His book The Travels of Marco Polo introduced Europeans to the life and customs of an entirely new culture. In an era before printing, his book met with astounding success, largely due to his exotic descriptions of the places he visited and the thrilling exploits of his voyages. (01)
Exotic expeditions were something of a Polo family tradition. Polo’s father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo were both wealthy merchants who traded extensively with China and the Middle East. In 1253, right before Marco was born, both men set off on a trading voyage to distant China, the heart of the Mongol empire that had been established by the fearsome Genghis Khan. Everybody thought Niccolo and Maffeo were crazy.

The Mongols were known to be a warrior clan, believed to be ruthless and brutal to anyone who crossed them. The journey to the country itself was an arduous one, fraught with danger. The people wondered why the Polo brothers wanted to risk their lives on this perilous journey when they might just end up being killed at its end. But the brothers sensed a chance for profit. They travelled to the court of Kublai Khan, the heir of the empire. Contrary to popular belief, Khan welcomed the foreign traders and exhibited tolerance and curiosity about their origins. (02)
Niccolo and Maffeo returned to Venice in 1269 and met Polo for the first time. In 1271, seventeen-year-old Polo joined his father and uncle in their trip back to Asia. Polo did not return home until twenty-four years later; he was lucky to return alive at all. In his book Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, author Laurence Bergreen highlights the dangers of such a journey, “A drought; a sandstorm; a debilitating disease, a renegade squad of murderous thieves; jealous rivals … a sudden snowstorm or bolt of lightning - any of these common occurrences could have brought the expedition to a sudden end … No rescue party would have come looking for them, and few in Venice would have mourned their passing.” (01)
After working in Kublai Khan’s court for a number of years, Polo returned to Venice with his family in 1295. (02) Throughout his travels, he had been an ardent observer and took copious notes. On his return journey, Polo was armed with years’ worth of reports. However, his homecoming was not exactly pleasant; he found himself in the middle of a battle and was captured in a Genoese prison. While Polo might not have been a huge fan of being imprisoned, it was a happy accident as far as his contemporaries and descendants are concerned – this was where his book was born. (01)
It was in prison that he met Rustichello of Pisa, an established writer of popular romances. Listening to the tales of Polo’s adventures, Rustichello knew he had found the story of a lifetime. “Without the stubborn Pisan to force the Venetian wayfarer to sit still long enough to dictate his overflowing reminiscences,” Bergreen notes, “the story of Polo’s travels would never have been written.” Polo also sent for his journals and coupled with his firsthand accounts, Rustichello helped Marco write what was to become The Travels of Marco Polo. (01)
As Bruce Barcott writes in his New York Times review of Bergreen’s book, “What the two came up with was nothing short of a blockbuster. Marco Polo’s ‘Travels’ spilled over with sex, violence, suspense, exotic lands, strange people and bizarre practices. Mongol horsemen thundered out of its pages. Polo dazzled readers with descriptions of the singing sands of the Desert of Lop and a firsthand account of the metropolis of Quinsai, now known as Hangzhou, the most advanced and prosperous city in the world. Polo recounted the cutthroat politics of Kublai Khan’s court in all its delicious drama, complete with power-mad counselors, backstabbing colleagues and grisly executions. (03)
Polo included the dark side of his adventures, too. He had to elude marauders, survive shipwrecks and cross treacherous deserts. Anxiety, loneliness and thirst were constant companions. In Myanmar, he survived a night among villagers who regularly murdered noble visitors to trap their souls and bring good fortune to the house.”
The book captivated its readers with its dramatic content. Through its descriptions of Chinese innovations, it also shattered European notions of the East being a backward society. In fact, some Europeans refused to believe the fantastical tales outright and dismissed the book as a work of fiction. Perhaps they could not accept the fact that this barbarous civilization could be so advanced in matters that the Europeans themselves were unfamiliar with. Polo stood firm by his book, going as far as to say that what he had published did not cover even half of what he saw and experienced. “In the end, Marco Polo’s greatest contribution to history was to deliver this simple news to Europe: The Asians, they’re not so bad. They are kind of like us. In some ways, they are better.”
Polo’s work boosted global exploration; his tales inspired others to carry out expeditions and unearth the world’s mysteries. Christopher Columbus was so motivated by his writings that he visited those lands himself. Among his belongings, a copy of The Travels of Marco Polo with handwritten annotations was found. To a certain extent, Marco’s travels are also believed to have influenced the development of cartography which ultimately led to the Europeans launching exploratory voyages a century later.
Begreen further illustrates how Polo’s writings influenced the European Rennaisance:
“The Renaissance in Europe owed a tremendous debt to the inventions that Marco Polo (1254-1324), his father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo brought back to Venice from their twenty-four years of travel in China:
[Upon their return from China] the three Polos received respect from their fellow citizens with Polo singled out for special attention. ‘All the young men went every day continuously to visit and converse with Messer Marco,’ Giambattista Ramusio claimed, ‘who was most charming and gracious and to ask of him matters concerning Cathay (China) and the Great Khan, and he responded with so much kindness that all felt themselves to be in a certain manner indebted to him.’
It is easy to understand why Polo attracted notice. The significance of the inventions that he brought back from China or which he later described in his travels cannot be overstated. At first, Europeans regarded these technological marvels with disbelief but eventually they adopted them.
Paper money, virtually unknown in the West until Polo’s return, revolutionized finance and commerce throughout the West.
Coal another item that had caught Polo’s attention in China, provided a new and relatively efficient source of heat to an energy-starved Europe.
Eyeglasses (in the form of ground lenses), which some accounts say he brought back with him, became accepted as a remedy for failing eyesight. In addition, lenses gave rise to the telescope—which in turn revolutionized naval battles. Since it allowed combatants to view ships at a great distance, closely like a microscope. Two hundred years later, Galileo used the telescope—based on the same technology—to revolutionize science and cosmology by supporting and disseminating the Copernican theory that Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun. (01, 02)

Gunpowder, which the Chinese had used for at least three centuries, revolutionized European warfare, as armies exchanged their lances, swords, and crossbows for cannon, portable harquebuses and pistols. (02)
Polo brought back gifts of a more personal nature as well. The golden paiza, or passport, given to him by Kublai Khan had seen him through years of travel, war and hardship. Polo kept it still, and would to the end of his days. He also brought back a Mongol servant, whom he named Peter, a living reminder of the status he had once enjoyed in a far-off land.
In all it is difficult to imagine the Renaissance—or for that matter the modern world—without the benefit of Marco Polo’s example of cultural transmission between East and West.”

4.4 Gutenberg

“It is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams ... Through it, God will spread His Word. A spring of truth shall flow from it: like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine amongst men.”
– Johannes Gutenberg
In 1398, the German city of Mainz witnessed an ordinary birth in the family of an upper-class merchant. What nobody knew at the time was that this child would grow up to change modern society in its entirety. Johannes Gutenberg was a German blacksmith and goldsmith, but he is best remembered for introducing printing to Europe. Printing itself was not unheard of; the Chinese had been doing it for centuries. Gutenberg however took the traditional technique of printing and turned it on its head thereby revolutionalising the entire industry, and subsequently, society as a whole.
In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steve Johnson tells us the story of Gutenberg’s unusual inspiration for his revolutionary printing press:
“For Johannes Gutenberg, it was the ubiquity of winemakers nearby that helped lead to the invention of the printing press around 1440 CE. (01)
Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) ... tells the story of a device winemakers had recently invented, a new kind of press that employed a screw to ‘concentrate pressure upon broad planks placed over the grapes, which are covered also with heavy weights above.’ (02)There is some debate among scholars over whether Pliny may have been rooting for the home team in attributing the invention to his compatriots, since evidence for the use of screw presses in producing wines and olive oils dates back several centuries, to the Greeks. But whatever the exact date of its origin, the practical utility of the screw press, unlike so many great ideas from the Greco-Roman period, ensured that it survived intact through the Dark Ages.

  (Old Wine Press)
When the Renaissance finally blossomed, more than a millennium after Pliny’s demise, Europe had to rediscover Ptolemaic astronomy and the secrets of building aqueducts. But they did not have to relearn how to press grapes. In fact, they had been tinkering steadily with the screw press all along, improving on the model, and optimizing it for the mass production of wines. By the mid-1400s, the Rhineland region of Germany, which historically had been hostile to viticulture for climate reasons, was now festooned with vine trellises. Fueled by the increased efficiency of the screw press, German vineyards reached their peak in 1500, covering roughly four times as much land as they do in their current incarnation. It was hard work producing drinkable wine in a region that far north, but the mechanical efficiency of the screw press made it financially irresistible. (02)
Sometime around the year 1440, a young Rhineland entrepreneur began tinkering with the design of the wine press. He was fresh from a disastrous business venture manufacturing small mirrors with supposedly magical healing powers, which he intended to sell to religious pilgrims. (The scheme got derailed, in part by bubonic plague, which dramatically curtailed the number of pilgrims.) The failure of the trinket business proved fortuitous, however, as it sent the entrepreneur down a much more ambitious path. He had immersed himself in the technology of Rhineland vintners, but Johannes Gutenberg was not interested in wine. He was interested in words.

  (A Hand Press)
As many scholars have noted, Gutenberg’s printing press was a classic combinatorial innovation, more bricolage than breakthrough. Each of the key elements that made it such a transformative machine - the movable type, the ink, the paper, and the press itself - had been developed separately well before Gutenberg printed his first Bible. Movable type, for instance, had been independently conceived by a Chinese blacksmith named Pi Sheng four centuries before. But the Chinese (and, subsequently, the Koreans) failed to adapt the technology for the mass production of texts, in large part because they imprinted the letterforms on the page by hand rubbing, which made the process only slightly more efficient than your average medieval scribe. Thanks to his training as a goldsmith, Gutenberg made some brilliant modifications to the metallurgy behind the movable type system, but without the press itself, his meticulous lead fonts would have been useless for creating mass-produced Bibles. (01)
An important part of Gutenberg’s genius, then, lay not in conceiving an entirely new technology from scratch, but instead from borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field, and putting it to work to solve an unrelated problem. (02)

We do not know exactly what chain of events led Gutenberg to make that associative link; few documentary records remain of Gutenberg’s life between 1440 and 1448, the period during which he assembled the primary components of his invention. But it is clear that Gutenberg had no formal experience pressing grapes. His radical breakthrough relied, instead, on the ubiquity of the screw press in Rhineland winemaking culture, and on his ability to reach out beyond his specific field of expertise and concoct new uses for an older technology. He took a machine designed to get people drunk and turned it into an engine for mass communication.”
By 1450, the printing press was in business. Johann Fust, a wealthy moneylender, financed the project after Gutenberg convinced him of its viability. Peter Schoffer, who later married Fust’s daughter, also joined the enterprise. Schoffer had worked as a scribe in Paris and is believed to have designed some of the first typefaces.

  (Hand Press Operator)

The Gutenberg Bible was the first major work to come out of the printing press. The bible’s technical and aesthetic quality was much appreciated; nothing of the kind had been seen before. About 180 copies of the bible were printed, featuring 42 lines on each page. According to A History of Science in Society: From Philosophy to Utility (Lesley Cormack, Andrew Ede) each bible was sold for 30 florins. 30 florins was a lot of money at the time; it roughly constituted three years’ wages of an average clerk. However, it was still much cheaper than a manuscript Bible that would take a single scribe a year to churn out. (02)

Gutenberg’s early print ing technique and the experiments he made with movable type largely remain a mystery. The bibles he printed after the first batch required movable type in large quantities, with some estimates even suggesting 100,000 individual types. Each page took nearly half a day to set with all the work needed to load the press, ink the type, pull the impressions hang up the sheets and distribute the type. The Gutenberg printing shop is thought to have had as many as 25 employees. Thus apart from the printing press itself, Gutenberg was also responsible for introducing a new form of employment and giving the economy a boost.

  (A Book Binder)
Gutenberg’s printing technology soon spread over Europe and eventually the world. His invention of mechanical movable type sparked the Printing Revolution. Knowledge was no longer monopolized by the Church and the rich. Books became available in greater quantities to a larger number of people. People wanted to access this hitherto restricted information. Literacy grew and a knowledge explosion took place.
Gutenberg’s invention not only facilitated accurate reproduction of text but also of images. People were no longer misled by incorrect graphics; this greatly impacted the fields of science and discovery. It also played a major role in the Reformation. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses were printed and circulated widely.
In The Fourth Part of the World, Toby Lester outlines how the invention of the printing press indirectly led to the discovery of America: (03)
“Johannes Gutenberg produced his first Bible in Mainz Ger(many in 1454 or 1455 and word soon spread beyond Germany about the potential of the printing press. Leon Battista Alberti for example wrote admiringly of ‘the German inventor who has recently made it possible by making certain imprints of letters for three men to make more than two hundred copies of a given original text in one hundred days.’ By the early 1460s, printing presses had begun to spread to many of Europe’s important cities although not everybody understood what they were. In 1465, the secretary of the Vatican Library still felt it was necessary to describe the advantages of the new invention to Pope Paul II. ‘Every poor scholar can purchase for himself a library for a small sum’ he explained. ‘Those volumes that heretofore could scarce be bought for a hundred crowns may now be procured for less than twenty, very well-printed and free from those faults with which manuscripts used to abound, for such is the art of our printers and letter makers that no ancient or modern discovery is comparable to it.’
Columbus belonged to the first lay generation to benefit from the spread of printing and he made the most of the opportunity that this offered him. After arriving in Spain, he acquired a number of newly printed books almost all of which concerned geography and for the rest of his life he kept them at his side as trusted companions. He did not just read his books; he engaged them in conversation scribbling notes to himself in the margins calling out statements he agreed with testily objecting to others. Several of his books survive and together they provide invaluable information about how Columbus tried to build his case in Spain. Later after he had finally crossed the ocean, how he struggled to make sense of what it was that he had found on the other side.
One of Columbus’s favorite books published in 1477 was the Historia rerum ubique gestarum or History of Matters Conducted Everywhere - one of the earliest of all printed guides to geography. Written in the aftermath of the Council of Florence by the Italian humanist Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who would go on to reign as Pope Pius II from 1458 to 1464, the work surveyed traditional medieval ideas about the world and updated them with references to Ptolemy Strabo and even Niccolo Conti. Its quintessentially humanist aim according to Piccolomini was blending modern with ancient geography. The book consists of two parts - one devoted to Asia the other to Europe. Columbus naturally read the former with great avidity making a total of 861 different notes in the margins.
News and information began travelling across the globe at much faster rates than ever before. The printing press not only played a key role in the development of the Renaissance but also in the Reformation movement, the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. It greatly accelerated the importance of learning to the masses. Gutenberg’s invention made sure that his name would be celebrated throughout the annals of time.