History, Today I Learned

From writing to printing

Picture of the Ellesmere Chaucer, a vellum manuscript written between 1400-1405, from the Huntington Library, LA.

Every time someone comes to you and says that New Technology X is evil and will bring the end of worlds, consider this:

The monk Johannes Trithemius, who lived around the late 1400s, wrote this in his essay In Praise of  Scribes:

Scriptures on parchment can persist a thousand years, but…the printed book is a thing of paper and in a short time will decay entirely; printed texts will be deficient in spelling and appearance. Posterity will judge the manuscript book superior to the printed book. Handwriting is a spiritual act, a form of religious devotion that putting blocks into a press will never be.

Martin Luther, the German theologian and reformer, said this about the fledgling printing industry:

The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this form of writing.”

Ironically, this was the same printing industry that led to his work being disseminated beyond his wildest dreams.


“In former times pupils at school had to take down so much long-hand that boys wrote rapidly but with difficulty, constantly on the lookout for symbols and abbreviations to save time…nowadays the art of printing has led to the situation that some scholars do not write down anything at all.”

Luther, Erasmus, and Trithemius, and Socrates, and countless pundits throughout the ages have focused on the same points: new technology disrespects tradition and generational history; those who disrespect tradition are coarser, have lesser levels of education and therefore, a decreased standard of existence.

Photograph: The Gutenberg Bible, taken at the Huntington Library, Los Angeles.

Manuscripts persisted after Gutenberg’s invention. People did not suddenly throw away pens and start pressing type against paper. The two technologies continued side by side for decades, and in fact, the first printed books used laborious, inefficient processes to mimic the look of familiar books. Illustrations were added by hand to a printed book, in different colors, as were rubrications, margins, and standard guidelines that were included in scribal manuscripts. The first print font was also an imitation of a manuscript, being developed by craftsmen hired by Gutenberg. Each of the upper and lowercase letters, symbols and punctuation marks – 290 in all – were painstakingly carved so that they would resemble the ink-drawn versions of the letters scribes were producing with pens.

The true effect of the printed book was felt in its economics. Slowly but relentlessly, the centuries-old profession of traditional bookmaking was rendered obsolete, with monks and guildsmen losing a centuries-long monopoly.

But the printing press also created new professional possibilities for those who had good handwriting. Instead of writing a few commissioned books a year, scribes began to teach penmanship to others through tutoring classes, which gained popularity throughout Europe. The profession of secretary also arose, as the age of exploration and new lands brought about more business and bureaucracy — and consequently, more documentation. Ironically, these writing masters published printed books to disseminate their lessons; this led to further fortunes.

In conclusion, isn’t this generational hubris, to think that the new supplanting the old is an attack on our culture and moral fiber and everything good that we know and cherish? I am not saying that everything that is new is better. But I believe that we as a species have figured out how to filter the short-sighted wins and favor the long-term. Not all of us may know or respect history, but history don’t need your respect, bitch.

On that note: goodbye, 2017.

Ideas and quotes taken from an excellent book called The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting by Anne Trubek.

Books, Weirdness

The End is Nigh

This really happened. With minor variations.

*  *

“I heard you were leaving the hermitage, Bahu.”

“Yes, I am, Anant. I will miss you, and you too, Ugra, and all our friends, but I have had it. I cannot take our teacher’s stupidity anymore.”

“Bahu, that is harsh! Our teacher’s methods are strange, but he means well, you know it.”

“He means well? Is that why you are making excuses for him, Ugra? Instead of teaching us the sacred verses just as his teacher taught him, and his teacher’s teacher taught him, he wants to try out these barbaric methods on us. Writing? Are we stupid that we cannot remember what we recite in the mornings? Did my father scribble symbols on barks of trees instead of committing all the sacred verses to memory? I do not like being taken for a fool, Ugra, and I would rather leave this school and join another, instead of submitting to this madness.”

“Bahu, our teacher has valid points. The merchants that travel here beyond the seas, they write everything on stone tablets. Their knowledge is timeless, it cannot be changed by forgetting a word here and there. And besides, think of the time it would save if we could just read and refer to what we had written the day before, or last week, or a year ago, instead of trying to remember every single thing we have learnt over the years.”

“That is the way it always has been, Anant. All these foreign traditions, we accept them blindly without understanding the long-term effects. I, for one, do not want my children to recall Vedas by reading them. They should know the sacred chants by heart, Anant, just as we do. Besides, these pieces of bark, they stink of sap and dampness. How can you even bear to be near them? They make my skin crawl.”

* * *

“Have you seen this monstrosity, Simplicio?”

“Ah yes, the German and his madness. I cannot believe the Holy Father allowed such a thing to exist.”

“Look at the thing. Look at it. So disposable. So…so common. Vulgar beyond belief. Can you imagine someone wanting to possess something like this? Put something like this up for display, in their homes? I would rather spit on something like this than want to own it.”

“Sagredo, have you seen the codexes in the Malatestiana? Such perfect little wonders. How can something produced this way recapture the beauty of a hand-written parchment?”

“And the smell, Simplicio. Smell it. This reeks of machinery. No aesthetics, no personality.”

“I hear it’s become fashionable to own them nowadays. Last I heard, Salviati was thinking of getting one too. Ho, Salviati, there you are! Come here, will you?”

“Simplicio, Sagredo, what up, bitches? Oh. OH. Is that what I think it is?”

“Yes, my uncle got one yesterday, I took it from him just to see what the fuss was all about. As far as I can see, it’s hardly the wonder it’s made out to be. I hear you’re getting one too?”

“I am. Oh yes, I am. I pick mine up in a few days. Thirty florins well spent. Quite the demand right now, especially among the nobility, but I know someone who knows someone. And a copy’s been reserved for me. ”

“A tedious fad, Salviati. You will soon realize that you threw your money away, money you could have spent on a real book.”

“No, you don’t get it, you guys, this is the future. Not your tedious parchments. This will bring knowledge to the masses, mark my words. This changes everything.”

“Sure, sure. Well, you and the teeming masses can keep your Gutenberg Bibles, Salviati. We’re off to the Malatestiana, and then to the Abbey. That is how books are meant to be read, in the company of like-minded people. People who know how to reproduce books, who understand the toil involved in creating a copy that captures their personality. Books are meant to be special, Salviati, not mass-produced like clothes..or…or furniture.  But it’s tiresome having to explain it to you print-enthusiasts and your ‘democratization of knowledge’ spiel. Mark my words, print will never catch on.”

* * *

Dear e-reader/iPad/Kindle-haters,

“Real books smell so good” is not an argument.