Tag Archives: Middle Ages

That one afternoon hanging out at the winery really paid off

Johannes Gutenberg

Now we know what relief printing is. What really got the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation going was the printing press. Printing is for making multiple images, the printing press is for making many multiple images quickly.

What if you could save time by applying even pressure across an inked block with a giant screw instead of laboriously rubbing it down with a baren?

In 1436, in Germany, Johannes Gutenberg came up with the screw press idea, or at least he saw a wine press in use and adapted it for printing. A wine press has a straight-sided barrel with gaps between the staves. You load the grapes into the barrel, then lower a heavy metal disk on top of them to break the skins and crush the grapes. You put additional pressure on the disk by turning a big vertical screw. The grape juice runs out the gaps in the barrel and into a tray.

Gutenberg’s press

Gutenberg used the same technology to exert pressure on an inked wood block and paper. Watch these Youtube videos to see how it works:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeikqw0kyqI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLctAw4JZXE

http://www.bargaintraveleurope.com/12/Germany_Wine_Museum_Rudesheim.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_wine_press

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How block printing is done

The block or plate is a flat piece of wood or linoleum that you cut a design into with cutting tools.
You spread the ink onto the block with a brayer—a rubber roller. The ink goes on the parts that stick up.
You lay a sheet of paper on top of the inked block and apply pressure to it (make sure the ink is pressed to the paper) with a baren.
Carefully pull the sheet off the block and hang it to dry.

Here’s your one-stop shop for everything you need to know about block printing— https://www.boardingallrows.com/block-printing
https://www.dickblick.com/categories/printmaking/tools/

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Relief printing

Wait a minute—how did the Protestant Reformation become such a big deal so quickly? How did copies of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses spread across Germany and Europe? Copies? Who copied ‘em? Not the monks—copying 95 Theses was the kind of thing that got you fired from your church job.

One word: printing. Er—no, make that 2 words: printing press.

Let’s talk about printing first. Printing allows you to make many images that are all alike.



Printing is a graphic design process where you transfer an image onto a surface. Printing can be as simple as leaving muddy footprints—you transfer the image of your feet in mud onto the clean kitchen floor. That’s called ‘relief printing.’ ‘Relief’ refers to the raised treads on your sneakers. Relief is the part that sticks up. A rubber stamp is a relief printer. The raised parts transfer ink onto a piece of paper. Maybe when you were young you cut a potato in half, carved a drawing into the flat surface, dipped it in paint and pressed it onto a piece of paper. That’s relief printing.

Print artists carve an image into wood or linoleum, roll ink onto it and transfer the ink onto paper by applying pressure—
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/special-topics-art-history/creating-conserving/printmaking/v/moma-relief-printmaking
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/special-topics-art-history/creating-conserving/printmaking/v/moma-relief-process
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/family-how-to-relief-printing

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Honey, I started the Reformation

Martin Luther famously wrote down all his beefs with the Church and nailed them to the front door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. They were the 95 Theses (plural of thesis)—ideas to be discussed. His goal was simply to reform the Church, get it back on track. He didn’t take into account that people were tired of overbearing institutions like the feudal system and the Church. Martin Luther had set off unintentionally the Protestant Reformation. Oops. Copies of his 95 Theses spread across Germany and Europe. People seized on these theses and seethed. The Pope was not happy with Martin Luther and put him on trial. Luther refused to take back what he said. The upshot was Luther was excommunicated—made an outlaw who couldn’t be part of the Church any more. He couldn’t even attend mass. So Martin Luther started up his own church. This branch of the Christian Church, which includes Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, &c, &c, is called ‘Protestant.’ To differentiate it, the old Church is called ‘Catholic,’ which means universal.

While he was in exile (and this is why I brought up the Reformation), Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin into German so Germans could read it. What a guy! The only problem was, handwritten books are expensive. Getting a team of monks to write out a whole bible is no picnic. The Bible (KJV) has 783,137 words. Up until around the Year of our Lord 1450, owning a bible was a rich-guy luxury, whatever the language. If only there were some way to make more bibles, cheaper and faster.**

** Martin Luther left out 7 books from his translation of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) because they’d been rejected by the Jewish Council of Jamnia in ad 90. Those books are still in the Catholic Bible tucked in between the Old & New Testaments. They’re known as the Apocrypha. 

ps—Luther, like the Church he reformed, was flawed. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that he was capable of the antisemitism that must have been common in Europe 500 years ago—he published a screed against Jews. As I said last post: we’re imperfect; we try to learn from our mistakes and trust G-d loves us anyway.

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https://www.history.com/topics/reformation/martin-luther-and-the-95-theses
https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/sola-gratia/
https://www.biography.com/religious-figure/martin-luther
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/luther/
https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/thesis
https://wordcounter.net/blog/2015/12/08/10975_how-many-words-bible.html
https://www.britannica.com/topic/apocrypha

Martin Luther

My take on Lucas Cranach’s portrait of Martin Luther. His studio cranked out a bunch of these. There’s one at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436047 They got Joseph Fiennes to play Luther in the 2003 movie. I think they should have gone with a beefier actor like Phillip Seymour Hoffman (wasn’t he still alive back then?). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0309820/

I wrote in earlier posts about 2 things that were troubling about the mediæval Church:
1) the Bible was not accessible to ordinary shmos, mainly because it was in Latin. Hardly anybody spoke Latin anymore. Hardly anybody could even read.
2) the clergy sold indulgences, which promoted the idea you could buy your way into Heaven.*

Both of these conditions were troubling to a monk in Saxony (where Germany is now) named Martin Luther (ad 1483 – 1546). He was a philosopher as well as a religious scholar. His philosophical mind told him there should be nothing to stand between you and G-d. The clergy shouldn’t need to intercede on your behalf—anybody can have a conversation with G-d directly in the form of prayer.

Why? Because Jesus was crucified to pay for our sins. That’s it. Paid in full. Selling indulgences to absolve sin belittles Jesus’ sacrifice. Martin Luther put forth the idea that only your faith and G-d’s grace are needed to get into Heaven. Grace is a gift freely given. You have merely to believe in Christ’s sacrifice to benefit from it. 

* I want to reassure my Catholic Christian pals that the corruption of the Church we’re talking about was from 500 years ago. I’m not knocking Catholicism nor promoting Protestantism. Churches, like human beings, aren’t perfect. We muddle along. We try to learn from our mistakes and trust that G-d loves us in spite of them.

https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/sola-gratia/
https://www.biography.com/religious-figure/martin-luther
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/luther/

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The Peasant’s Revolt

So that was the Black Death. An estimated 25-30 million people in Europe died from bubonic plague—maybe a third to a half of the population. Under those circumstances, the feudal system was what the experts call ‘unsustainable.’ Serfs were expected to keep the food supply going full steam with only a partial crew on each manor. The way it was supposed to work was serfs paid their rent by giving the lord of the manor their harvest and keeping some for themselves. With smaller harvests, the serfs saw their portion get cut. They were working harder for lower pay.

Did I mention? Serfs had to pay taxes to the king, too—so there goes another chunk of the food they’d hoped to live off of that year. If you’re a serf, you’re starting to get plenty torqued. It was at this moment the geniuses who run the English government thought, “Now’s an ideal time to collect those unpaid poll taxes.”



It was too much. Serfs and peasants from all over England got together—they gathered a bigger crowd with each manor they passed—and marched on London to tell whoever would listen that they weren’t paying the poll tax. A guy named Wat Tyler emerged as the peasants’ leader. They broke into the Temple and destroyed tax records. They killed the Lord Chancellor and Lord High Treasurer and other officials. Finally, 14-year-old King Richard II rode out to meet the mob and somehow talked them out of killing him, too. Richard promised a bunch of reforms. He kept the peasants there long enough for the London militia to arrive and arrest or break up the crowd. Wat Tyler was killed.

I include this episode merely to show the effects of the bubonic plague, its terrible death toll and the cheesed-offedness of the serfs. The Peasants’ Revolt didn’t accomplish anything much that wasn’t going to happen anyway. Richard (or his handlers) didn’t keep his promises, but the feudal system was already over, kaput, done, stick a fork in it. Why? The Laws of Supply and Demand, gang. It eventually dawned on the serfs that they were in short supply—a limited resource—which increased the demand for them. Lots of farm fields, only a few farmers. There was nothing to keep serfs tied to one lord’s manor anymore. They could set up on their own and negotiate terms. A voluntary exchange of labor for wages. The beauty of the free market.

“That’s nice, Manders. What’s it got to do with reading and writing?” That’s an excellent question and I’m glad you asked. It turns out not only were people fed up with feudalism, they’d begun to question the way the Church was run, too. One guy in particular thought that more people ought to read the Bible.

I love this little illumination of Richard II in his ship meeting the peasants (although it looks more like an army to me)—https://www.worldhistory.org/image/11780/richard-ii–the-peasants-revolt/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peasants%27_Revolt
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner_Temple
Laws of Supply & Demand:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9aDizJpd_s

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The Dance of Death

The bubonic plague left a big mark on Europe’s psyche (people’s imaginations). With death everywhere it was impossible not to think about the fact that we’re given only a brief time on Earth. Artists portrayed Death as a skeletal figure who led the living—young, old, rich, poor—in a merry dance before dragging them off to their doom. Le danse macabre in French, der totentanz in German, the dance of death was a popular subject. The brilliant artist Hans Holbein drew a series of Dance of Death woodcuts before he became Henry VIII’s court painter.

https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/hans-holbeins-dance-of-death-1523-5
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danse_Macabre
https://www.amazon.com/Dance-Death-Dover-Fine-History/dp/0486228045
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/955496.The_Dance_of_Death
https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/psyche

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Doom

The plague doctor was somebody whose job was to venture among the plague victims and keep a tally of the sick and dead. He burned herbs in the end of his mask to discourage plague germs. I’m kind of surprised no one wore one of these get-ups in the past year.*

The Black Death was a proper pandemic. Coffin-makers couldn’t keep up with the business. Bodies needed to be buried in mass graves. Entire towns were left empty. A huge chunk of the Holy Roman Empire’s population just wasn’t there anymore. Church attendance plummeted. Food was in short supply because there weren’t enough serfs left to plant and harvest crops. The devastation was so comprehensive that it took a couple centuries to recover.

* GAAAAH! Update! I did this sketch as a kind of tribute to my pal Chuck Dillon who wrote and illustrated Which Art Student Are You? that features art student stereotypes with all their attributes called out—and then I forgot to mention Chuck when I posted! I tell you, I’m losing my marbles.

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Biological warfare

Let’s zoom in on the western chunk of the Mongolian Empire—where the Ukraine is now. Caffa was a trading port on the northern shore of the Black Sea used by merchants from Genoa, Italy. The Khan allowed them to build the port. It was protected by 2 walls, one inside the other. The Genovese traded with people throughout the Mongolian Empire who came to Caffa by the Silk Road. They made a nice living.
https://www.google.com/maps/place/Feodosia/@45.0519847,26.4132688,5z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x40eb858afb281d9b:0x3c1c98ca88a2653e!8m2!3d45.031933!4d35.382433

Caffa was a cosmopolitan city, full of people of different religions and cultures. I suppose it was bound to happen that religions and cultures would clash; sure enough there was a brawl between 2 disagreeing factions that escalated into a riot. The Khan decided to settle the riot with his army but somebody had barred the city gates and he couldn’t get in. So he put Caffa under siege. A siege is when you use an army to trap your enemy inside a walled town. You don’t let them out and they eventually run out of food and water. The Mongols were on the outside and the Genovese were on the inside. The Mongols decided to use a never-tried-before secret weapon. They had cartloads of dead bodies infected with bubonic plague. The Mongols catapulted the infected bodies over the walls and into Caffa where no one was wearing masks or social-distancing or sneezing into their elbows. Soon after that, people in Caffa started to drop dead. The Genovese traders took a look around, said “arrivederci” and jumped onto their ships headed back to Sicily and Italy. Of course, they were already infected and took the plague with them. From there, rats and fleas and the plague spread throughout Europe. This was the Black Death. An estimated 25-30 million people in Europe died from bubonic plague.

https://www.worldhistory.org/Black_Death/
https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/mongol-siege-caffa-black-plague.html
https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/8/9/01-0536_article
I’ve recommended Justinian’s Flea before and I’ll do it again: http://www.justiniansflea.com/
The plague came back more than once—people got reinfected because no one figured out where it came from. I read DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1665) in my youth during subway commutes in New York City. It was summertime, and every time the subway doors opened a blast of hot hobo-pee-smelling air whooshed into the car. It was the perfect accompaniment for reading about the plague. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/376/376-h/376-h.htm
Rats (my buddy Pastor Trip recommended this one to me) zeroes in on rats living in New York City right now: https://www.amazon.com/Rats-Observations-History-Unwanted-Inhabitants/dp/1582344779
https://benjaminzlee001.wixsite.com/catapults/trebuchet

Rats and fleas

Living conditions in the big cities of the Mongolian Empire were no better than in the Holy Roman Empire. Mediæval cities literally stunk from all the pee and poop. Wherever you get a lot of people living closely together you’ll also find rats. Why not? Rats gotta eat and there’s always kitchen trash around wherever people are. The good thing was: rats got rid of a lot of garbage by eating it. The bad thing was: rats had fleas. The worse thing was: rats and fleas carried bubonic plague bacteria.

People who didn’t take baths much had fleas, too. A flea who’d bitten a rat with the plague might jump onto a human being and bite him. By the mid-1300s, Mongolian traders carried fleas and plague bacteria east and west along the Silk Road. Plaguey rats and their fleas hitched rides on grain-laden caravans. Everywhere traders went, they spread bubonic plague.

Study hard, pay attention in class and you may land a job looking at 2,000-year-old turds: https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/2000-year-old-feces-silk-road-reveal-spread-infectious-diseases-006326
https://www.wearewater.org/en/sewage-the-trace-of-our-history_281141
https://www.quora.com/How-did-the-Roman-sewage-system-become-unutilized-during-the-Middle-Ages-in-Europe-People-during-that-time-were-literally-throwing-their-wastes-out-of-their-windows-and-into-the-streets
https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1001550/seats%2C-squats%2C-and-leaves-a-brief-history-of-chinese-toilets

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