Tag Archives: culture

It was a big deal

The printing press was the first mass medium. I’m expanding the definition of ‘medium’—how you stick pigment to a surface—to include the idea of spreading information by putting ink on paper. ‘Mass’ as I use it here means lots of people. Printing was a new super-effective way to broadcast ideas to a big audience. Martin Luther understood that right away. His pamphlets were carried by ships to different countries, translated, reprinted and seen by people all over the western world. You could argue that there’d have been no Protestant Reformation without the printing press. We’ll be coming up soon to when pamphleteers used the printing press to explain to lots of people how a new system of government might work: a nation run by its citizens instead of a king.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mass%20medium
THIS: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldhistory/chapter/the-printing-revolution/

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Citation, please!

If he’d burnt her omelet we’d need an egg-citation.

Standardization is a feature of civilization. The great empires standardized measurement, money, laws, highways, armies…everybody knew how long a mile is or how much a candybar costs. Remember how Charlemagne wanted to standardize music? Printed books standardize information. When you’re in school, reading a textbook, info in your book shows up on the same page in the textbook the kid next to you is reading. That isn’t true of handwritten books. Uniformity allows books to have numbered pages so we can find that information later.

That means if you’re a scholar, a scientist, or just some shmo writing a history blog, you can cite a piece of information. If I write, “In ad 878 the king of England was a not-so-good baker—he let an old peasant lady’s cakes burn,” I can cite that story in a history book so you know I’m not making it up. I’d give you the title of a book, its author, and the exact page so you can find the story. Anyone with a copy of that book will find that info. Printing made it possible to build on a body of knowledge, like history or science.

Cite: to quote by way of example, authority, or proof
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cite
A good old-fashioned citation looks like this: The Vikings, Frank R. Donovan, American Heritage Publishing, page 43
In this blog format, it’s convenient to cite by linking. Remember, though, that information on the web can be changed or deleted easily.
https://britishfoodhistory.com/2018/10/25/king-alfred-burns-the-cakes/
https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/King-Alfred-the-Cakes/

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It’s okay to speak your own language now

I want to take a second to recap. I don’t think I’ve done a sufficient job of telling you how the mechanized printing press, movable type, printed books and pamphlets changed everything in Western culture. For instance, the Protestant Reformation happened because of Martin Luther’s pamphlets. That’s just for starters.

Okay, maybe that’s not actually a line from Don Quixote…

The regional variations or dialects of Latin emerged as distinct languages because they’d been printed in those early books. Printing lent respectability to the romance languages. Before those early books were printed, you probably thought of yourself as some yokel grunting out the local version of Latin mixed with whatever backwoods patois (PA-twah) your great-grandparents spoke. After they were printed, suddenly you were speaking the language of Dante or Chaucer or Luther or Cervantes. If those big shots thought your language were good enough to use in a printed book, there must be something worthy about it. 

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Who owns what you create?

I’d like to zoom ahead a few centuries for just a minute. Last post was about the brilliant type designer Francesco Griffo and how ownership of his creative output was taken away by the Venetian Senate. Naturally, he was bitter. Griffo did everything right: he worked hard to become skilled; he discovered what his customers wanted and delivered it; what he created was in short supply so he should have been able to command a respectable price for it. But Griffo couldn’t make a buck from his own type designs because his ownership of them was taken away.

Let me put in a plug here for the Graphic Artists’ Guild. In the late 1970s GAG lobbied the United States Congress to enact law that made everything an artist creates the sole property of that artist, unless the artist transfers ownership to somebody else through a contract. You can see how huge that was. Before 1978, an artist protected his creations by applying for a copyright or else a patent through the Patent Office. It cost you money to establish ownership of your own stuff. Now your creativity belongs to you from the moment you create it. Anybody else trying to claim it needs to show a contract you signed. No contract means the artist owns it. If you wonder why I’m unapologetically pro-America, this is one of the reasons. In the USA an artist’s intellectual property is protected by the law of the land.

I sought out my pal Fred Carlson’s (Fred was GAG’s president 1991-1993) input on this. Here’s what he added—

I always like to note that the US Constitution itself protects the intellectual property of its citizens, acknowledging the USA as the worldwide leader in copyright assignment to benefit creators—even Jefferson (who invented quite a few items in his lifetime!) saw the need for this:

US Constitution, Article 1 Section 8, clause 8 (in the whole article describing the creation of Congress)

“Section. 8. The Congress shall have the power to…”
Clause 8 “…promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;”

This recognized the positive impact of assigning ownership to inventors, writers, artists, who could then exploit the work for the profitable and regular distribution through the economy of their valuable intellectual property.
It created such things as Patent offices, copyright offices, etc. For a lot of the modern world these concepts dating to 1787 are still unknown and often disrespected.—Fred

https://www.wilsongunn.com/history/history_patents.html
https://graphicartistsguild.org/
https://graphicartistsguild.org/the-code-of-fair-practice-for-the-graphic-communications-industry/
https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript
https://carlsonstudio.com/

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Francesco Griffo

Francesco Griffo

Manutius got type-design-superstar Francesco Griffo to cut type for his lowercase/minuscule Greek letters. Greek minuscules had been developed by the monks in those old scriptoria to save some space on the page. Griffo redesigned them as italics so they would take even less space. He did the same for Hebrew and Roman lowercase. When you look at the examples in the links below, you’ll see that the capital letters are still in their old form—only the lowercase letters are italic.

A page of the polyglot Bible. Looks like only the Greek got lowercase italics. Why are there blank spaces at the top-left of columns 2 & 3 but top-right of the first column? http://www.griffoggl.com/en/biografia/

I give some links below here and yesterday’s post to Griffo’s beautiful work. One of my favs is the polyglot Bible: 3 columns on every page in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. The guy was cutting those tiny letters in steel by hand and they’re perfect. Really, go look. Griffo’s designs for italic type are beautiful—and they’re useful. Italics take less space on a page, so books can be smaller and less expensive. Manutius was selling a ton of books thanks to Griffo’s italics. Here’s the ugly part: Manutius didn’t want any other publisher to have Griffo’s italic type. In 1502 Manutius went to the Senate of the Venetian Republic who granted him a 10-year protection—only Manutius could use Griffo’s italic type designs. I’m not talking about the physical metal type—I mean the design, the creative idea, the ‘intellectual property.’ So Griffo didn’t own his italics anymore, because he couldn’t sell them to anyone else. He should have been able to make a fortune from them, but Manutius owned ‘em. Welcome to the 1500s graphic design business, Francesco. Disappointed and disgusted, Griffo left Venice soon after that.

http://www.griffoggl.com/en/biografia/
http://www.griffoggl.com/en/corsivi/

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Aldus Manutius

Aldus Manutius

The brains behind all this innovation was one guy: Aldo Manutio, or Aldus Manutius in Latin. Latin & Greek weren’t completely abandoned by the early book publishers. Manutius was a scholar who spoke several languages and made it his mission to use his printing press to publish some beautiful editions of the classics (Hebrew, Greek & Latin lit)—while keeping his books affordable enough that the college crowd could afford them.



Manutius built a reputation for accurate translations. He was a meticulous editor. And though his books were produced inexpensively, they are gorgeous to look at. Either he or a designer on his payroll composed pages using classic mathematical proportions that Pythagorus, the ancient Greek mathematician, dreamed up (more about that soon). Scholarly writers/translators started coming to Manutius because they knew they could trust him with their work.

The dolphin & anchor image is Manutius’ colophon, or printer’s mark.

Here are links so you can looks at these books:

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/early-renaissance1/venice-early-ren/a/aldo-manuzio-aldus-manutius-inventor-of-the-modern-book
https://rarebooks.library.nd.edu/exhibits/durand/italian/manutio.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldus_Manutius
For only $8,800 clams you can own a first edition from the Aldine Press: https://www.raptisrarebooks.com/product-tag/aldine-press-first-edition/

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…And we pass the savings on to you, our customer

The story so far: books were shooting out of the printing presses; they cost way less than hand-written manuscripts; they’re written in vernacular languages (that everybody spoke) rather than Latin (that hardly anybody spoke); the presses were located in Venice, Italy where people were making fat stacks of lire by trading with Asia and could afford fripperies like books.


Even so, merchants weren’t about to blow a month of profits on a thirty-nine-pound 14” by 17” three-volume copy of Dante’s Commedia even if it were cheaper than a manuscript. Beside costing a fortune, who’d want to lug it around?

Press sheet, folio, quarto, octavo.

So the Venetian printers came up with new ways to make books less expensive and more portable. First, they made books smaller so they’d need less paper. They folded a press sheet once (folio), twice (quarto), and again (octavo) until they got small, easy-to-carry pocket-sized books. Next, they made type skinnier so more words would fit on a page—it was called italic. Skinnier type means fewer pages/less paper. What else? You know how paperback books are cheaper than hardcover books? How about no-cover books? Venetian printers sold you a book as a package of loose leaves! There were book binders who would sew them up into a codex if you liked.

I’m kidding! This is just a joke! It’s likely these leaves were F&Gs—’folded & gathered’ into 16-page signatures. https://www.printindustry.com/Newsletters/Newsletter-194.aspx

http://gallery.lib.umn.edu/exhibits/show/celebratingvenice/printing

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Most Serene!

Okay, maybe not so serene. I did this image a while back for a Pittsburgh Public Theater production of an old commedia dell’arte play.

Venice, Italy was the place to be if you were in the printing business in the late 1400s—like Silicon Valley, California is today for the software industry. I was looking for reasons why everybody moved there, like religious persecution or something, but it looks like printers were attracted to Venice rather than driven there. Who can blame them? She’s an enchanting city. The locals call her la Serenissima—the Most Serene. Since the Middle Ages Venice had been a powerful trading port with her own navy. Venice was the western end of that network of overland and sea routes known as the Silk Road. Trade goods and wealth from all over Europe were exchanged for trade goods and wealth from all over Asia. All that bustling trade produced a rich merchant class with extra soldi to spend on luxury items, like books.

Italian Word of the Day: Soldi (money)

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Nicolas Jenson

Nicolas Jenson

The mechanized printing press and movable type were such radically different new technologies that printers had to soothe and reassure their customers by making their books’ text look like old-fashioned calligraphy. The metal letters mimicked the way letters are created by a pen or brush. It would take a bit of time before a typefounder said, “Oh, the heck with it” and finally designed a typeface that was meant to be printed on a printing press. No more phony hey-this-looks-like-it-just-rolled-out-of-the-scriptorium fancy-pants calligraphy.

That happened in ad 1470 and the type designer was Nicolas Jenson (zhen-SŌN). He was a Frenchman living in Italy.

Here’s a site with his beautiful type designs. You can download the typeface and there’s even a box where you can keystroke in your name or a phrase and see what it looks like a la Jenson. https://www.dafont.com/1470jenson.font

You can get Jenson’s font from these guys, too. Image credit: https://fontmeme.com/fonts/1470-jenson-font/

Jenson’s type design is inspired by old Roman majuscules for the capital letters. His lowercase letters are sorta-kinda inspired by uncial minuscules (notice Jenson’s lowercase u doesn’t look like a v). We’ll be calling capital letters ‘uppercase’ and little letters ‘lowercase’ now because that’s where they are kept in a job drawer.

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This isn’t what I’m used to


When digital watches first came out, some of them had a digitally-animated fake-analogue display. That style of watch had images of hour- and minute-hands that appeared to sweep around its face. People weren’t ready to read numbers to know the time. They needed a few years to get used to the new way of doing things.

Back when we were talking about Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton, you could see that they tried to make their books look like they were hand-written by a bunch of scribes.

A rare sighting of scribes in the field

What is the collective noun for scribes? Best answer wins a sketch. https://readable.com/blog/a-murder-of-crows-and-other-odd-collective-nouns/

https://www.watchuseek.com/threads/watches-with-a-digital-display-that-mimic-the-hour-hands-of-a-non-digital-analogue-watch.4744371/

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