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Module 1: Writing and Printing Technology

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Febvre and Martin: The Discovery of Printing & The Chinese Precedent

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Text, Textuality and Digital media
Professor Arjun Ghosh
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology Delhi
Lecture 9
Febvre and Martin: The Discovery of Printing & The Chinese Precedent
Welcome to today’s lecture after having looked at oral forms of communication oral techniques of representation and then the manuscript, the form in which the communication happens. Today we will look at the coming of print. Now just to reiterate what I have been maintaining and from the words of Marshall McLuhan “The medium is the message” that is no matter what we say- that of course is important- but what is also important is how we say it.
Because there are two aspects to this, one is that the medium itself, the manner in which a story or some idea is communicated has an influence on what is being communicated. As we have seen that within orality you use more verse and rhythmic patterns a lot more which is not really a matter of choice, similarly when you write a diary entry or when you write an essay the form itself limits what you can tell through the particular form.
And the other point is, that the way it is received, the way a certain communication is received for example if a person sends an official letter that will be received with a certain level of seriousness whereas the same person communicating the same idea through a message on WhatsApp will perhaps not be taken in a similar kind of seriousness. Sometimes WhatsApp messages are taken too seriously and that makes it even more dangerous. We will discuss about the social media and the coming of the digital media towards the end of this course.
But the point being reiterated that how we say it how a certain thing is communicated to us is something of great importance and in this course we are paying a lot of importance to that, to understanding that. So the coming of print as we have been discussing marks a very important watershed, a very important revolutionary change that comes about in human history really. We have already seen how the coming of writing, the alphabet and the mechanisms of writing already made a certain degree of change in the way people live their lives and people went about relating to each other and organization of society.
In our previous class we looked at the coming of capitalism and how capitalist processes are very different from the processes of feudalism. And we looked at how there is a total change, almost in every facet of life. It’s an all-encompassing change that takes place with the coming of capitalism really. So with that background we enter into this discussion on the discovery of the coming of printing.
I think the word the coming of printing might be a better idea, better way to talk about, a different way really of talking about this particular historical event. Now when I say discovery it would almost mean that it would stress the fact that it wasn’t there and it was something that was created by human beings. Whereas if I say the coming of print it is as if print came about on its own the truth really lies in between the two.
Whenever we associate commonsensically the coming of the print and the discovery of printing and therefore the discovery of the printing machine one name really comes before us and that is that of Johannes Gutenberg who was really someone who was in Western Europe primarily in the area around Germany and the date that is given is around the 1460s. However what today’s discussion is going to tell us is that, it is probably not a correct idea that Gutenberg discovered the printing press because the change being however revolutionary was not brought about by one individual.
It was something that came about due to the requirement of the times, I would like to refer you back to our lecture where Raymond Williams discusses technology in the context of television, where we say that the idea that we subscribe to is technology is a product of social innovation and a result of historical means and requirements in historical changes.
This is of course the view of technological determinism, that technology brings about certain changes, that is also true but I think the truth really lies between them and perhaps a little bit more in terms of that certain technology comes about because of certain changes that have already happened within the society and the discovery of that technology becomes imperative and therefore people start looking for it. As one says, necessity is the mother of invention. (Refer Slide Time: 6:56)

So it is only when human beings feel the need or necessity for something that they would try to innovate and then reach to that particular invention. So what were the conditions that really gave shape to the discovery of printing? Printing was discovered around the first half of the fifteenth century at least that is what is the date that has been given by most historical records.
The need for technology which is similar to printing was something that really comes about in the preceding centuries. Now in our discussion of the various manuscript techniques elimination, inscription, so we discussed how the need for making scribal copies of books increases through history, through a certain period of time as we have discussed that in the first millennia within Western Europe really the printing really.
In the first millennia you had the need for manuscripts really coming through the scribal agents within the ecclesiastical authorities that the need for Christian monks and Roman Catholic Church to spread the idea of Christianity across Europe makes monasteries possible and the need for communicating ideas assumes a greater degree of importance and therefore scribal records writing becomes important. However, just manual writing would have sufficed.
If a certain monastery did not have a particular manuscript someone can travel to a particular monastery where that manuscript record is there and could make a copy of it and take it back. It was a slow process and therefore in history you would find such manuscripts very rare because the production also was rare, you didn’t have a situation where there would be hundreds of copies of a particular text it would only be a handful- if at all in double digitsthat there would be copies of these various texts.
However as we move towards the turn of the millennium and in the early part of the second millennium that is around 11th, 12th and early 13th centuries by then you have the growth of education that due to certain changes that were coming about within the society you had the scope of education increasing and including amongst this, the laity or the common people who are outside the purview of the ecclesiastical authorities or the church authorities.
So you had a slow movement towards secularization of education though I would say the education was not yet so much secular but the fact that the Scriptures and the ideas, the philosophical texts would now be studied by laity, by people still within more well-to-do class not really some kind of universal education mechanism that’s a much later concept, several 100 years we will have to wait for the formal schooling systems and increase in mass literacy and something that comes about only when the industrial era really takes shape by about the 18th century.
But still in the 12th and 13th centuries, 14th century really, education spreads outside the monasteries and the church and you have the setting up of the first universities. Now what we need to remember is that though these universities were there in Europe at that point of time they were still not studying texts in the vernacular languages. The development of vernacular languages still will take some more time and print will play a very important role in it. We will discuss that in a future lecture.
The principal languages which were the mode of scholarly communication at that point of time- learning and writing- was the classical languages which is Latin and Greek. What is important for us to note is that the nature of classical languages as opposed to the vernacular languages. So classical languages are available, are accessible only to a certain elite but among that elite, across various territories across Europe, there would be therefore communication that is possible.
Whereas these classical languages were differentiated from the language of everyday issues which would be slowly taking the shape of what is present day English or German or French or Italian you would still have very different kinds of languages and dialects for example there will be Scott and Welsh and Gaelic and other languages which are there in various pockets of Europe and this is very similar to the Indian situation if you do understand.
Though English is not a classical language in India in the Indian context really if you look at classical languages you will have to look at Sanskrit and Pali and these kinds of languages which are not living languages, so it’s a difficult example for us to give. But if we for a moment we imagine English as a classical language, it is a language that links all of India. Even Hindi as a language does not really connect every part of India, English does.
But English is a language of the elite, it connects the elite of various states of India, various provinces of India. But if you look at the vernacular languages that is Bangla or Oriya or Assamese or Tamil and Telugu then these are languages which are local and these are language which are horizontal which are spoken by people across the board in that particular locality, in that particular province or state, that particular region.
So that’s the concept of the horizontal that it is across class. Whereas the vertical is where only people of the elite are connected across regions. So India’s situation, India is almost a mini continent, so it’s a very apt sort of situation to what was there in early modern Europe really and so for us to understand that what the condition was in early modern Europe we can look at the example of India. We will return to these questions of language and specifically to the question of language within the Indian subcontinent later on in the course and print plays a very very important role through the various eras in that but more about that later.
So returning to the late mediaeval Europe, we see the coming of learning but this learning is primarily in Greek and Latin. So what I’m trying to tell you is that though there are universities it does not mean that there is some kind of a universal education that everybody in the society has an opportunity to study, no it doesn’t. The doors of the university are open only to a certain elite section of the population who come in for certain kind of education which they need for various purposes in life.
But it is certainly an exponential growth from the education or the learning or the scholarship that existed only within the Ecclesiastical domain within the first millennia in Europe. The situation within the Indian subcontinent as we looked at in our lecture on Indian manuscripts was slightly different because within India you had these centers of learning, these manuscripts were not only possessed by ecclesiastical authorities there were also these kind of structures through which centers of learning had come into existence. But within these centers of learning whether it be in Nalanda or other similar kind of institutions, the learning itself was open primarily to a very very small section miniscule section of the population.
But certainly the learning did have a certain secular character even outside and existed outside of religious practices that is something that comes to Europe only by about the late mediaeval age that is the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. But what happens is that, now there are all these people who are coming to the universities to study texts.
(Refer Slide Time: 17:51)

And therefore there is a need for texts, there becomes a greater need for texts. Now there has to be mechanisms of sharing texts. So two things happen, one is the mechanism of sharing the text comes about with the birth of the library these universities now start developing libraries.
(Refer Slide Time: 18:16)

Libraries are of course institutions where more sharing of texts become possible and these manuscripts would often be as we looked at the processes of manuscript production that these manuscripts, would be bulky and they would be prepared customized or be commissioned really and they would mostly be pretty bulky.
(Refer Slide Time: 18:43)

And so there would be situations where these libraries would have to ensure that nobody I mean these texts are not misplaced in any way. So there would also be situations where books would be put on racks and be chained to the library rack and you read it there, you consult it there, you sit there or stand there and consult that particular book, that particular volume. So libraries become a very important way of sharing of texts for the scholarship.
However scholars would often like to have personal copies of specific treatises and texts for their own record and for their own concentration because they need it. So sometimes a certain book let’s say your specific textbooks you would like to have a copy of whereas there are a certain book which you just need to consult fleetingly or for a certain period of time you would perhaps rely on a library to refer to it.
What becomes important is that process of copying. Now for a scholar to sit down and copy an entire volume together would be time-consuming this is what would have been a very important mark of scholarship in the early mediaeval period where one of the scholarly tasks would be to make copies of manuscripts and only scholars could make copies of manuscripts because they will have to be able to decipher what is written there, understand what is written there and sometimes make intelligent, important interventions and changes into those manuscripts in order to be able to really make sense of it because remember these manuscripts would be travelling across time.
So every several hundred years or so or even for a lesser period of time a certain text might need to with some philosophical ideas may be challenged and they may need to be rewritten within that current context and therefore there would be topical or other interventions that would take place and the scholar is well equipped to bring about that particular change.
So in the early mediaeval period one aspect of scholarship was the copying of a manuscript and this was really a continuation of the oral domain where the aspect of scholarship was to actually memorize and repeat and keep the knowledge going by that repetition, keep the memory going by the repetitive utterance of a certain tract and that is something that really carries on into the manuscript domain where the scholarship exercise is that of repetition.
The reputation or the rewriting of manuscripts itself is a scholarly exercise but with the growth of learning and really with the holding of manuscript culture, that task of repetition has become superfluous, has become vestigial this is no longer really necessary because the knowledge can be for a moment manuscript is the mnemonic for that knowledge and you do not need to spend the time keeping it going.
So scholarship would now try to engage with more texts, more ideas instead of trying to spend the time in copying. So therefore now there would be professional copiers. So as I told you while we discussed the production of manuscripts there would be the booksellers or the stationers who would actually do this task of copying books. So typically what would happen is that sometimes the bookseller would have a particular master copy of a particular book and when a scholar comes and orders a certain copy, they would pull out that specimen and ask the scribes to make a copy of it.
And it would of course be customized, the kind of illustrations that they might want, the size of the paper or the parchment and the cover and gilding and everything would be decided. But that process too where the scholar is not engaged in the copying but a certain scribe is doing it of course there would be certain minimum qualification for the scribe. The scribe would need to know Latin and Greek, know the language well enough to understand the words and make the copy but they are not the most learned people within the society, really.
Just to give you a comparison it is as much learning that a typist needs to have to be able to type without much of a-- or the job of a stenographer or there might be someone who is very important functionary- an officer- who does not have time to type out their own letters or their own documents, they dictate and the scribe notes it down or some notes have to be made, it is the job of the stenographer to do it.
Similarly the scribe in the late mediaeval era would be someone who would have some minimum knowledge, working knowledge of the language and the texts and they would write out or copy out the manuscripts that are required and would supply it to the scholars and the scholar meanwhile can therefore use their time to engage with many more texts. Now we see how this kind of professionalization of scribal copying sort of enables the scholar to consult more texts or engage their time more productively which was would not have been possible before this particular era.
And moment you are looking at several texts and consulting more and more texts you are making space for the interplay of ideas because do understand that previous to this you did not have within the oral domain you did not have the possibility of someone comparing couple of several ideas together.
(Refer Slide Time: 26:03)

The movement of knowledge was tied to the person, it was embodied form of knowledge, it was not some form of knowledge that could travel without the body. It is only when knowledge can travel without the body of the knower that it is possible for the scholars to engage with ideas that are coming across from various ideas and that leads to the development of scientific ideas.
(Refer Slide Time: 26:34)

Because one of the techniques of science is to ensure that you test out a certain hypothesis in several contexts and only when it is proved in several contexts that you take that to be a maxim. You take that hypothesis to be a kind of a law. So these kind of techniques actually lead to the growth of rationality and reason.
(Refer Slide Time: 27:05)

However returning to the act of scribal copying even this process where a copy of a particular book is being copied down by a particular scribe is through the centuries seems to be slow and does not satisfy the need.
(Refer Slide Time: 27:30)

The speed at which the book has to be prepared or the copy has to be prepared becomes a greater imperative. So therefore now you have situations where certain booksellers, some enterprising booksellers, what they would do is, when the scholar comes in with a certain manuscript to be copied, they would first UN-seam it, they would first remove the binding, the stitching of the binding and take out the gatherings and distribute the gathering among various scribes who would then copy out those gatherings and then both the original and the copy would be put together and you have a copy at a much faster rate. At a much quicker rate.
It is almost like these, if you speak to somebody who would use the photocopy machine some 30 years ago or even 25 years ago they would print at a much slower rate. You would get maybe 5 or 6 or 10 copies per minute. Now you get up to there are machines which would be able to make photocopies up to 70-80 pages per minute which is at a much faster rate. You now have very very efficient photocopy machines which are able to sort the pages out themselves even photocopy books by turning the pages by itself this speeds up, mechanizes and automates and speeds up the entire process.
So the more the demand for the texts the greater the demand for the speed at which printing happens and the more number of copies. And the importance of having more number of copies is, also let’s say a certain scholar comes in with a certain very important rare manuscript, the bookseller would like to make more copies of that book because there could be a certain clientele for it.
He would like to make some more money out of copying that book or selling that book. Also if a certain idea suddenly becomes currency, there is a greater demand for a particular book and you have to meet that demand. In order to meet that demand you have to speed up the process of the production of that particular book. Now what we are moving towards is really what we saw within our discussion on capitalism of this process of mechanization.
We are moving from kind of a slow manual form of manufacture to a mechanized form of manufacture which will produce mass goods, which will create more and more products. The book now becomes a certain product and the book now caters to a certain market. It is no longer an object of individual use.
(Refer Slide Time: 30:23)

It becomes an object which is to be sold in the market and a profit can be generated. You already see certain pro to-capitalist models of functioning that come into being and the bookseller by trade is trying to engage with these chain circumstances within which human life and human trade in commerce is developing and therefore now very clearly this process of speeding up of creation of copies, one tries to create a situation, look for ways in which one can speed it up further because manual copying is something that is a slower process.
Now what is important to note when we say it is the discovery of printing, what we’re looking at is really the discovery of or the invention of text, printing of texts because printing of images is something that is older it did exist in history where printing of images on cloth, on textiles is something that had been in existence for many centuries previous to the printing press were the textual printing takes place.
(Refer Slide Time: 31:54)

Printing of alphabet takes place in fact the Chinese have been printing for a very very long period of time.
(Refer Slide Time: 32:09)

And therefore within the creation of texts this kind of printing is something that it did exist for printing of illustrations. The illustrations would be, this process of illustrating manuscripts was mechanized to a certain extent.
(Refer Slide Time: 32:29)

Though it was printing by hand- a certain xylo graph or a woodcut would be used to sort of make an impression of the drawing on the page and then maybe it would be colored or illustrated in a certain way by hand.
(Refer Slide Time: 32:49)

But that process was speed ed up. In fact it would so happen that scribes would be writing out manuscripts and we saw how in the manuscript tradition it’s actually the writing of the text that happens first and detailed instructions are left for the illustrator as to what, even the illuminator for the kind of illustrations and (()) (33:18) that they’re going to fill up within the blank spaces that are there.
So the text actually gets framed pretty densely even before the manuscript reaches the illustrator. So the illustrator’s task is pretty much restricted to what has been envisaged already.
However this tradition of leaving a blank space for the illustration now gets taken up by leaving-- that blank space is then used to actually take a woodcut and actually make an impression with an ink and the drawing is ready in very very quickly. And so therefore you would have situations where manuscripts in the words the written text would differ from volume to volume but the illustrations would be very much similar.
Because each volume is getting customized, so in a certain volume the illustration may occur on page number 33 but in another volume it might appear on page number 36 depending on what kind of font has been used, how many illustrations have been put but the illustration actually would look almost identical. So we need to remember that there was a process of mechanizing illustrations much earlier than the process of mechanizing the printing of the written text and really the innovation that was involved was to actually bring about that process of printing in the written text. I will briefly talk about the difficulties that are there in that is that
(Refer Slide Time: 35:20)

When the printing happened by hand, so they would create these dyes to punch a dye onto-sometimes these blocks would be metallic and the punch would be made on a softer metal with a harder metal and there would be many more copies of that particular punch which would be there and one of the very important professions which made heyday at these point of times were goldsmiths and those who were engravers, who would engrave coins and other such medallions and other things which was an ancient profession.
But they come into a new kind of use now because this creation of illustration on metal or even on woodcut is something that requires a certain intricate task of carving, certain dexterity of the hand, certain expertise which goldsmiths would have had, those who would make jewelry and they become very very important because that is the kind of professional expertise that also leads Johannesburg Gutenberg to create the printing press that really is there.
Now it’s one thing to actually use blocks for printing illustrations, it’s another thing to use blocks to print entire pages because you know it’s not that it was not used, people did experiment with it that the entire page, to compose it, it’s a lot of carving. Carving each letter out on a block of wood or a piece of metal is not an easy task. Whereas making one illustration, a single illustration in a certain text there would be a certain number of illustrations.
In illustrations you’re looking at lines, straight lines and the colour would be really filled in by hand whereas creating an entire page full of text would be extremely time-consuming and after that, that block cannot be used any further. And so the amount of time that goes into--
Whereas illustrations can be reused across volumes. Let us say if you have to look at illustrations of a dragon then the dragon could be there in multiple narratives. So the printer has lots of blocks around, they can use that block to put the picture of a dragon in. A quick titbit here, a kind of an aside here, so you know of this term called the stereotype. Just think about for moment what is the meaning of stereotype in your mind?
I will give you 10 seconds. Stereotype really is an idea that we sort of think of as some straitjacketing a definition that if you have to think about a jealous person or a greedy person, you are stereotyping a certain social definition. You are sort of fixing a certain social definition on a certain community of people. So you are stereotyping the way a certain community behaves.
I’m desperately trying not to give illustrations because sometimes it might be pejorative. So we say “okay he is from this region, so therefore all people from this region are like this, they are money minded or they are stupid or they eat this or they wear this”. This is the kind of stereotype that we have, that’s the cultural definition but this word stereotype actually emerges from this tradition of printing.
Where, as I said, if you had to get the picture of a dragon, all dragons would look the same. That is why the idea, the type its a stereotype. A certain typeset which is used for a certain particular object. You need the picture of an elephant, there is one elephant that gets printed everywhere, that is the origin, historically, of the term, stereotype, do go and check a little bit more about the history of this term stereotype, it is very-very interesting I must assure you. Returning to our discussion of print. The point was that the page, a written text was made up of many many movable letters and it was very unstable.
And if you did not actually make an entire block of the print, people did try to create individual alphabets or individual words and then put it together and they did not master the technique. They did not figure out how to hold the words, so many blocks but they have to be all printed together, how do you put it all together? It was a very-very difficult task and people were not able to do it.
They were trying, there were limited successes and sometimes they would try to use a single mould for the whole page and it was something that was difficult, they would not be able to do it.
(Refer Slide Time: 41:20)

So this kind of experimentation went on throughout Europe and through various enterprising individuals across the continent and therefore there was a certain secrecy involved in this process because the person who is able to do it best would then be able to capture the entire market, will have a certain monopoly. So these were kind of trade secrets that would be there but even within the trade secrets, words they would keep getting
(Refer Slide Time: 41:59)

It would keep getting passed on, knowledge would keep getting passed on. It wasn’t an easy era because you still didn’t have the development of science, people did not know exactly how to communicate these ideas but what would happen is, as I said in an earlier class, that this was a period of time when various kinds of artisan-AL activity would have grown because you’re moving more towards mass production and therefore within a certain workshop, within a certain artisan-AL space there would be a master artisan, a master painter or someone and within them they would have certain apprentices.
These apprentices would learn the trade but then they would go away after having learned that trade and therefore the trade would pass on.