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Preface to Gutenberg OK

Preface to Gutenberg OK

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07/02/2009

 
PREFACE TO GUTENBERGA social history of medieval booksBy Lester K. Little
 Lester K. Little is professor of history at Smith. His article is a revised version of the first in a series of three lectures in medieval studies presented on campus last October. Theother two were delivered by Thomas Kelly of the music department and Vincent Pollina of the French department. These lecturers, along with several of their colleagues, haverecently drawn up a plan for a new, interdisciplinary major in medieval studies.
Well before 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg perfected the technique of printing withmovable metal type, many of the essential traits of books as we know them today haddeveloped. Indeed the entire millennium traditionally called the Middle Ages is rich in thelore of books. In order to retain some sense of that great span of time without sacrificingdepth altogether, I propose to take three soundings, all at critical points of transition: fromscroll to book, from book to treasure, and from treasure to tool.Two famous archeological finds of the 1940’s will help introduce the first of thesesoundings: the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Coptic Library. In 1947 a Bedouin boy discovered several tall jars made of clay in caves close by the western shore of the DeadSea. These jars were found to contain rolls of leather with Hebrew writing. The longest of these measured twentyfour feet and consisted of several pieces, each about a foot high,stitched together to form a continuous scroll; this, the longest one, had fifty-four columns of writing. The text was identified as the Book of Isaiah and the date of the handwriting wasestablished as from about 100 B.C. Other scrolls in the same find contained dramaticallynew material, especially about the Jewish sect of the Essenes. Apparently the scrolls had been taken from the Essene community of Qumran and placed in those cases for safekeepingduring the Roman-Jewish War of 68-70 A.D.At Nag Hammadi, three hundred miles south of Cairo, a similarly accidental discoveryturned up jars containing not scrolls but books. These contained works composed byChristian Gnostic sectarians and translated from Greek into Coptic in fourth-centuryhandwriting; included are the famous Gnostic Gospels, which have stirred considerable public discussion in the past year. These famous and relatively recent discoveries bring toour attention the two major forms that came down to us from the ancient world for  preserving lengthy written texts: the scroll and the book.What, precisely, was a scroll? Those I have mentioned already were atypical, for the materialmost commonly used was papyrus. Between roughly twenty and fifty sheets of papyrus wereglued end to end. Different qualities of papyrus were often mixed in the making of a scroll,going from the stronger and better pieces down to the weaker ones. The writing began atthe strong end; any leftover at the weak end could be cut off, and the scroll would be re-rolled from the weak end, thus leaving the piece with the strongest fibers on the outside, to protect all the rest. With few exceptions, only one side of the scroll was written upon.The main alternative to papyrus for scroll material was vellum or parchment: pieces of skinof sheep, goats, or calves that are washed, dressed, and rubbed smooth. Like the scrolls of leather mentioned before, scrolls of vellum consist of several pieces stitchedtogether. In the second century B.C. the rulers of Pergamum, a city in western Anatolia,sought to challenge the intellectual primacy of Alexandria. The Egyptians forbade the exportof papyrus. At Pergamum, the technique of preparing sheepskin for writing-perhaps long
 
since invented-was greatly refined and extensively used. The Latin for parchment recalls this period of development at Pergamum: the word is
 pergamena.
The utility of vellum wasnever fully realized in the scroll but only later on, in the book.The technical term for book, in English as well as in Latin, is codex (plural: codices). Acodex is a collection of sheets of any material folded and fastened together at the back or spine and usually protected by covers. The forerunner to the book (and the initial meaning of codex) was the stack of wax tablets in wooden frames held together with leather thongs, acumbersome arrangement but the original scratch pad nonetheless.The infant codex was a contemporary, roughly speaking, of those other two famous childrenof antiquity: Christianity and the Roman Empire. That is, in about the first century A.D., thefirst codices were made, some of papyrus and others of vellum. Either a single sheet wasfolded down the middle and then several such folded sheets were sewn together at the fold,or else superposed sheets were folded, forming a quire, and the quire was stitched together along the fold and also stitched into a binding case along with other quires.The codex has certain distinct advantages over the scroll. In a codex, both sides of every leaf can be andfusually are used. Moreover, a codex can contain a much longer text, not only because two sides of each leaf are used but because a great many more leaves can be puttogether in a book than conveniently strung out in a scroll. We would not normally expect tofind a work longer, say, than the Book of Isaiah, already mentioned, in a single scroll. Yet itwas a common practice to put all the Gospels together, perhaps with the Acts of theApostles as well, in one codex. The thirteen codices of the Nag Hammadi library containfifty-two treatises; these had originally been composed with the smaller format of the scrollin mind; but by the time they were copied, the larger format of the codex had come into use.Still another advantage of the book is that it is far more convenient to consult. One can openit at any point and thus find a passage in it far more handily than one can in a scroll. On this particular point, scrolls have most of the inconveniences of microfilm.In the course of the fourth century A.D., the codex won out definitively over the scroll. Thatit did so was not merely a matter of technological superiority, for there were importantassociations with each type that either facilitated or inhibited their being judged useful. Allthe important writings of antiquity were preserved on scrolls. The first codices, meanwhile,were notebooks, having inherited from wax tablets such characteristics as impermanence andvariety. Whereas a scroll contained a coherent composition meant to be read sequentiallyfrom start to finish, the earliest codices contained bits and pieces. Some early codices wereused for cheap, popular literature, so to the notion of impermanence is added a taint of cultural inferiority. More serious uses of the codex included scientific and legal writings, stillnot the main stuff of classical paideia, but busy, workaday stuff.The decisive impetus in the triumph of the codex came from the early Christians, whothereby gave an ideological stamp to this issue. They deliberately chose the commercial papyrus or vellum notebook to circulate the Christian Gospels. The earliest surviving textsof the New Testament are almost all codices. Henceforth the fate of the codex was firmlytied to that of Christianity; they came of age together in the fourth century. Just as lawyersdid with the legal texts found in codices, Christian preachers and polemicists couldcontinually make comparisons and cross-references, as well as cite specific passages, withfar greater facility when those were written in codices.Like the Roman senatorial class, which was the last major holdout against Christianity, pagan literature was the last holdout against the codex. There were a few exceptions, but the point remains that the success of Christianity was the principal source of trie success of the
 
codex. The preferred material was vellum, stronger and longer lasting than papyrus; this preference was already manifest before the supply line of papyrus from Egypt was cut.In the year 538, the great Roman senatorial aristocrat and civil servant Cassiodorus retiredto his estate overlooking the Ionian Sea and set up a monastery with the specific function of copying books. There were servants to do the chores, but to the educated, once worldlyaristocrats who lived in this community fell the task of preserving the written heritage of antiquity, pagan and Christian alike. Besides this material support for the production of codices, Cassiodorus provided precise instruction on how to assemble them as well as a justification for the work of the Christian scribe: ”Every word of the Lord written by thescribe is a wound inflicted on Satan.”The transition from scroll to book was complete. It may be helpful to recall that the writingsfrom the Dead Sea, works of a Jewish sect put down in the first century B.C., are found inscrolls. The Gnostic Gospels were Christian works, copied in the fourth century, in codices.The beginning of the Middle Ages, which some people still think of as a dark, barbarous erawhen high culture languished, was marked by the invention of the book.Our second sounding will be taken during the feudal period, let us say in the tenth century.Imagine if you will a Viking raid on a monastery; the monks, if alerted in time, will try to getaway with the community’s most precious belongings: relics and books.The relics are the physical remains of the patron saint of the monastery. The entire life of themonastery revolved about these relics. The saint was a spiritual hero who lived on in them;he was a living presence who could grant protection and other favors, as well as get angry atand punish his devotees. The relics were contained in a reliquary, usually in this time a smallmetal or wooden box covered with gold, silver, and jewels.The word contained in Holy Scripture was as live or active a force as the saint was in hisrelics. And this active, sacred being was housed in a container appropriately precious. I havein mind some of the Bibles from this period I have handled in European libraries: a yardhigh, two feet wide, ten inches thick, containing some three hundred vellum leaves, and witha richly decorated cover. The jewels and ivory and precious metals on the cover apart, whenwe try to estimate the value of such a book in this extremely poor, subsistence-leveleconomy, we must understand that the main writing surface represents the skins off the backs of an entire flock, and a large flock at that, of sheep. The writing is large andadmirably clear. The main divisions are marked by exquisitely executed illuminations,especially around the capital letters. The codex had thus become a sacred object, an objectof treasure, and we need to inquire briefly into how this came about.The monastic rule composed by St. Benedict, a contemporary of Cassiodorus, implied thatmonks were to be literate. The monks had to know how to read to prepare for the manyhours they would spend each day in reciting psalms and prayers in the monastic church.Moreover, St. Benedict provided for regular reading in the monastery, mostly of the Bibleand the Church Fathers. The monks were supposed to study these texts all right, but thereading was known as ”spiritual” reading, and this was in essence an act of worship. Themonks were venerating what they regarded as sacred texts (even Benedict’s rule they calledthe ”Holy Rule”) and so the codices containing them became liturgical objects.The artistic forms and styles employed in the monumental, illuminated books of feudalsociety derived from the arts of the Celts and of the Germanic peoples during their migration period. The Goths, Franks, Angles, Saxons, Lombards and others invested their greatestartistic skill in appropriately small, portable objects at the time of their long travels, betweenthe fourth century and the sixth, out of central Asia and eastern Europe into the western

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