“I’ve known men to hazard their fortune,
go on long journeys halfway about the world, forget friendships, even lie, cheat, and steal, all for the gain of a book."
--Gutenberg was a lousy businessman.
--Venice was the Silicon Valley of printing in the 1400 and 1500’s.
For over 4,000 years, before a German goldsmith by the name of Gutenberg invented his printing press, people made and “printed” books by hand. They wrote on clay tablets, bone, stone, papyrus, animal skins, and wax. The process was slow and laborious, and not many individuals engaged in this task. But at least it got things going.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian InstitutionIt all started in Mesopotamia, that cradle of civilization; and in the beginning, it was all about money—keeping track of who owed whom money. As agriculture developed, people needed some system to keep track of the exchange of goods--goats, loaves of bread, bags of grain--bought and sold. The Sumerians, an early society that farmed there, invented cuneiform, which means “wedge writing” in Latin. Cuneiform, a picture form of writing, was written by a wedge-shaped stylus on damp clay tablets, then baked until hard. The Sumerians even had huge libraries where they shelved their clay tablets. Of course, clay tablets have a way of easily breaking when they fall off a shelf, so not many have survived. But interestingly enough, the concept of reading from a tablet has been reinvented in the 21st century…only now they’re called Nooks, Ipads, and Kindles.
Next up, come the Egyptians, who began writing about the same time, only their written characters were called hieroglyphics, Greek for “sacred carving.” The Egyptians refused to use clay tablets, and wrote with reed pens on scrolls made of papyrus, a reed that grows in the marshes near the Nile River. They beat the stalks into “paper” and glued the pieces into long scrolls—one of which is a 133 feet long—a few feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty. Interestingly enough, we now “scroll” through our 21st century tablets, the Nooks, Ipads, and Kindles.
Finally, we come to the book, or codex (Latin for “trunk of tree” or “block of wood”), for which the Romans deserve credit. They started sewing groups of papyrus sheets together and binding them along one edge, and placing the sewn pages or book block between two wooden covers. Papyrus paper was replaced (it becomes brittle with age and deteriorates under humidity) by parchment--paper made from the skins of sheep--or vellum-- paper made from the skins of calves. Parchment has a fairly long shelf life, can be written on both sides, and erased by scraping the skin and used again.
But books remained labor intensive, costly, and read by only a few people. Only the rich could afford to own books because parchment or vellum was expensive—very expensive. It might take the skin of a whole sheep to make parchment for one manuscript, and a thick book might require an entire herd.
Much of the population didn’t read, and manuscripts (manuscript comes from Latin for "handwritten") were not written in the common languages, but in Latin. It fell to the monks and their cats (okay, so I’m taking a bit of literary license to include cats) to continue the job of making books. Monks worked in rooms called scriptoriums, where they copied manuscripts, hand-binding them into books. Not only did they copy the lettering in manuscripts, but they also illuminated or decorated the manuscripts using vivid colors to enhance the lettering or borders (marginalia) or to draw miniature illustrations. Bright colors and gold were used to embellish the letters or paint whole scenes. Over time, the illuminations took up more room in the book so that by the 14th and 15th centuries, almost the entire book was made up of illuminations. As Alice in Wonderland said, “And what is the use of a book without pictures…?”
But the book world was soon turned upside down by an invention of a German goldsmith named Gutenberg. The components of the printing press were there, but Gutenberg tweaked and pulled together all the disparate elements, and society was never the same again. He took existing wine technology—screw-type wine presses that were plentiful in the Rhine Valley—but rather than pressing grapes to make wine, he pressed metal type against paper to make books. Gutenberg’s real genius was the invention of moveable metal type, which meant hundreds of thousands of books were produced in a relative short time at much cheaper prices. Courtesy: National Library of Medicine.
Despite his invention, Gutenberg was an inefficient printer; other printers did more profitable work using his invention. And he was a lousy businessman, ending up in bankruptcy court twice and losing his equipment to his creditors.
Printers also produced books in the common languages of Europe, English, French, German, and Italian. More people could read, and more people learned to read. Illustrations were now done by woodblock cuts, which could easily be reproduced by the press. The day of painstakingly hand-done illuminated manuscripts gradually faded.
The printing press technology spilled out over Germany’s borders across all of Europe. By the beginning of the 1500’s, there were approximately 250 printing shops across the continent: Paris got her first press in 1470, London, in 1476, while Venice was awash in printing presses, becoming the Silicon Valley of printers. And in the United States? The first print shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts began printing in 1639, 19 years after the arrival of the Mayflower. (Just to keep things in perspective, America’s first hospital was founded in 1751 in Philadelphia.) Scholars estimate that there might have been between 25,000 and 30,000 books in Europe before the invention of the press. Several decades later, between 10-13 million books had been printed.
The printing press paved the way for all sorts of revolutions, including the Protestant Reformation. In fact, citizens in countries that embraced Protestantism (England, Germany, and Switzerland, for example) were more literate than those in predominantly Catholic countries. The Bible was now published in their vernacular, and they were expected to read the Bible, and not have some priest read it for them.
And how did the Catholic Church react to Gutenberg’s press? Well, it had a field day and full time job banning or censoring books—which turned out to be a much more difficult task than imagined. (In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII required that Church authorities approve all books before publication.) It was a fairly easy task to censor or ban a limited number of manuscripts…but how could one ban or censor thousands of books?
Courtesy of the Internet.
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