The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Sunday, 2 November 2008

37. The age of blocking : when any neat-handed man could print for himself

"In Europe, as late as the second half of the14th century, every book (including school and prayer books), and every public and private document, proclamation, bull, letter, &c., was written by hand ; all figures and pictures, even playing-cards and images of saints, were drawn with the pen or painted with a brush."

J. H. Hessels, M. A. writes these words in his history of TYPOGRAPHY, as an introduction to the rather complex issue of the invention of printing in Europe. Hessels acknowledges that print had already existed for over a millennia in China and the East, but makes a clear case that the later development in the West was independent of that innovation.

Before the revolutionary introduction of moveable type, printing by use of carved blocks of wood had a growth of popularity across Europe in the late middle ages. The first products of this process were religious texts and playing cards.

"At Bruges printers and beeldemakers (makers, engravers of images) were enumerated in 1454 among the members of the fraternity of St John the Evangelist. The printers of playing cards seem to have constituted a separate class. [...]It seems also certain that wealthy persons and religious institutions were wont to possess sets of blocks, and, when occasion arose, they printed a set of sheets for presentation to a friend, or in the case of monasteries for sale to the passing pilgrim. A printer of briefs or block-books had no need to serve an apprenticeship ; any neat-handed man could print for himself."

Interestingly a large proportion of the block-printed manuscripts that have survived from 15th century Germany are apocalyptic in subject matter : an illustrated text of the writing of John the Evangelist, "The Antichrist (Der Enndchrist)," "The Fifteen Signs of the Last Judgement," and "The Dance of Death (Dance Macabre ; Der Doten Dantz)." Self improvement also figures with "The Ten Commandments for Unlearned People."

The TYPOGRAPHY article continues, including much of interest on the subject of founts and all kinds of matters pertaining to printing, and shows a progression from the earlier rude work to an age of giant presses of great sophistication. There can hardly be a doubt that our word-processing software and laser ink-jet thingumajigs are, although generally smaller and less steam-driven, of a whole other degree of sophistication. Nonetheless, is it an overactive imagination that sees a line of descent from the carvers of wooden blocks, or blockers if you will, through pamphleteers, samizdat and fanzine publishers, to the humble purveyors of opinion and reflection that are free to disseminate their rough-cut, unedited ramblings throughout Interwebshire?

The printed word is not yet dead, but in many aspects, technological innovation threatens to make print redundant. For all my love of the inky page, I have learned the value of reading a book from the two inch screen of an iPod, and find that being able to carry Gibbons' Decline and Fall around in my pocket - and in a format that allows me to make annotations and highlight text at a brush of the finger - makes it considerably less of a priority in these financially-straitened times to seek out a shelf-worth of a print edition (although, if anyone is getting rid...). See the free eReader and Stanza software, and, putting aside the objections to paying good money for a book that only exists as a save file, consider the enormous catalogue of out-of-copyright texts that are there for the taking : for which see the aptly-named Project Gutenberg and as starting points.

The modern publishing world has given us the curious phenomena of the most financially successful writer of stories about boy wizards in human history, actually causing book vendors to lose money hand-over-fist in the competition to garner sales. Interwebshire, on the other hand, gives us the means by which writers, such as the unclassifiable but perhaps not uncertifiable Mr Frank Key, too tangentially bizarre, unless something about this world of ours twists unexpectedly for the better, for two-for-the-price-of-one deals at Waterstones, can infect without hindrance discerning brains, and give incurable page-turners the opportunity (courtesy of to order a print copy of such work as "Unspeakable Desolation Pouring Down From The Stars," "Befuddled by Cormorants" and now "Gravitas, Punctilio, Rectitude & Pippy Bags." Traditional publishing : 0, Elecro-jiggery-pokery : 1.


Chessbumbus said...

You have a nice blog here!
In case you are interested in chess:
My site:
Im happy to do link exchange with your blog also...

Best regards,

John Barleycorn said...

How can I resist such accurate flattery? I do have a nice blog here. I am interested in chess, as luck would have it, although I currently prefer the dynamics and little tiny robots of Risk:Transformers. People should immediately bookmark chessbumbus' blog Chessblog for Chessfuns, where there is a whole lot of chess.