Publishing Before Print
Nina Maria Gorrissen fellow Daniel Hobbins, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, started his talk with a thought experiment: Imagine a monk from the time of Charlemagne (early 9th century) who finds himself hurled ahead to the year 1400. This diligent scribe had spent his years dutifully copying hulking books intended for public display at church rituals -- massive tombs filled exquisite illustrations and embedded with gems and inlaid with gold. When he arrives in the year 1400, books don't look like this anymore. They are copied on paper, and are abundant and cheap. Books' increased numbers and geographical reach inspire the monk to imagine hordes of poor fellow monks chained to their desks, copying day and night, "prodded by demons," without respite from the quill and ink. What else could explain such proliferation?
The middle ages, Hobbins says, appear to the mind's eye as we imagine this befuddled monk: a seamless stretch of time caricatured by sleepy monasteries dotting an empty landscape. Then came the year 1440, that of Gutenberg's revolutionary invention, and the world changed forever. Books and literacy were abundant, modern science begins, and even educated laity were encouraged to indulge in reading for pleasure and spiritual instruction. But such a picture obscures the multiple revolutions in book technology that occurred throughout the middle ages.
By 1300, Hobbins explains, the book had already moved out of the monastery. And during the century 1375-1475, in some parts of the empire, Germany, and Italy, manuscript production skyrocketed, paper mills began spreading northward, and the prices of paper fell steadily. All of these material changes made it easier for authors to have their works copied and distributed to the readers they knew were in want of it.
The master and chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, was one such author. Arguably the most influential intellectual of the fifteenth century, Gerson stands at the precipice of a revolution in reading culture; his story is the story of the beginning of author fame. Though he had status and authority (the origin of the word author, Hobbins reminds) as a theologian, Gerson's readership was relatively small, mostly confined to burgeoning university minds. His road to professional writerly success began with his eloquence at court, in front of the king, at public debates, and through through other strictly oral channels. Through them he gained an audience and began publishing more literary works, some in Latin, some in French. Whereas medieval writers like Chaucer found coteries of readers in a literary community of clerks in the king's bureaucracy, Gerson aimed to reach beyond the universities and coteries. And he did so by eloquently addressing, in print, social and spiritual topics in broader society with the weight of his theological authority. He wrote on the Great Schism, on magic and superstition, on ecclesiastical issues, and about a specific public debate among Lyonians and the English, as well as various other tracts that were specific for the times. Through so doing, Jean Gerson became the first European public intellectual.
But works about larger issues that were addressed to larger audiences needed larger distribution circles (the publisher's dilemma). In Gerson's case, it was the Council of Constance and the Council of Basel, gatherings of Church intellectuals convened to resolve great crises affecting Christendom. These councils were also, by the nature of their convening authorities who opined on important subjects, book markets. In fact, no single event was more important for the Europe-wide circulation of medieval intellectual work than the Council of Constance, which lasted from 1414 to 1418. Twenty of Gerson's works alone were copied into collections multiple times at the Council, which fell at the middle of Gerson's career, a time when he was beginning to muse over his literary legacy. He used the Council's multiplying effects -- and his own tireless productivity -- to boost himself to fame. Gerson had secured an international readership, and this during his lifetime, a rarity for any medieval person who was not royalty.
In order to capitalize on this newfound literary fame, Gerson, who would die in 1429, turned to two monastic orders, the Carthusians and the Celestines. In the 37 houses of Carthusians, the more significant of the two to Gerson's legacy, copying was central to the way of life. Gerson was their favorite author, and so they copied him enthusiastically and plentifully. The Carthusians had monasteries not just in the alpine outback, but as well in city centers, and some had loaning libraries, enabling his work to reach unforeseen audiences. Moreover, the practice of compilation (organizing all the work of an author into one giant book) had begun during this time, and Gerson's voice multiplied, enabling him to emerge as the most popular author of the fifteenth century. A decade before print, the author -- rather than just his subject matter -- became the central organizing principle of the book.
The example of Jean Gerson points to Hobbins' fascinating central argument: that the birth of the printing press did not originate the explosion of books; it was itself the technological response to an increased desire for books in a culture hungry for reading and knowledge.