Age of the Incunable

After the western invention of movable type not much changed for a very long time. It took many many years for people to realize the peculiar possibilities of cheap, printed texts.

Gutenberg invents the Western version of movable type in the 1440s, and it’s in use by 1450. He thinks of it in terms of cost, really. Efficiency.

You can print cheap bibles – still in Latin, mind you. Affordable chess manuals.

He dies broke, by the way.

For almost fifty years, change creeps along.

They have a name for books of this period, which I love: “Incunabula”. Or if we go singular, the incunable. So we could call this the “Age of the Incunable”.

Detail of a Gutenberg Bible

Detail of a Gutenberg Bible. Source.

This is what books look like at that time. Almost identical in form and function, style and content to medieval manuscripts.

Just to be really clear – this is a machine printed book here, later adorned by hand. In case you didn’t notice.

There were printed books, but there was no book culture. There were printed books but there was no shift in what those books did.

But then things change. First in the Italian presses. Bibles are printed in Italian, for example. Illustrations become more common.

Aldus Manutius creates the “pocket book” in an octavo format, somewhere around 1500. We get cheap mobility. In 1501, his shop ditches the Calligraphic font for early “Roman fonts” more like the unadorned fonts we know today.

Sentence structure starts to change. We start to develop written forms of argument that have no parallel in verbal rhetoric. Ways of talking that don’t exist in oral culture.

People learn to read silently, which is huge, at three to four times the speed of reading aloud.

And here’s the transition: We start to think the sort of thoughts that are impossible without books.

De Revolutionibus Orbium, by Copernicus, 2nd edition. 1566.

De Revolutionibus Orbium, by Copernicus, 2nd edition. 1566. Source.

And it’s almost 70 years after Gutenberg that you see a real print culture emerge. Copernicus, Luther, etc. What we start to see is how fast new ideas can spread. We start to see what happens when every believer has their own Bible in which to look up things, in their own language.

We see what happens when an idea can be proposed and replied to across a continent in months rather than decades. We start to see the impact of the long tail of the past, what happens when esoteric works of the past, long hidden away, can be mass produced. What happens when you get Aristotle for everyone. What happens when every scientist can get his hands on a copy of Copernicus.

And Churches fell. And Science was born. And Governments toppled.

But 70 years later.

It’s something worth remembering for those of us excited about the educational affordances of digital material and networked learning. For a long time I thought — well, change is faster now, right? Technological change is, maybe. But it may be the case that certain types of social change are as slow as they ever were. There are days when I think they might even be slower.

We’ll see. For the moment, whether fact or fiction, the belief that this is just a lull will power me through. We’ll get there yet.

6 thoughts on “Age of the Incunable

  1. “Sentence structure starts to change. We start to develop written forms of argument that have no parallel in verbal rhetoric. Ways of talking that don’t exist in oral culture.”

    This is really interesting, especially in light of your previous post about the verbal computing of Star Trek versus the printed computing of today. Can you give an example though of a written form of argument that has no parallel in verbal rhetoric? I’m curious what types of arguments would lend themselves better to print than spoken word.

    • Difficult to fit in a comment, because there are so many ways. The level of abstraction is often cited as a prominent effect. The text becomes the argument, rather than the expression of the argument. The way that diagrams and texts became integral to arguments is new. And sentence structure becomes much more complex over time, it’s been a while but I seem to remember that parallel structure gives way to subordinate structure. I’ll see if I can round up some examples next week.

      • I’d still love to see more specific examples, but your comment does help me see what you mean. I teach mathematics, and before the invention of variables as a cultural artefact, mathematicians used to write out algebraic statements in words. As you might imagine, this greatly encumbered their ability to reason abstractly. Diophantus introduced shorthand notation for reoccurring quantities and operations, which directly advanced the Greek’s understanding of cubic equations. I guess that’s an example of a “written form of argument with no parallel in verbal rhetoric.”

        I wonder though if it’s really accurate to think of these written forms of argument as existing in “parallel” with verbal arguments. Luis Radford has a theory of semiotic nodes where “multiple semiotic systems are used together and in a coordinated manner to achieve knowledge objectification.” At these nodes, mathematical ideas tend to “contract” so that the interaction of different modalities draws our attention to essential elements.

        As an example, he recounts in this paper a letter from van Gogh to his brother Theo wherein van Gogh writes:

        “Theo, what a great thing tone and colour are. And those who fail to learn to have feelings for them will remain far removed from real life. M[auve] has taught me to see so many things that I used not to see and one day I shall try to tell you what he has told me, as there may well be one or two things you do no see properly either.”

        Radford goes on to note:

        “To see an object or a certain state of affairs properly, it is not merely enough to stand in front of it and look. In the quoted passage, the same tones and colors that van Gogh used to see suddenly appear to him in a new light. We do not know exactly how Mauve taught him to see what he was not able to see before. Perhaps both of them were standing in front of a painting and Mauve, holding his bush, pointed to some colours while explaining their contrast and tone differences. Pointing and words may have made visible, for the first time to Vincent van Gogh, something new – something that had escaped him until then.”

        Do arguments have a different structure in written form or is it just that writing allows us to separate those ideas into a different medium so that verbal rhetoric can then be applied reflectively to what’s written? In that case, it’s really the interaction of written and spoken forms that changes sentence structure. They don’t exist in parallel; they intersect, and it’s this intersection that has the most interesting implications for say the verbal “Star Trek computer” versus the “textual computer” of today.

      • Thanks for this amazing comment. I do feel when working with wiki that the process of porting it to that medium is often one of translation and synergy. I’ll think about it, and maybe do some reading (I’ve got a couple books on this subject in the queue; time to move them up).

  2. It took hundreds of years for the codex to replace the scroll…and the changes in culture and thought dragged along behind that. I suspect Ong was right about the Gutenberg Parenthetical, though perhaps for the wrong reasons and certainly not because he foresaw the particulars of future technology. The lengthy spans of time are worth remembering, but I’m not sure if they are heartening or disheartening.

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