In Early Modern Europe, Reading and Writing Meant Getting Your Hands Dirty
Anthony Grafton: When Writing Could Be Back-Breaking Work
The path from cogitation to publication has never been as smooth as it is nowadays, technically speaking at least. A scholar reads documents and articles on screen, takes notes in Zotero, writes in Scrivener, and finally sends a file to a journal or publishing house. Most of her friends and colleagues will read the finished product not on paper but on screen.
One can produce an original work of history or criticism without ever getting out of bed—much less dirtying one’s own hands or anyone else’s. Inky Fingers, my new book, takes a look at what the world was like when printing was the new technology and every word of notes or text was inscribed on paper by pen or type.
Half a millennium ago, books and manuscripts bulged with information, as they do now. But the only way to tap them was material and embodied, and that took work. To learn about the text of the Hebrew Bible, Spinoza had to read the biblical commentaries of the 12th-century polymath Abraham ibn Ezra, whom he admired; an introduction to the biblical text by a 16th-century Jewish scholar, Jacob ben Chajim, whom he despised; and a massive, polemical study of Jewish tradition by a slightly later Italian Jew, Azariah de’ Rossi, whose independent mind probably appealed to him.
Jacob and Azariah in turn quoted older texts. They gave Spinoza a mass of information that he shaped into his brilliantly polemical Theological-Political Treatise, which sent seismic shocks through the world of European learning.
Spinoza was a thinker, not a philologist. He used these sources without making much effort to assess their value critically. Not all of them were accurate or even genuine. Following de’ Rossi, Spinoza was taken in by a Christian forgery of a work ascribed to the ancient Jewish writer Philo. But reading was vital to his work. Without the information these varied texts provided, Spinoza could not have mounted his brilliant argument that the Hebrew Bible was a late, historically unreliable work, written for uncultivated readers.
Spinoza was not alone. In his time, a great deal of the writer’s work followed a set, laborious routine. Readers underlined and annotated their books, made extracts from them in notebooks, and recombined these in their own works. Many of the most memorable things written in the early modern world—Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech is a famous example—are patchworks of well-worn phrases, probably recorded in the first notebooks the author kept as a schoolboy, and then transformed by the alchemy of a mature mind and style.
Inky pens and fingers figured at every stage in this process, even after the text was written. Revision required making new copies: so did providing legible copy for the compositor who set the type.Prosperous printers and celebrity authors relied on the correctors’ grueling, partly manual labor, and often worked with them, passing annotated proof sheets back and forth.
Like modern writers, early modern ones had to deal with gatekeepers: printers, who decided if their work deserved publication, and the printers’ correctors. These ill-paid wretches on the margins of the world of learning and literature not only corrected proofs, the tasks that gave their calling its name: they also decided if books deserved publication and prepared manuscripts for print, often changing their spelling, correcting their syntax and challenging their ideas as they did so.
Prosperous printers and celebrity authors relied on the correctors’ grueling, partly manual labor, and often worked with them, passing annotated proof sheets back and forth. Moderns who work on keyboards worry about carpal tunnel syndrome. Early modern scholars had their eyes worn out by endless reading of small print, their backs bent by years of crouching over tables laden with books, and their fingers bent with arthritis and stained with ink.
All this slow-paced, messy work seems alien: contemporary students, who have never spent a winter in the arctic cold of the old British Library, scratching out notes with a pen, sometimes find it inconceivable. Yet writers worked this way for good reason. Some—fine penmen like Francis Daniel Pastorius or his more celebrated contemporary Isaac Newton—loved to write. More surprising, many of them found a powerful intellectual stimulus in the seemingly humdrum process of taking systematic notes.
When the 16th-century Italian humanist Polydore Vergil worked his way through everything he could find about the origins of Christian prayers and rituals in works on theology, liturgy and church history, extract after extract yielded the same result. Christians had built their church not so much on Peter as on the Jewish Temple and synagogue, from which they derived vestments and prayers. Note taking made it possible, for the first time, to portray Christianity itself as a product of history. Polydore Vergil did not go nearly so far as Spinoza would, a century and a half later, but he walked the same path.
Many writers, in the Renaissance, were ferociously proud of their originality and brilliance. Yet the writer’s trade, as they practiced it, had an artisanal character. Even the most erudite writers learned from the practitioners of crafts apparently very distant from their own. Textual critics learned from astrologers and other hawkers of predictions to boast of the “divinations” that enabled them to heal corrupted texts.
The inventor of paleography, Jean Mabillon, learned from professional scribes, who published writing manuals with detailed information about old and new scripts—and sometimes used their expertise to forge documents—how to analyze the writing systems that had been used in Latin from the Roman Republic to his own time, and write their history.
Recreating these hard-working writers’ practices takes plenty of work. Still, the hire is worthy of the laborer. Shadow an early modern writer at work and you find yourself not in the valley of the shadow of the book but in a lively province of the past. Intellectual historians can learn a lot when they trace not only the cerebral creation of high ideas, but also the low toil of inky fingers.
Anthony Grafton’s Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe, is available now.
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