Popular Science Monthly/Volume 79/December 1911/The Lack of Printing in Antiquity

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THE LACK OF PRINTING IN ANTIQUITY
By FREDERIC DREW BOND

AMONG fragments from the Græco-Roman world which have come down to as, not a few imply the use of some sort of stamping, or rudimentary printing. Seals and stamps bearing reverse legends are not infrequent, and, in 1908, the Italian Archeological Committee at work in Crete discovered a terra-cotta inscription whose letters had been impressed separately. According to Lacroix[1] Cicero had at least the idea of movable type, for in arguing against the Epicurean conception of the world as formed by the chance concourse of atoms, he uses this curious line of reasoning: "Why not believe, also, that by throwing together, indiscriminately, innumerable forms of letters of the alphabet, either in gold or in any other substance, one can print on the ground with these letters, the annals of Ennius?"

D'Israeli in bis "Curiosities of Literature" has a quaint passage in which he suggests that the Roman Senate, fearing the effects of printed books, prevented movable type from coming into use. Another suggestion is that of De Quincey, who expresses the view, which he states he derives from Archbishop Whately, that the reason the Romans did not use the press was not from lack of knowledge of movable type but from lack of paper with which to make use of it. The ancients, as is well known, used not paper, but papyrus, on which to write. Shreds of this river plant (which, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, still grows in the Nile valley) were split apart in long pieces, interwoven with one another and the whole then heavily pressed till a smooth and polished surface suitable for writing was obtained.

But though lack of paper might have impeded the development of typography in antiquity, had its invention, otherwise, been feasible, this does not seem to have been the main cause accounting for its absence. For, after the fall of Samarcand in 704, the Saracens became acquainted with the manufacture of paper and, also, no doubt, learned of block printing among the Chinese; yet printing did not appear in the caliphates of Arabia or of Spain any more than it did among the Romans. (Among the Chinese, needless to say, it was the multitude of written characters which prevented the development of typography from block printing.) It may be thus suspected that printing was wanting in the Roman Empire for much the same reasons that it was wanting among the Saracens. By the end of the first century of our era there were already written nearly all the works which we call classics and a number of each large enough to supply the reading demand had been turned out in manuscript. The literary output of new works in the Roman Empire was, from our modern standpoint, extraordinarily small. Aside from a few romances nothing existed in prose which would fall under our head of fiction. More than this, the output of scientific, descriptive and even historical writings was scanty in the extreme. Poetry, satire, philosophy and religion seem to have made up the greatest part of the output of new books in the Roman shops. Reading never became in the Roman Empire the necessity it has been to an educated man for many centuries past. Those who read habitually in the empire were the school children and scholars, and the wants of these last were supplied by the great libraries of Alexandria, Athens and Rome. Reading and writing were to others rarely more than a means of communication and of casting accounts or other commercial business.

Nevertheless, had printing been invented in the Roman Empire it would, no doubt, in the end, have created a demand for the books which it would almost certainly have called into being. Now the idea of typography, to nations possessing an alphabet, is so obvious that its failure to appear at all in Rome seems at first puzzling. Commercial enterprises are frequently started with no more prospect of gain than a printing office, if ready for work, would have faced in Rome. The real reason why in the conditions in the Roman Empire printing did not appear at all is revealed when we turn to the history of the early printers who invented the art in the fifteenth century. Though the idea of typography is obvious, the means first to make the idea actual were, we find, very far indeed from being so. Obscure though the early history of the art is, it is certain that effort after effort was made by several small groups of men in Holland and on the borders of Germany to make a commercial success of printing in the years between 1420 and 1450. The difficulties they encountered were manifold—a workable ink, a press which would give even impressions, but, most of all, type, both as regards its cutting or its casting and as regards its wear, we find giving them endless difficulties. We get some idea of the labors connected with the invention when we find Gutenburg trying to print at Strasburg as early as 1436. About 1442 he went to Mayence. There he exhausted his means in various experiments. In turn he took up and laid aside the different processes he had tried—xylography, movable types of cast iron, wood and lead. He invented new tools and experimented with a press made on the principle of a wine-press. He began work on nearly a dozen books and could finish none of them. In 1450 he entered into partnership with John Fust, a rich goldsmith of Mayence. Fust agreed to advance Gutenburg 800 gold florins for the manufacture of implements and tools and 300 for other expenses. In 1451 Peter Schoeffer, an employee in the establishment, at last hit on a commercially feasible method of casting type. This discovery, which enabled printing to become a business success, he communicated to Fust, and the two, after getting rid of Gutenburg by a legal device, then printed the famous "Great Bible" of 1456.

The story of the invention of printing thus shows clearly that without a strong money-making stimulus, the years of thought, labor and expense necessary to make a business success of the art would not have been hazarded. This money-making stimulus existed in the fifteenth century but was lacking in ancient times. The first printers came on the scene at the beginnings of the renaissance, when in Germany, where the awakening took a religious direction, there was a strong commercial demand for bibles and works of devotion, which was not supplied by the manuscript output. Moreover, eager readers for the literature of Greece and Rome and for the writings of the Church fathers could be found in every European country touched by the early Renaissance. This antique and religious literature and the bible, in the Vulgate and in translations, furnished the materials for the first printers till the controversies of the Reformation brought more grist to the mill. Between 1456 and 1478 the new art had been exercised in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Spain and Scandinavia. By the beginning of the sixteenth century it is computed that 16,000 editions of books had been printed.

On the other hand, in the Roman Empire, the popular old books were already in sufficiently large manuscript circulation and what there was of new material was amply cared for by the few publishing houses of Alexandria and Rome. In the Roman Empire the demand either for new books or for new copies of the old was too well supplied for inventor after inventor to take up some thirty-five years in perfecting movable type. It was the insight that the demand for more books would afford great gain if gratified which induced the long labors which ended in a practicable method of producing and using movable type. No such prospect existed in antiquity. To a Roman of the Empire a printing press would have seemed a commercially useless contrivance.

Whether, of course, fragmentary printing with some rude and easily produced sort of movable type, such as would be made of carved wood, ever occurred at all in ancient times can not be said. Not improbably, it did; the Cretan inscription, noticed above, had it been impressed on papyrus by ink, would have been an example of rudimentary typography. Possibly, for all we know, attempts of this sort, made for the amusement or for the novelty of the thing, may have occurred time and time again.

  1. "Arts in the Middle Ages," English translation, p. 486.