Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The war against printing

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Aldus Pius Manutius (1449-1515) an Italian humanist. Engraving by Yenetta, 1880. Credit : Album / Alamy Stock Photo.

Technological progress frequently is met with resistance because almost always such progress involves trade-offs, and for some what is traded off is too central to the enterprise to be discarded. Alexander Lee provides an example in Engelsberg Ideas. He writes:

The pen is a virgin,’ wrote Filippo de Strata in the late fifteenth century, but ‘the printing press is a whore.’ And that wasn’t the half of it. Born into a wealthy Pavian family, Filippo had joined the Dominican Order at a young age and had spent most of his adult life at the convent of San Cipriano, on the Venetian island of Murano. One of the smallest religious communities in the lagoon, it could boast no special intellectual renown, yet its members still attached great importance to the production of manuscripts, and Filippo was no exception. He translated texts from Latin into Italian, copied sermons and biblical commentaries, and even penned a few works of his own. Yet he was also a pompous, even arrogant man, who seemed to be at war with the world around him. His invectives were legion. He attacked the French for spreading heresy among unsuspecting Italians and wrote a rather clunky elegy against the use of organ music in church. But it was printing which attracted the worst of his ire. In a Latin address to Doge Nicolò Marcello, written at some point between August 1473 and December 1474, and in a vernacular poem composed about 20 years later, he lashed out at it with unconcealed hatred. He not only called the press a ‘whore’, but also accused printers of being ‘asses’ — and even asked the Doge to ban printing altogether.

It was, perhaps, not the most obvious of targets. Between the development of the first writing systems in ancient Mesopotamia and the dawn of the internet age, nothing so revolutionised communication as the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg (c.1400–68). Indeed, as the English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) later wrote, it was one of the three innovations ‘unknown to the ancients’ which could genuinely be said to have ‘changed the appearance of the whole world’.

Granted, the idea behind it wasn’t completely new. For some time, Europeans frustrated by traditional forms of scribal production had been looking for ways of speeding things up. Back in the thirteenth century, the so-called pecia system had been introduced at the universities of Oxford, Paris and Bologna. Books which were in high demand were divided up into sections and rented out a piece at a time, so that several students could copy the same text simultaneously. A little over 100 years later, some Rhenish or Burgundian carvers may also have experimented with printing very short texts using wooden blocks. But even at their best, such methods were clumsy, expensive and fraught with problems.

What made Gutenberg’s innovation so remarkable was his use of movable metal type. This not only allowed compositors to set any text, but it was also so durable that it could be used hundreds — if not thousands — of times without any significant loss of clarity. Combined with a press (modelled on that used for producing wine), a stickier variety of ink and large sheets of paper, Gutenberg’s type allowed a printer to produce books in greater numbers and more quickly than anyone had ever thought possible. As the humanist Benedetto Brugnoli (1427-1502) later observed, ‘twenty men may [now] print in a month more books than one hundred could previously have copied in a year.’

After Gutenberg established his press in Mainz in c.1450, printing spread rapidly — if rather erratically — throughout Europe. Within less than 20 years, . . .

Continue reading. Complaints about readily available books are specified later in the article.

Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2022 at 1:45 pm

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