Tag Archives: design history

Beowulf in one sentence

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Yes, you lucky readers, it’s time for my patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment of Beowulf! Ready? Hang on to your horned helmets ‘cause here we go—

The drinking song from The Student Prince ran through my head while I drew this one, so here’s the link. Isn’t that Anne Blyth adorable, though? Mario Lanza does the singing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OI3Bcgh4Jko

In Denmark King Hrothgar builds a big mead-hall it’s a big barn where his warriors can hang out and party (mead is an adult beverage) play music and listen to storytellers they’re whooping it up and making a racket at all hours which annoys Grendel who is a horrible monster who lives in the swamp near the mead-hall Grendel terrorizes the Danes every night he even kills a bunch of

them which dampens the party atmosphere none of the Danish warriors is a match for Grendel finally a young Geatish warrior named Beowulf hears about Hrothgar’s situation Beowulf sails to Denmark with 14 guys Hrothgar holds a big feast for Beowulf at the feast a little wiseacre named Unferth says maybe Beowulf isn’t up to the job the music stops Beowulf tells the crowd all about the big things

he’s done the party starts back up again but then Grendel bursts in and Beowulf fights him unarmed because he’s so strong they have a rip-roaring mortal battle and Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off so Grendel limps back to his swampy home to die the warriors party on and eventually fall asleep but things are about to get real Grendel’s mom is a much worse monster who chews gum and kills Danish warriors and she’s all out of chewing gum she comes to Hrothgar’s party and grabs Esher who was the emcee so Beowulf says I’ll handle this and tracks Grendel’s mom to a lake where Esher’s head is bobbing in the water and he thinks this must be the place so he dives down to her underwater lair at the bottom of the lake and they have a knock-down drag-em-out fight the situation looks bad for our hero but there’s a magic sword on the knick-knack shelf Beowulf grabs it and kills her with it so now no more monsters in Denmark King Hrothgar thanks Beowulf with great heaping piles of treasure they have another big party and Beowulf heads home with his pals he gives his treasure to King Higlac who rewards Beowulf with real estate and swords now we skip ahead 50 or 60 years Higlac is dead and Beowulf is king of the Geats there’s an underground cave full of treasure that’s guarded by a dragon some stupid Geat steals a bejeweled cup from the cave while the dragon’s asleep and when the dragon wakes up he knows right away the cup’s missing so he goes on a rampage and burns everything down including Beowulf’s house so Beowulf goes to the cave to kill the dragon but he’s not so young as he used to be they have a harum-scarum fiery battle Beowulf breaks his sword and the dragon bites him on the neck Beowulf’s old pal Wiglaf comes to the rescue and stabs the dragon then Beowulf cuts the dragon in half with his knife (it doesn’t say lengthwise or crosswise) but it’s game over for Beowulf that was his last fight Wiglaf builds a giant tomb for Beowulf with lots of treasure the Geats give Beowulf a viking send-off with a big funeral pyre and bury his ashes and treasure in the tomb.

https://www.ancient-literature.com/other_beowulf.html
https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-suffolk-43045874
Here’s a movie reviewer who gets Beowulf. https://www.salon.com/2007/11/20/beowulf_2/

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Frontier poetry

Well, okay, there’d been vernacular literature before the Renaissance. Poets who lived in the far-flung fringes of the Roman Empire had been writing their stuff in their own language long before the Renaissance. It seems reasonable to figure since so few people spoke or read Latin on the frontier, Latin wasn’t the best language to go with when writing poems. The epic poem Beowulf was written in Old English/Anglo-Saxon and dates from at least ad 1000—probably earlier.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Beowulf is a warrior-hero who slays monsters. His poem is the model for many epics that followed. F’rinstance, J.R.R. Tolkien was a mediæval literature scholar who got plenty of mileage out of Beowulf for his Lord of The Rings saga.* Dungeons & Dragons, Game of Thrones—how about Dune, Star Wars, comic books and superhero movies? How To Train Your Dragon did a neat twist on the Beowulf story. Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky is a Beowulf spoof. I have a crackpot theory that Beowulf was the inspiration for Dr Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/youre-a-mean-one-mr-grendel/

Beowulf is a poem but it doesn’t sound like any poem we’re used to hearing. Instead of lines that rhyme with each other, poems from those days used alliteration. The Beowulf author repeated consonants, like in ‘the far-flung fringes’ from 2 paragraphs ago. I was lucky enough to hear Benjamin Bagby perform Beowulf (more alliteration!) in Pittsburgh some years back. Here’s Mr Bagby at the 92nd Street Y in NYC— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WcIK_8f7oQ

* Tolkien wrote a translation of Beowulf—https://www.amazon.com/Beowulf-Translation-Commentary-J-R-R-Tolkien/dp/0544570308 you may also like Sir Gawain and The Green Knight https://www.amazon.com/Gawain-Green-Knight-1996-02-06-Paperback/dp/B014BGYZCC/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=the+green+knight+tolkien&qid=1626837983&s=books&sr=1-3

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Arrivederci, Rome

Three things were happening that I think are worth noticing: 1) the Renaissance was a celebration of Humanism—they revived the philosophical thinking of Greece & Rome and toned down the theology of the Catholic Church; 2) the Protestant Reformation happened because people were already dissatisfied with the Church; 3) Latin had become a way to keep regular shmos from reading and understanding the Bible themselves. Renaissance authors figured out that rejecting Latin in favor of vernacular languages was a way they could communicate directly with their readers.

The Roman poet Horace who deserves a lot more respect than I’m giving him in this cartoon

It looks like the intellectuals of that age were all about giving the Church a kick in the shins, and maybe the Church had it coming. One of the themes of this history is how institutions get bloated, entrenched and run by a handful of elites. The regular shmos put up with it for only so long. When somebody invents a way to work around the elites’ communications apparatus, regular shmos seize on it and the elites lose their power. We saw it happen with the invention of the alphabet. Now we’re looking at how movable type busted up the Mediæval Church’s monopoly on reading & writing.

Geoff Chaucer trying out some new lines in Middle English

Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible was in German. German is vernacular—that is, it’s what everyday regular shmos in Saxony spoke. French is vernacular. English is vernacular. Spanish and Italian are vernacular. They are the romance languages that developed from Latin. From the days of the Roman Republic to the Mediæval period, anything worth writing was written in Latin or sometimes Greek. The Renaissance—the 13-, 14- & 1500s—was different. Authors said no thanks to Latin & Greek and began writing literature in their own language. The printing press allowed them to reach a wide audience.

https://www.definitions.net/definition/vernacular+literature
https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/protestant-reformation/
https://www.britannica.com/topic/humanism
https://www.britannica.com/art/Latin-literature

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Going viral 1517-style

Some people are great self-promoters. Most aren’t. Johannes Gutenberg created world-changing technology but didn’t know how to capitalize on it. Martin Luther saw the printing press and knew exactly what to do.

It was movable type and the printing press that got the Protestant Reformation off to such a fiery start. Within days of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, printed copies were circulating all over Europe. If the Pope had wanted to respond to each one, he’d have to wait for an army of monks to calligraph his remarks on parchment.

In England, across the Channel, they could read what Luther had posted in Saxony just a few days earlier. Can you imagine what it was to have news delivered so quickly? Well, of course you can. Nowadays Martin Luther would take a selfie in front of All Saints Church and post it on Instagram with a link to his blog where there’d be a pdf of his 95 Theses and you’d download it a few moments later. But it was 1517, so he used Gutenberg’s hot new technology to spread his ideas. He followed up the Theses with cheap, easy-to-read printed pamphlets where he defended his arguments in German. These were bestsellers and Luther even got big-shot artist Lucas Cranach to draw illustrations for them—his drawings were made into woodcuts. Luther’s pamphlets would be carried to every port city and printers there would run up copies and sell them.

Luther translated the Bible into German. It was a bestseller, too—5,000 copies.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-power-of-luthers-printing-press/2015/12/18/a74da424-743c-11e5-8d93-0af317ed58c9_story.html
https://www.history.com/news/printing-press-renaissance
https://www.nls.uk/exhibitions/treasures/the-reformation/95-theses/
Yes, it’s a word https://www.dictionary.com/browse/calligraph

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The proud tradition of not making money in publishing

Gutenberg was able to print many more copies of the Bible than could be handwritten by monks in the same amount of time. His output left the scriptoria in the dust. More means less expensive—lots more people could afford to own a bible. Think of Henry Ford cranking out inexpensive cars, one every hour and a half. https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2020/07/03/more-cars-please/ Gutenberg could crank out bibles all day long and customers could snap ‘em up as soon as they came off the press, right? The guy should have been a millionaire, right? Nope. It didn’t work out that way. What did he do wrong? This: he didn’t have a distribution system set up. Only a few people in Mainz, Germany could read, so his hometown customer-base was tiny. The tragedy is Gutenberg might have found many enthusiastic customers in Europe’s big cities. Put six bible sales-guys on boats to the universities and libraries in Venice, Rome, Athens, London, Alexandria, Paris—you think they wouldn’t bring home some big orders? It appears Gutenberg never thought to do that. In the business world, nothing happens until the sale is made. Gutenberg conquered every challenge except sales. He wound up owing everybody money and his creditors took everything in his shop. There’s an important lesson here (for me, especially):

Go out there and find your customers!

While I have you here—if you like this blog, please recommend it to your pals. Tell me if you’d like some promotional postcards (tell me your address at jmanders@aol.com). I cherish the hope that I’ll be able to print these Western Civ User’s Guides and start promoting them at comic cons and librarian cons and homeschooling events. I need to go out and find my customers.

As always, I’m very grateful that you weirdos read this stuff.

Door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen were a staple of gag cartoons a few decades ago. https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/e/encyclopedia_salesman.asp

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Any rags?

A rag collector in Paris late 1800s

In spite of Frederick’s decree, Europe’s papermakers simply got on with making paper. They added a twist to the recipe: rags. Rags means old cloth like towels, tablecloths, bedsheets, curtains, handkerchiefs, dresses, shirts, pants, socks, underwear, twine, even rope. In Europe, rag fiber meant linen or hemp. Buying old rags sprang up as a side business to support the papermaking business. Rag content in paper makes it pretty nice to draw and paint on. Here in the USA rag means cotton fiber. Rag paper is PH neutral—it contains very little or no acid so it doesn’t yellow over time. The European process was still pretty much the same one the Chinese used: you throw fibrous material into a vat of treated water and break down the fibers until you get a slurry.

The watermark found on many pages of Gutenberg’s bibles.

Most of Gutenberg’s bibles are printed on paper. He got his paper from a mill in northern Italy. The pages have a watermark—the logo of the mill is ever-so-slightly indented into the paper. You only see it when you hold the paper up to the light. How fitting is it that the watermark on the pages of the Gutenberg Bible is in the shape of an ox head? An ox head was the original shape of the first letter of our alphabet: aleph. https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2021/01/11/canaanite-turquoise-miners-fool-around-during-lunch-break/

https://www.bl.uk/treasures/gutenberg/paper.html
https://www.papiermuseum.ch/manufaktur/#Papierproduktion
https://www.artistshelpingchildren.org/kidscraftsactivitiesblog/2012/02/how-to-make-paper-from-rags/
https://www.ehow.com/how_6132991_make-rag-paper.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9Pvk-mzEUs
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rag-and-bone_man
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ragpicker
Here’s Betty and rag man Bimbo (this cartoon is pre-Hayes-Code—parents, shield the kids’ eyes when Betty reveals her undergarments):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcGCGhjHFuU
Here’s a good article about paper:
https://vintagepaper.co/blogs/news/rag-paper-what-is-it
https://www.themorgan.org/collections/works/gutenberg/invention-of-printing
Here’s how a watermark is made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQwTblKyU8g

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Paper or parchment?

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II—’the Wonder of the World’ as his pals liked to call him

The invention of papermaking slowly—like a thousand years slowly—made its way to the Middle East and then Europe. In Spain and Italy, mills began cranking out paper in the 1100s. This paper was for writing on (of course, right? Printing wasn’t a thing yet).

Paper was considered not as good as parchment. There’s a sacred aspect to parchment. Parchment had been the preferred writing surface for religious and legal documents since the days when it replaced papyrus. Still, paper was less expensive than parchment, so customers started making the switch to paper.

The land-owning barons and earls who sold livestock to make parchment saw the new paper industry cutting in on their profits, so they sandbagged the demand for paper. In 1221 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II decreed that paper documents were invalid—which meant contracts written on paper weren’t legally binding. Lawyers, judges and government officials had to use the more expensive parchment just to keep their documents valid. It’s a sad fact that big business will always enlist cronies in government to squash their competition. Always.

http://www.holyromanempireassociation.com/holy-roman-emperor-frederick-ii.html
https://beyondforeignness.org/8966
https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/kings-queens/emperor-frankenstein-the-truth-behind-frederick-ii-of-sicilys-sadistic-science-experiments/

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Deckle and mold

The Chinese papermakers made wooden frames and stretched a mesh/screen across them—they were 2-piece flat strainers called a deckle and mold. Think of two screen windows—one has a screen in it, the other is an empty frame. They dipped the deckle and mold into the slurry and pulled them up horizontally. The water drained through the mesh. They removed the mold to leave a square of slurry on top of the mesh, which got transferred onto a piece of felt. Multiple pieces of felt and slurry were stacked together as a post and pressed to dry flat. When the whole post was finally dry, the slurry was paper that they could pull off the felt.



The Chinese papermakers improved on the recipe by adding bleach to brighten the paper’s appearance and finishing the paper’s surface with sizing (starch at first, then in the 1400s they switched to animal glue) to make it smoother.

https://www.learnchinesehistory.com/history-chinese-paper/
https://www.dkfindout.com/us/history/ancient-china/chinese-paper-making/
Hey, look! Georgia Tech has a Museum of Papermaking:
https://paper.gatech.edu/invention-paper-0
Watch a deckle and mold being made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_A9D1IPRqw
I’ve long wondered where bleach came from. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKJCWJ-ibfI
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sizing

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PAPER!

Great galloping Agamemnon, we forgot paper! Why didn’t you guys say something?

Those monks hand-wrote their bibles on parchment or vellum, remember? Parchment isn’t cheap. It was Gutenberg’s mission to make bibles affordable, so most of them he printed on paper (just a few he printed on vellum) because paper was way less expensive.

Bamboo

Paper was another one of those Chinese inventions that came to the West along the Silk Road. They started making it around ad 100 (a guy named Ts’ai Lun is credited with paper’s invention). China’s first paper was made from bamboo, which is a reed—like papyrus in Egypt. Just like the Egyptians, they soaked the bamboo after splitting it into strips, then criss-crossed the softened strips into a sheet, pressed and dried it.



This kind of paper is not so good for printing. A printing surface needs to be perfectly smooth, and papyrus-style has ridges from the reed’s strips. To make high-quality paper—the good stuff—takes more work. Chinese papermakers figured out that you can soak the bamboo and other fibrous plants like flax in a vat of water and alkalei to break down their fibers more quickly. Alkalei is an acid you get from wood ash. They also beat the soaking bamboo (maybe like churning butter?) until the whole mess disintegrated into a slurry of plant fibers and water.

https://www.thespruce.com/meaning-of-lucky-bamboo-1902901

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Step Four: we got better ink!

In case you’re wondering what those lollipop things are—Gutenberg used goose-skin inking balls to apply ink to the form.

So oil paint was a hot ticket in the art world of the mid-1400s. If you’re Johannes Gutenberg and you need to figure out how to get ink to stick to your metal type, that oil binder looks pretty good. He developed an oil-based ink that’s thick, sticks to metal and can be applied evenly. Gutenberg created a blacker-than-black pigment by mixing carbon (charred bone), graphite, copper, lead, titanium and sulfur. The graphite and copper give the ink sheen (I’m guessing it’s the orangey copper that’s powdered somehow—like when you saw through a copper pipe with a hacksaw—rather than scraping the green corrosion).

https://www.historytoday.com/history-matters/history-ink-six-objects
Scroll down to Making Relief Ink to see how to make your own oil-based ink: https://www.lawrence.co.uk/blog/how-to-make-your-own-paint-relief-ink/
https://www.speedballart.com/our-product-lines/speedball-printmaking/speedball-blockrelief-printing/speedball-block-printing-inks/speedball-oil-based-inks/

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