The war against printing

For many, the advent of printing was nothing short of miraculous but for others it symbolised a scandalous cheapening of knowledge.

war on printing
Aldus Pius Manutius (1449-1515) an Italian humanist. Engraving by Yenetta, 1880. Credit : Album / Alamy Stock Photo.

‘The pen is a virgin,’ wrote Filippo de Strata in the late fifteenth century, but ‘the printing press is a whore.’ And that wasn’t the half of it. Born into a wealthy Pavian family, Filippo had joined the Dominican Order at a young age and had spent most of his adult life at the convent of San Cipriano, on the Venetian island of Murano. One of the smallest religious communities in the lagoon, it could boast no special intellectual renown, yet its members still attached great importance to the production of manuscripts, and Filippo was no exception. He translated texts from Latin into Italian, copied sermons and biblical commentaries, and even penned a few works of his own. Yet he was also a pompous, even arrogant man, who seemed to be at war with the world around him. His invectives were legion. He attacked the French for spreading heresy among unsuspecting Italians and wrote a rather clunky elegy against the use of organ music in church. But it was printing which attracted the worst of his ire. In a Latin address to Doge Nicolò Marcello, written at some point between August 1473 and December 1474, and in a vernacular poem composed about 20 years later, he lashed out at it with unconcealed hatred. He not only called the press a ‘whore’, but also accused printers of being ‘asses’ — and even asked the Doge to ban printing altogether.

It was, perhaps, not the most obvious of targets. Between the development of the first writing systems in ancient Mesopotamia and the dawn of the internet age, nothing so revolutionised communication as the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg (c.1400–68). Indeed, as the English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) later wrote, it was one of the three innovations ‘unknown to the ancients’ which could genuinely be said to have ‘changed the appearance of the whole world’.

Granted, the idea behind it wasn’t completely new. For some time, Europeans frustrated by traditional forms of scribal production had been looking for ways of speeding things up. Back in the thirteenth century, the so-called pecia system had been introduced at the universities of Oxford, Paris and Bologna. Books which were in high demand were divided up into sections and rented out a piece at a time, so that several students could copy the same text simultaneously. A little over 100 years later, some Rhenish or Burgundian carvers may also have experimented with printing very short texts using wooden blocks. But even at their best, such methods were clumsy, expensive and fraught with problems.

What made Gutenberg’s innovation so remarkable was his use of movable metal type. This not only allowed compositors to set any text, but it was also so durable that it could be used hundreds — if not thousands — of times without any significant loss of clarity. Combined with a press (modelled on that used for producing wine), a stickier variety of ink and large sheets of paper, Gutenberg’s type allowed a printer to produce books in greater numbers and more quickly than anyone had ever thought possible. As the humanist Benedetto Brugnoli (1427-1502) later observed, ‘twenty men may [now] print in a month more books than one hundred could previously have copied in a year.’

After Gutenberg established his press in Mainz in c.1450, printing spread rapidly — if rather erratically — throughout Europe. Within less than 20 years, presses had been established in Bamberg, Strasbourg, Cologne, Subiaco, Basel, Rome, Augsburg, Nuremberg and perhaps elsewhere too. As Giorgio Merula (c.1430–94) noted, this was thanks largely to printers from ‘that once rugged and brutish land of Germany’, who had either set off in search of somewhere to establish their own presses or who had been actively headhunted by foreign rulers.

Venice was something of a latecomer. Not until 1469 did the French printer Nicolas Jenson (c.1420–80) found the first press in the city. That it had taken so long is perhaps surprising. Then at the zenith of its ‘imperial age’, Venice was arguably the most important commercial entrepôt in Europe and had particularly strong trading links with Germany. No less importantly, it could also boast an intellectual standing which few could rival. But having acquired the new technology, it quickly made up for lost time. By the time Filippo de Strata wrote his first polemic against printing, in 1473 or 1474, the city was already ‘stuffed with books’. In just five years, no fewer than 176 different editions had appeared. By 1480, that number would rise to 593; and it has been estimated that, by 1500, more than 4,000 editions had been published by almost 150 different presses — twice as many as Paris, its nearest competitor, and accounting for 13 to 14% of all the books published in the whole of Europe.

Venetian presses did not have it easy, though. Although Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) once tartly noted that it was easier to become a printer than a baker, it required a great deal of specialist equipment — and even more investment. Presses, it was true, were relatively cheap; but a type font could be extremely expensive, while the costs of labour and paper were positively eye-watering. Given that each edition was generally produced in advance of demand, this made the whole enterprise extremely risky. If too many books were printed, or a sudden economic downturn caused a contraction in the market, a press could find itself staring bankruptcy in the face, as many did in the great crisis of 1472–73. One way of minimising the risk was specialisation. While works of classical literature tended to be popular with educated readers, religious and legal texts were a more reliable source of income. But even in these fields, there were no guarantees. In the absence of copyright protection, there was nothing to stop one printer from pinching the proofs of a new work from a rival and rushing out a pirated version before it could be published. It is hardly surprising that, of the 100 or so printing houses operating in Venice up to 1490, only 23 were active in the following decade, and just ten survived the century.

Nor did printing completely supplant scribal production. Quite the reverse, in fact. Even decades after the foundation of the first presses, manuscripts were still being commissioned, and scribes were still much in demand. Some people — such as the Florentine bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421–98) or the bibliophile Federico da Montefeltro (1422–82) — actually preferred manuscripts, both for their beauty and for their extremely high value. Precisely because printing was such a risky business, there was also some crossover between the practices. The Cretan scribe Zacharias Callierges (c.1473-c.1524), for example, abandoned his pen to become a printer, only to take it up again when his press collapsed. As with all great innovations, the market took time to adjust; and there was as much uncertainty about the future as there was continuity with the past.

Yet however uncertain the fate of presses or incomplete the replacement of manuscript culture, the shock of printing was profound. As the historian Martin Lowry noted, it ‘must have been both a traumatic and an exhilarating experience’. All that seemed familiar was abruptly thrown into confusion. And as people scrambled to adapt to the sudden availability of books, it was only natural that questions were also raised about the wider social implications of the new technology.

For many, printing was an overwhelmingly positive innovation. Almost as soon as the first presses were established in Italy, learned men rushed to sing its praises. To some, in fact, it seemed almost divine. In 1468, the bishop of Aleria, Giovanni Andrea de Bussi (1417–75), hailed it as a ‘holy art’ (sancta ars). Three years later, the Venetian doctor Nicolaus Gupalatinus wrote that it was a ‘miracle unheard of in all previous ages’. And in 1489, Guiniforte Boccaccino of Pavia went so far as to claim that humanity owed as much to the inventors of printing as to those who figured out how to bake bread.

One of its principal attractions was that it had the potential to democratise knowledge. In the past, the high cost of manuscripts had meant that only the well-to-do could afford them. Now that books could be produced in large numbers, however, printed volumes could be sold for much lower prices, making them available to those of lesser means for the first time. As Bussi remarked, it was possible for even the poorest to build a library of his own and for learning to become accessible to all. Excited by the prospect, some of those associated with presses began writing texts explicitly targeted at furthering the spread of knowledge. In 1483, for example, Fra Iacopo Filippo Foresti of Bergamo (1434–1520) published his Supplementum chronicarum. A sort of ‘bluffers’ guide’ to world history, this was expressly designed to make available to the masses knowledge which had previously been restricted only to the few.

As many observers recognised, this had a range of knock-on benefits. For some, the most important of these was permanence. According to the Florentine humanist Bartolomeo della Fonte (1446–1513), printers could ‘confer eternity’ on whatever they produced. Since printing put more books into circulation, he reasoned, it would ensure that ancient texts were less likely to be lost, and it would crown modern authors with certain fame. Others believed that the ‘flood’ of new books would lead to moral enlightenment. There was some justification for this. Recent research into domestic life has revealed that books of hours were by far the most commonly owned texts; and, as Caroline Anderson has argued, the fact that these books were often kept in the camera (bedchamber/dayroom) suggests that they were read on a daily basis, including by women. It was hence only reasonable to assume that, as printing spread, so virtue would also grow. For the Franciscan friar Bernardino da Feltre (1439-94), God had shed ‘so much light on these most wretched and dark times’ through print that there was no longer any excuse for sin at all.

But not everyone was so enthusiastic. Others, for whom novelty and progress were far from synonymous, regarded printing with open hostility. Of these, none was more vehement than Filippo de Strata.

Like many of his contemporaries, he did not have any particular objection to books as physical objects. Although he is almost certain to have preferred manuscripts, he does not seem to have thought that printed works were, in themselves, unworthy of being read. Printers, however, were another matter. Much like his contemporary, the historian Marcantonio Sabellico (1436–1506), he reviled them as much for their ‘plebeian’ ways as for their foreign origins. To his mind, they were beggars and thieves who had no appetite for work but were always hungry for money. They had come to Italy, babbling in that ugly language of theirs, with no other goal than to put scribes out of a job. What was worse, they had no sense of propriety either. Drunk on strong wine and success, they were hawking books to every Tom, Dick and Harry. In doing so, they were not democratising learning — as Bussi and Foresti liked to believe — but debasing it. Whereas, in the past, the expense and scarcity of manuscripts had ensured that great care was always taken over the preparation of texts, the ease with which books could now be printed — coupled with the intense competition between presses — had led to all manner of rubbish being churned out. These days, Filippo argued, you could hardly open a volume without it being festooned with errors. This clearly did immense damage both to classical scholarship and to education. By putting such defective texts into the hands of the masses, he claimed, even those who could barely speak the vernacular would feel qualified to teach Latin. But since printers were interested only in making a quick buck off such ‘unlettered’ fools, they had no incentive to do any better. All that mattered was getting a new edition on the market as quickly as possible, irrespective of its quality.

For much the same reason, Filippo also believed that printing was a threat to public morality. If printers had sold nothing but religious works, it might not have been so bad; but because they were interested only in profit, they were trying to attract new readers by appealing to their baser instincts. All manner of bawdy and unsuitable volumes were being produced: from the torrid love poetry of Tibullus and Ovid, to the worst kind of modern filth. Given how cheaply such books were sold, it was inevitable that vice, rather than virtue, would flourish.

That the religious works printers did produce were of such poor quality only made the danger more acute. Previously, Filippo observed, the inaccessibility of the Bible and other devotional works helped keep the common people on the straight and narrow. Unable to understand the Latin language, they relied on priests to explain the meaning of scripture and the practices appropriate to a Christian life. But now that the Bible was appearing in crude Italian translations and hackneyed guides to the ‘good life’ were hitting the market, even the most ignorant might might feel emboldened to try interpreting God’s words for themselves. As such, there was serious risk that honest folk would be led far from the path of orthodoxy. It was for this reason that Filippo characterised printing as a ‘whore’ (meretrix) — and called on Doge Marcello to banish it from Venice forever.

As Martin Lowry noted, it is perhaps tempting to dismiss Filippo as a throwback — ‘the last survivor of a doomed generation, screaming in the faces of a solid phalanx of noblemen, intellectuals, and artisans who march shoulder to shoulder towards enlightenment and a better life’. But this would do him a disservice. He was far from alone in his views. Many shared his scepticism of printing. Indeed, so new was the technology, and so rapidly was its landscape changing, that even those who could see some advantages were alarmed by its risks. In 1481, for example, Gerolamo Squarzafico (fl. 1471–1503) wrote a letter purporting to be from the late Francesco Filelfo (1398–1481), in which he lamented the illiteracy of printers. So too Giorgio Merula, had doubts about whether printing would have a positive or negative effect on classical scholarship. And in 1470, the Florentine humanist Niccolò Perotti (1429–80) even asserted that the books then in circulation were so inaccurate that it would have been better they had never been printed.

Though such concerns sometimes tended towards the hysterical, they were grounded less in hope than in reality. With certain notable exceptions, such as the printer-scholar Aldus Manutius (c.1450–1515), printers did indeed turn out a lot of faulty editions of classical texts. To make matters worse, some of these even drove better versions off the market. Just two years before Filippo began writing his Latin polemic, a spectacularly inaccurate edition of Ovid’s works by Francesco Dal Pozzo (Puteolanus, d.1490) was printed in Bologna. It deserved to be quickly forgotten; but because it was the first such edition of the poet’s works (the so-called editio princeps), it was treated as if it were some gift from heaven — and a far superior version, published in Rome just a few months later, was consigned to oblivion. Whether printing corrupted public morals is, perhaps, open to question. While the Venetian Senate was not above banning, or even burning, some works for the sake of civic decency, we should be wary of taking the complaints of certain prelates too literally. Yet there can be no denying that printing did contribute to the spread of heterodoxy and was later instrumental in the dissemination of Reformation thought.

However distasteful a character Filippo de Strata may seem, his polemics against printing hence serve to illustrate that, amid the fog of change, the line between progress and peril can appear blurred, even to the most keen-eyed observer. It is perhaps just as well that, in this case, wishful thinking prevailed over unpleasant, if not unjustified, fears.


Alexander Lee