What the printing press meant for copyist monks
February 26, 2011 | 4:05 pm
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The technopanics we’re seeing now over e-books replacing print books, computer gaming ruining people’s minds, and other technophobias of the day are nothing new. I’ve reviewed a book to that effect—Nick Bilton’s I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works.
On Techdirt the other day, I spotted a link to a historical analysis of the life of fifteenth-century abbot Johannes Trithemius, who really, really hated the printing press for what it was doing to the business of copyist monks. It’s very interesting reading, not least because (as Mike Masnick points out at Techdirt) the plight of the poor monks in the day of the printing press is often used to poke fun of publishers facing e-books, or the music industry facing e-music, or whatever old form of media is being replaced by a newer form this week. It’s right up there with buggy-whip makers and the automobile.
The really funny thing is that some of the arguments for scribes vs. print echo (or, rather, presage) complaints today about paper vs. e.
He does spend some time talking about practical reasons that printed books weren’t anything to get bothered about: their paper wasn’t as permanent as the parchment the monks used (he even advocates the hand-copying of “useful” printed works for their preservation); there weren’t very many books in print, and they were hard to find; they were constrained by the limitations of type, and were therefore ugly. All perfectly functional reasons considering the circumstances of the time.
I honestly think we’ve also heard every single one of those complaints leveled against e-books from a paper book perspective. Durability? Check. Small title selection (prior to Amazon et al getting in the game)? Check. Ugliness of type and formatting? Check. The writer of Ecclesiastes was right, there really is nothing new under the sun.
Of course, Trithemius’s main arguments had to do with what hand-copying meant from a moral and religious perspective. It was hard work that built character, and the act of copying over and over again burned the things that the person was copying deep into his brain. (This recognition actually persists to this day in the theory of kinesthetic learning.) So it was good for the monks as individuals to do it.
Of course, nothing was preventing the monks from continuing to do it if they wanted to, but since printing was going to lead to the bottom dropping out of the market for hand-scribed works, it was inevitable that they would have to find some other way to support themselves. There aren’t as many monasteries around as there used to be, but the ones that survived seem to have done all right by themselves.
And that will be the case with other forms of old media as well.