03 February 2014

A Novel Idea

How the diverse, contemporary and vulgar ended up becoming useful

In the thirteenth century Saint Bonaventure, a Franciscan monk, described four ways a person could make books: copy a work whole, copy from several works at once, copy an existing work with his own additions, or write out some of his own work with additions from elsewhere. Each of these categories had its own name, like scribe or author, but Bonaventure does not seem to have considered—and certainly didn’t describe—the possibility of anyone creating a wholly original work. In this period, very few books were in existence and a good number of them were copies of the Bible, so the idea of bookmaking was centered on re-creating and recombining existing works far more than on producing novel ones.

Movable type removed that bottleneck, and the first thing the growing cadre of European printers did was to print more Bibles—lots more Bibles. Printers began publishing Bibles translated into vulgar languages—contemporary languages other than Latin—because priests wanted them, not just as a convenience but as a matter of doctrine.

Then they began putting out new editions of works by Aristotle, Galen, Virgil, and others that had survived from antiquity. And still the presses could produce more.

The next move by the printers was at once simple and astonishing: print lots of new stuff. Prior to movable type, much of the literature available in Europe had been in Latin and was at least a millennium old. And then in a historical eyeblink, books started appearing in local languages, books whose text was months rather than centuries old, books that were, in aggregate, diverse, contemporary, and vulgar. Indeed, the word novel comes from this period, when newness of content was itself new.

—Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

Painting: Laureano Barrau (1863–1957)