Just as writing changed the course of human history, the evolution of paper and printing revolutionized the spread of information. While the invention of paper boosted Chinese and Islamic societies, the simple fact that the Latin alphabet could be printed using a small number of discrete, repetitive symbols helped popularize moveable type, handing Europe a crucial advantage at the beginning of the Renaissance. The printing press itself kicked off the scientific revolution that fast-tracked us to the current digital age. (Premiered September 30, 2020)
A to Z: How Writing Changed the World
PBS Airdate: September 30, 2020
NARRATOR: It may have been the spark that launched the scientific age: a machine to make books. Never before had it been possible to spread knowledge so fast and to so many people.
JOOST DEPUYDT (Curator, Museum Plantin-Moretus): That’s really an information revolution.
NARRATOR: But first came the page…
SAMAH SALAH ELLIATHY (Papermaker): And this is the first paper in the world.
NARRATOR: …made from plants…
JIANG XUN (Publisher): (Translated from Chinese) Chinese paper was the pride of China.
NARRATOR: …made from animals…
LEE MAPLEY (Master Parchment Maker): I am the only traditional master parchment maker left in the world, which is quite unique.
DR. BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER (Calligrapher): Medieval books were not made by vegetarians.
NARRATOR: …and the final ingredient, a bit of luck, hidden in the shape of a letter.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: This is a modular way of writing. And, in fact, if I want to make little blocks of metal with them, no problem, because I’m already there, basically. The design has already happened.
AHMAD AL-JALLAD (Philologist): This text here is legible Arabic. It shows a remarkable advance in Arabic printing technology.
NARRATOR: A to Z: How Writing Changed the World, right now, on NOVA.
In the year 1448, in Mainz, Germany, a goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg was experimenting with a lead alloy and a handheld mold. His aim was to speed up the process of putting ink on paper, but what he did was speed up history. Gutenberg’s invention spelled the end of the Middle Ages and ushered in the modern world of science and industry. Every innovation of today is built on this foundation.
Yet, behind Gutenberg’s press lay centuries of development and change in the way words were written, without which he could never have succeeded. This is the story of history’s most important technology, the technology of putting words on a page.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: I’m making a pen out of a drinks can. And it’s one of my favorite pens, because it can do so many different things, and also because it means no matter where in the world I am, I always have a pen. There’s trash everywhere.
NARRATOR: Brody Neuenschwander is a calligrapher and modern artist who has studied the writing practices of different cultures throughout history.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: Now, a pen is a simple tool in any case. All it is is a point with a reservoir. And the reservoir holds the ink and brings it to the point, and you write with it. I’m going to use my drinks-can pen to write a short phrase from a poem by Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” The first stroke is going to make quite a noise, so watch out. The A, and flow into an S, made with a nice movement of the arm. I can also make a very fat and juicy stroke for the K.
NARRATOR: This is calligraphy as art, where legibility takes second place to expression, and the letters can be hard to make out. But for most of history, making out the letters has been essential.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: Writing is one of the most fundamental things that human beings do, one of the great motors of civilization. And to understand how people wrote in previous societies helps us to understand many of the other aspects of the society.
NARRATOR: But is it possible to know how people wrote, thousands of years ago? Brody believes that calligraphy can help.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: The one thing that’s amazing about calligraphy is we can go right back to the materials and tools of earlier times and reproduce, nearly exactly, the conditions of writing. So, it’s a sort of experimental approach to historical research using the real tools and materials that were used in earlier times.
NARRATOR: Running a nation has always required some form of written communication. And the world’s first nation-state was Ancient Egypt, a state which employed one of the earliest writing systems. Egyptian hieroglyphs can still be read in monumental inscriptions carved in stone. But the Egyptians also had a portable, everyday medium on which to write. Brody has come to Egypt to learn about this pioneering Information Technology.
SAMAH SALAH ELLIATHY: My name is Sam.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: I’m Brody.
SAMAH SALAH ELLIATHY: Welcome. I’ll give you a brief idea about this plant, the papyrus plant, and how the Ancient Egyptians were using this plant to make a paper.
NARRATOR: Papyrus is a type of sedge, which grows all along the banks of the Nile. Readily available and easily harvested, this unassuming plant was turned, by the Egyptians, into one of the foundations of civilization.
SAMAH SALAH ELLIATHY: We remove the green parts, all of the green cover. We divide it into long and thin slices, like this. But that part also is breakable, as you can see, or easy to break. To make the slices more flexible we use this. The slices now will be more strong and more flexible than the part, it would break. Then we soften the slices in fresh water. After two weeks, we take the slices from the water. We arrange them between two pieces of cotton. This is the slices that we have here, slices in vertical and horizontal lines like this. One vertical, another horizontal, without any space, one by one and two by two, ‘til we complete the whole sheet. We cover them. We put them under a press machine for one week. One week under the press, we get this paper. And this is the first paper in the world.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: Well, it feels like a wonderful surface. I think I would really enjoy writing on it, actually.
NARRATOR: As civilization spread from Egypt across the Mediterranean, so did papyrus. It became an important export. And when Egypt was finally conquered by the Roman Empire, in 30 B.C., one of the biggest prizes of conquest was domination of the Mediterranean papyrus trade.
DR. MATTHEW NICHOLLS (Historian): The Romans had a large and complex empire that ran on the written word. And papyrus, being their form of paper, was imported from Egypt. And it’s shipped over here in enormous quantities. And papyrus, rolled up into scrolls, was, for centuries, the Roman book. If there was a fresco of a householder wanting to show they were literate, they would be holding a scroll, very deeply ingrained.
NARRATOR: Literacy was surprisingly widespread in Rome. It even extended to the large enslaved population in the city, which provided most of the scribes who wrote those high-status scrolls. But what was the technology they used to put ink to papyrus?
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: Romans used a reed pen to write with on papyrus. It’s cut to a very fine point. It’s a fairly soft material, and the pithy side will absorb ink quite a bit, so, instead of having a natural reservoir like a quill has, it’s actually the wood, itself, absorbing a certain charge of ink.
NARRATOR: Brody sets out to copy a letter sent from Rome to Egypt, preserved in the desert sand for nearly 2,000 years.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: It’s written in a very simple casual daily script. So, I’m going to see what it’s like to write those letters with this, with this reed pen. You always learn a lot at the very first moment that you touch the pen to the, to the writing surface. And what I’m seeing is that the horizontal fibers of the papyrus are guiding my pen. And you wouldn’t really need to draw lines because they’re already there; that saves you a lot of time. And it’s slippery, that’s, that is very noticeable, just how slippery this surface is. So, it’s almost like skating, and I find it naturally encouraged to write a very quick hand here. The reed is very light in my hands, and there’s no resistance from the papyrus at all, so I think you could have a nice long working day as a Roman scribe. As long as the light held, you’d be able to keep churning out your Ovids for your master. Yes, it’s, it’s amazingly fast, really. It’s a, it’s a surface made for speed.
NARRATOR: So, copies could be churned out relatively quickly by the inexpensive labor of the enslaved. The materials were cheap too. That meant that a Roman bookshop would have something for almost every pocket.
MATTHEW NICHOLLS: Spaces like this are fairly typical for Roman shops: a single room, opening straight onto the street. And here’s this lovely Travertine lintel, and you can see, in it, there’s a groove here, for wooden shutters that might close it off at night, to keep the stock secure. For the ordinary man and woman in the street, booksellers were a great place to get hold of literature at a not exorbitant price. So, ranging from a few coins for the cheapest book, that’s a soldier’s daily wage.
NARRATOR: And if you couldn’t afford a particular book, you could always go and consult it in one of Rome’s public libraries.
MATTHEW NICHOLLS: As well as the commercial booksellers, there were public libraries founded by the emperors. We know of about 29 of them by the late antique period. So, lots and lots of them.
NARRATOR: It all adds up to a picture of a world where books were widely available.
MATTHEW NICHOLLS: In the libraries, we can estimate maybe tens of thousands of scrolls, and that’s just the big public collections. So, around us, here in this square mile or so of the city center, maybe hundreds of thousands of scroll books.
NARRATOR: But that thriving literary culture was all based on the ready availability of papyrus. And by the end of the third century, Rome’s control over the Mediterranean had begun to slip.
MATTHEW NICHOLLS: Over time, the Roman Empire split into East and West. Seaborne trade became harder and more expensive to do as the Empire fragmented, and the trade in papyrus became harder and harder to sustain. And you can count the number of fragments of books that survive by each century, and you can see the number goes down and down. So, there are just fewer books being made, and this city of great libraries and thousands of thousands of papyri changes. And a late antique writer says, “Libraries are shut up now and echoing like tombs and empty.” Rome’s empire shrinks and becomes the start of the new Christian Middle Ages.
NARRATOR: The fall of the Roman Empire coincides with a change in the technology of writing in Europe. As papyrus disappeared, so did the book as a relatively inexpensive, everyday commodity. Books would become rare and precious objects, as Europeans turned to a new and much more expensive material on which to write.
LEE MAPLEY: I’m Lee Mapley. I am the only traditional master parchment maker left in the world, which is quite unique. Essentially, we are taking a raw material, completely natural sheepskin, calfskin or goatskin, and we are converting it into a beautiful writing material. I’ll tie the skin into a frame. And it has to be stretched. I’m realigning the fibers of the skin, to get it nice and solid, to keep that nice flat surface. So, then I can also work any flesh off the skin and work the grease out of the skin, in the frame. So, it’s literally elbow grease and hot water to remove that grease from the skin.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: For a thousand years this was the only writing surface Europe had. It’s a piece of parchment. Now medieval books were not made by vegetarians. And you can see that it’s an animal product, because running right down the center, this pale zone, is the spine of the animal, with the pelvic bones even shown here. Here, we would fold to make a large book. And that’s why we call it the “spine” of a book.
NARRATOR: The fact that parchment could be folded made it possible to stitch leaves together into a “codex,” the form of the modern book. Each sheet of parchment would yield eight pages of an “octavo” volume, which meant that it took a lot of animals to make a single book. The medieval pen was also an animal product, a bird’s feather.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: Cutting a quill starts with shortening it, sadly. It’s a little less romantic that way, but otherwise it would stick in your eye. And then you have to open the end of it and make a slit and the slit that I make now by lifting the knife is what brings the ink to the point of the pen, and then starting on the other side I cut from one side towards the slit that I just made and then, from the other side towards the slit and I make a symmetrical point. Now, I use a lot of different tools, modern ones, and all, but I’ve still never found anything better than a good swan quill.
I’m working on a really wonderful piece of parchment here. It’s got just the right surface to give me sharp letters and a lot of control. Parchment is not a material that you would ever try to write quickly on. It holds the pen as you write, so you don’t skate or slip, and it really encourages a sort of majestic, graceful, slow and careful way of writing. When you write on parchment, the ink, as it dries, is grabbed by the fibers, which close down and hold it. It’s almost like you’re tattooing the surface. At the pace I’m writing now, I could probably write, in a really good day, two pages of one of these great Bibles, certainly not more. And eight hours a day, that’s not really possible. It’s, it’s too focused, it’s too concentrated, and in the end it’s too tiring. So, I think that a six-hour day, yielding two full pages would be a very, very good day.
NARRATOR: Where were all these labor-intensive, costly books being produced? As it happens, Brody’s studio is in Bruges. In the Middle Ages, this city was a great center of book production, responsible at times for as much as ten percent of all the books being made in Western Europe. At the city archives, Brody visits Ludo Vandamme, to try to put what he’s learned about writing on parchment into historical context.
LUDO VANDAMME (Archivist): What we see here are all the members working in the book industry in Bruges at that moment.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: Oh!
LUDO VANDAMME: And that’s unique.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: How many members are we talking about here?
LUDO VANDAMME: About 50, 60 at that moment.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: Okay.
LUDO VANDAMME: Men and women.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: Yes.
NARRATOR: Each workshop might have employed a handful of scribes, but Brody’s experiment shows that it would have taken months for a scribe to copy a whole book.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: So, if I think we have 50 workshops, each making several books a year, that means that the number of books being finished is in the hundreds, in Bruges, not in the thousands. Is that a fair guess?
LUDO VANDAMME: Can agree, yes.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: In all of northern Europe then, a few thousand, no more. So, there’s very little access to information at this time in Europe.
NARRATOR: Medieval books were rare and precious.
LUDO VANDAMME: I have something I want to show you.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: What is this?
LUDO VANDAMME: This is a contract to make a book, a luxury book in two volumes. For a patron, a commissioner, and he says it will cost 20 pounds, this luxury book. And he also says how long it takes him to finish the book, almost a year.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: Any way of guessing what 20 pounds is worth?
LUDO VANDAMME: Twenty pounds at that moment? Let’s say a modest house in Bruges, a middle class house.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: Oh, my goodness! It’s an astonishingly expensive information technology.
NARRATOR: The libraries of Bruges still have examples of the sort of book that cost as much as a house.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: This is the absolute luxury manuscript. You couldn’t get anything more precious, more expensive and more prestigious than this. I’m looking at gold, which would have had been beaten into thin sheets to be applied to the page. I’m looking at blue, which actually came all the way from Afghanistan. I’m looking at malachite green brought from central Europe. It is an 800 page book, which represents 400 animals; 400 animals, in a very agrarian economy.
NARRATOR: Books like this represent a pinnacle of medieval art, but they also represent a limitation on literacy and scholarship, compared to the broad literary culture of the ancient world.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: When I started my experiments with a reed pen on papyrus, I was astonished with how quick it was. First of all papyrus was a cheap writing material. That means that books were accessible to a certain segment of the population in Greek and Roman times. I think we could almost say that the Middle Ages is that period when papyrus is no longer used, no longer available, and parchment becomes the writing surface. What do we gain from it? This world of beautiful illuminated manuscripts. What do we lose? A broader reading culture. So, the shift from antiquity to the Middle Ages is the shift from papyrus to parchment and the shift from a wide literate public to a very small one. Very interesting to see how writing materials and techniques can have such an immense influence on cultural development.
NARRATOR: But what about other cultures, further to the East, in Asia? In China, a rich literary and artistic tradition developed, based on a distinctive pictorial script and a unique writing technology. The key components of that technology are traditionally known as “the four treasures of the study.” First is paper, then, the brush, and the calligrapher needs an ink stone on which to grind her ink, which comes in the form of a stick of solid pigment. The four treasures allow Wang Jianing to practice brush calligraphy, in much the same way as it has been for thousands of years.
WANG JIANING (Calligrapher): (Translated from Chinese) The calligraphy style I am going to use is Tang dynasty Cursive Script. It is 1,200, almost 1,300 years old. I feel that I have inherited the Tang dynasty script style. I feel that very strongly.
I am writing a poem written by a famous Ming dynasty poet, Li Rihua. It is a poem about a painting. The poet describes the feelings prompted by viewing an ink painting of a rainy and cloud-clad landscape.
“At the end of the Wu mountains,
the edge of the Yue mountain emerges.
Trees stand clear and glorious in the water, pellucid.
Mountain birds suddenly came to me, twittering.
The sound urges me to move my dwelling.”
NARRATOR: Brush calligraphy produced works of art that were prized in China every bit as much as illuminated manuscripts were in Europe.
But in a medieval manuscript, the art is in the decoration around the text. The nature of the Latin alphabet and the characteristics of parchment produced letters that were regular and repetitive. But in Chinese brush calligraphy, the art is in the brushwork that produces the characters themselves. And that is made possible by the nature of the writing surface.
WANG JIANING: (Translated from Chinese) This type of paper is very good for expressive and artistic calligraphic writing.
NARRATOR: Paper was invented in China in the second century, and by the seventh century, papermaking was an important Chinese industry.
JIANG XUN: (Translated from Chinese) Tang dynasty paper, you can check the Buddhist scriptures produced in the Tang dynasty, you cannot even rip it. The Tang paper is very fine quality, very thin. That is why people say, “thousand year paper, hundred years silk,” which means, paper lasts for a thousand years, while our silk clothes only lasts for a hundred years
NARRATOR: Paper was key to another Chinese invention: woodblock printing. Each page of text was glued onto a wooden block, and then the characters were carved out by a skilled craftsman. This step was laborious and expensive, but once the wood block was produced, it was quick and cheap to print from, thanks to paper that was absorbent, flexible and inexpensive.
And because Chinese paper didn’t tear easily, it was a simple matter to stitch the pages together into a book. Indeed, paper was so plentiful, that even a thousand years ago, Chinese people could buy blank notebooks. Such an aid to thought would have been inconceivable in medieval Europe, where every single blank page was an expensive and scarce resource. In a world of parchment, many thoughts must have gone unrecorded.
JIANG XUN: (Translated from Chinese) So, Chinese paper was the pride of China.
NARRATOR: A source of pride, but also a state secret. For 600 years, only the Chinese knew how to make paper, but nothing can be kept hidden forever.
This is the Meros Paper Mill near Samarkand, a key city on the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean. In the Middle Ages, there were hundreds of such water-powered paper mills operating in the region, churning out paper for the Islamic Empire of the Abbasid caliphs.
Papermaking had come to Samarkand as the result of a battle. In 751, the westward expansion of the Tang Dynasty was checked by Arab forces at the River Talas. It was a defeat that ensured that to this day, the principal religion of Central Asia would be Islam. And, in the captured baggage train of the Chinese army were papermakers. The secret was out: how to turn the bark of the mulberry tree into the seemingly humble material that was the foundation of Chinese culture and power.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: To make mulberry bark paper, you take the new growth of the tree, these sticks here, and you peel off the outer bark, which is very thin. You can peel it in one pull, like that. You have a golden inside and a rough woody outside. You can then, as you see here, Rukhsona, with her great Samarkandi swordsmanship, can, with a quick flick of the knife, peel away the brown outer skin. And then, that leaves you with this pure inner pith, which is the fibers of the mulberry tree.
And they’ll need to be cooked and softened, in the next stage of the process.
NARRATOR: After cooking, the mill pounds the mulberry pith for up to eight hours to produce a pulp. Added to water the pulp makes a thick soup of cellulose fibers, which are scooped up in a rectangular sieve. As the water flows through the sieve it leaves behind a thin mat of the fibers. This is pressed between pieces of cotton to form a single sheet of paper, which can later be hung up to dry.
Then, the Islamic papermakers added a new step to the Chinese process. They polished each sheet to produce a smooth writing surface.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: The preparation of paper for Islamic calligraphy is quite a process. And the reason is, is that they use a reed pen, as ancient Romans did, but it’s cut to a wide point. And that wide point is going to be pushed from right to left to make the long strokes of Arabic calligraphy. And therefore you cannot have any unevennesses or any roughnesses in the paper.
The first thing I notice is that the strokes need to be made pretty slowly, because if I’m going fast, the ink is pulling back. It’s a matter of finding the right speed and pressure. That’s really fascinating. At the beginning, I was going too fast and the ink was pulling back, but I’ve found the speed that this paper is demanding, and now my ink is staying just where I put it.
What we have here with Islamic paper is something that’s cheap but very sophisticated, very finely manicured and tailored to making extremely graceful calligraphy.
NARRATOR: In Samarkand, during the Middle Ages, the papermaking industry was on a surprisingly impressive scale.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: There were perhaps as many as 400 paper mills operating in this region, in the Middle Ages, all the way to the 18th century, supplying paper to the entire Islamic world. The production of a factory like this would have been several thousand sheets a day. And if you take that times 400, we have millions of sheets of paper being made every day. This was the paper that supplied the entire Islamic world with the basis for its intellectual, religious and cultural life.
NARRATOR: And that intellectual life was rich indeed. The five centuries that followed the beginning of papermaking in Samarkand came to be known as the Islamic Golden Age. The arts and sciences flourished. Islamic scholars made discoveries in geology, biology, medicine and especially mathematics. They gave us the words algebra and algorithm, and we still count using Arabic numerals. Samarkand was, itself, a great center of scholarship. In Registan Square, three great Islamic Universities face each other. They are covered in monumental Arabic calligraphy, praising God and extolling the virtues of learning. The oldest of the three Universities was founded by Ulugh Beg, ruler of Samarkand in the 15th century. But today Ulugh Beg is famous, not as a prince, but as an astronomer.
Nearby the university, Ulugh Beg built an observatory. It’s long gone, except for the part that was underground.
DR. SUNATULLO MUKHITDINOV (Historian): (Translated from Uzbek) We are in the observatory built by Ulugh Beg. And this is the sextant built 200 years before Galileo Galilei invented the telescope. At the time, it was the largest observatory in human history.
NARRATOR: The top half of the sextant once reached 100 feet above ground, making it, by far, the largest such instrument ever built. Sunlight would have illuminated the curved track, which is marked very precisely with degrees. A copper ruler, inserted in one of these slots, measured the fraction of a degree, called the minutes of arc. Ulugh Beg used the sextant to measure the height of the sun at noon each day. At midsummer and midwinter, this allowed him to determine the length of the solar year.
SUNATULLO MUKHITDINOV: (Translated from Uzbek) The calculation of the solar year was a big deal for Ulugh Beg’s age, 15th century. According to Ulugh Beg’s calculations, the solar year was 365 days, 6 hours, 10 minutes and 9 seconds. Calculations with modern computer technology differed from his results by only one minute and two seconds. He was able to calculate such a complex thing in the 15th century.
NARRATOR: The scientific observations being made here were far in advance of anything happening in Europe at the time.
SUNATULLO MUKHITDINOV: (Translated from Uzbek) The invention of paper, an information technology that was cheaper than in Europe, which only had parchment at that time, helped science to travel easier and further.
NARRATOR: Islamic science, and the paper it was written on, would eventually find its way to Europe, where it would help to lay the foundations of a scientific revolution.
This star catalogue, published in Poland, in 1690, lists the position of the fixed stars, as determined by six great astronomers. Ulugh Beg is among them.
DR. NICK JARDINE (Historian): This extraordinary frontispiece shows ancient Greek Ptolemy, Tycho Brahe, Ulugh Beg is the one with the long oriental moustache in the image, sitting at the table, being highly honored in this sequence of persons who have mighty observatories and made observations of the fixed stars. So, you’ve got a succession on each side, of astronomers, and the idea, in this image, is that the catalogues are steadily improved, as each passes on their findings for improvement by their successors.
NARRATOR: By the time this star catalogue was published, the ancient view of the heavens had been radically transformed by the discoveries of astronomers like Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler and Isaac Newton. They were all Europeans, proof that by the 17th century, European intellectual life no longer lagged behind the scholarship of the Islamic world. And that change had been made possible by a revolution in the production of the written word, for this is a printed book.
NICK JARDINE: The impact of printing in the Western world is comparable, in scope, in all areas of learning, to the impact in the Islamic world of the use of paper.
NARRATOR: Printing would eventually spread the written word to every level of European society. But how did this radical new technology find a market, in a world where books were a luxury for the very rich?
The printing revolution began in the German town of Mainz, in 1448, when Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith by trade, began casting the letters of the Latin alphabet in metal.
JOOST DEPUYDT: Gutenberg was looking for a way to produce multiple copies of the same text in a much faster way than scribes could copy texts in the manuscript period.
NARRATOR: Gutenberg’s idea was to speed up the process of putting words on a page by replacing the scribe with a machine. The secret of Gutenberg’s printing press was his ability to mass produce multiple copies in metal of each individual letter. And in this he had a hidden advantage, the nature of the Latin alphabet.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: The letters of the Latin alphabet are really very simple shapes, and when you write them in the way they would have been written at the time printing was invented, all the letters are very clearly separate. This is a modular way of writing, and, in fact, if I want to make little blocks of metal with them, no problem, because I’m already, I’m already there, basically. The design has already happened. These simple block-like letters can become blocks of metal and can be printed.
NARRATOR: But it’s easy for us to forget what a big risk Gutenberg was taking. To set up his print shop took capital, capital which would have to be repaid. And so it was vital that the first book he printed turn a profit.
GILES MANDELBROTE (Archivist, Lambeth Palace Library): Well, this is one of the really great treasures of Lambeth Palace Library. It’s a copy of the Vulgate Bible printed by Johannes Gutenberg, in Mainz, in the mid-1450s. So, it’s a copy of the first substantial printed book to be produced in the West with movable type.
NARRATOR: The people who bought books in the 15th century were a small and elite group of rich individuals and institutions. Every book they had ever seen was a manuscript, and they had a clear idea of what a book should look like.
GILES MANDELBROTE: What people would have really prized in the manuscript book, would have thought marked it out as a manuscript of high quality, was the regularity of the text and of the letter forms, the evenness of the inking, the contrast between the white of the page and the black of the text.
NARRATOR: Those qualities, regularity of letter forms and of line length, were precisely the characteristics of moveable type. What was a challenge for the scribe was straightforward for the typesetter. So, moveable type could produce a printed book that matched the quality of the manuscripts that readers were used to looking at and buying. And Gutenberg didn’t stop there. He printed on parchment and had the printed text illuminated by hand. The impression of a manuscript is so complete that for hundreds of years the librarians at Lambeth Palace were fooled.
GILES MANDELBROTE: And until the early 19th century, it was thought to be a manuscript. It was catalogued as a manuscript. And I think Gutenberg would have been delighted by our confusion, because what he was trying to achieve with the printing of this book was to produce a book, by a new technique, that people would think was just as good as the manuscripts that they were used to buying and reading. So, what he was trying to do was to do something new that would seem old.
NARRATOR: Gutenberg’s strategy worked. His printed Bibles sold with ease. He soon had imitators, and within a few decades there were hundreds of printing presses operating in Europe, manufacturing books on an unprecedented scale.
JOOST DEPUYDT: On one printing press, you had two people working on it, and in one day, they could make 2,500 prints. That means that in, let’s say, two weeks’ time, they could print a whole book in 1,250 copies. And in the manuscript time, it would take one scribe about a year to produce one single copy of a text. That’s really an information revolution at the time.
NARRATOR: And just as paper had made its way from the Islamic world to Europe, printed books were soon travelling in the other direction, as European printers set out to serve Christian readers living under Islamic rule in the Ottoman Empire.
AHMAD AL-JALLAD: It looks quite humble, but this is a rather rare and precious specimen. This is the first Arabic book printed with movable type. It’s printed in 1514, in Fano, Italy. And this here is a Book of Hours printed in Arabic.
NARRATOR: But the manuscript tradition in the Islamic world was very different from that in Europe. Instead of a modular script of separate letters, Arabic was written in a cursive style, in which the letters in a word are all connected. These connections are obligatory, and readers would never have seen Arabic written any other way.
AHMAD AL-JALLAD: You see, the Arabic script is much more than simply a cursive script that connects letters together. In fact, it’s words that stack and are interwoven across the line. There it is not simply a sequence of words, but some words might be higher and lower, the ends of words might weave into the beginnings of others, and all of that is incredibly difficult to reproduce with moveable type.
NARRATOR: These difficulties are readily apparent to the printed Book of Hours.
AHMAD AL-JALLAD: You can see that we have two forms of the Arabic script on a single page. The first form is a recognizable calligraphic Arabic hand. It’s a “cliché,” a wooden block. It’s not movable type. And so it would be recognizable to any reader of Arabic as good Arabic. But underneath it, you have a completely new invention. It is the Arabic movable type script and it results from the adaptation, the forced adaptation, of Arabic to the movable type environment, making it closer to the logic of the Latin script. And you can see here that the words do not stack up upon each other like the calligraphic hand. The letters are all on one basic line, and you can even see, if you look closely, that the baseline that connects the cursive letters together is not complete, and there are gaps between the individual letters.
A well-trained scribe, I don’t think would have recognized this as Arabic.
NARRATOR: It was difficult for movable type to reproduce the look of an Arabic manuscript, and that made it hard to compete with the well-established local book trade. So, although Ottoman printers were soon printing Hebrew and Armenian alphabets, it was more than two centuries before the first Arabic print shop was established, in Istanbul, in 1727.
AHMAD AL-JALLAD: What we have here is the first Arabic book printed with moveable type in the Muslim world, about 200 years after the Book of Hours that we’ve looked at previously. This text shows a remarkable advance in Arabic printing technology, where there are many more ligatures that mimic the Arabic calligraphic hand.
NARRATOR: Nevertheless, unlike in Europe, movable type failed to capture the market, and within 20 years, the printer was out of business.
AHMAD AL-JALLAD: After a short stint, basically, printing technology died off. And so we can wonder, why did printing never really take off? And well the most obvious difference between the first book printed using movable type in the Muslim world and the Gutenberg Bible is the book’s contents. This is a dictionary. This would have had a much more limited audience. It wouldn’t have been consumed by everyone, and it wouldn’t have been a book that everyone would have had an interest in.
NARRATOR: That book would have been the Koran, but moveable type, although improved, was still not good enough to reproduce the calligraphy of the Holy Book.
AHMAD AL-JALLAD: If you could have had affordable and mass produced Korans, I think you would’ve had a huge market for that. The trouble is they had to meet a certain quality. You could not print a Koran like this. This does not reproduce a manuscript, it does not reproduce the format of the Koran that the faithful were used to seeing. So, the most widely read and the widely appreciated Arabic book was never printed using movable type, and that took a huge part of the market out. Whereas Gutenberg printed the book, the Bible, that basically everyone in the Continent would have wanted.
NARRATOR: So there’s an irony. Printing took off in Europe in large part because Gutenberg could produce with movable type a book that looked as if it had been written by hand. And that was possible because he was printing the Latin alphabet. If he’d been trying to print a different script, he might never have succeeded. That simple fact lies behind a thousand-fold increase in the availability of information, an explosion of ideas that led directly to the European Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution that followed, and the world we live in today.
Pen and paper, ink and alphabet, these things are so familiar as to be almost invisible, but these are world altering technologies. Our history has been shaped by the shape of the letters we write, and the means we use to write them. Remember that, next time you pick up a pencil.
Martin De La Fouchardière
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- Ahmad Al-Jallad, Joost Depuydt, Nick Jardine, Wang Jianing, Giles Mandelbrote, Lee Mapley, Sunatullo Muhkhitdinov, Brody Neuenschwander, Matthew Nicholls, Samah Salah Elliathy, Ludo Vandamme, Jiang Xun