Printing mistakes

Today during my usual early morning perusal of my Twitter steam I came across the following tweet:

Today is not just the anniv. Of Gutenberg printing his first bible, this is the day of our literacy liberation

Now I found this tweet, to say the least, more than somewhat bizarre, as we are not even certain in which year Gutenberg printed his first bible let alone on which day. In fact it is absolutely certain that there was no publication date for this epoch defining work but that it rather dribbled gradually into the public sphere over quite a wide period of time. That this supposed anniversary is totally fictitious is confirmed by a Time magazine article from yesterday:

It’s hard to pin down the exact day the book was born, but August 24 is as fine a day to celebrate as any: it was on this day in 1456 that at least one copy of the original Gutenberg Bible was completed.

It seems that it is in order now to make up historical anniversaries.

My curiosity awakened I read through the responses to this tweet and stumbled across this even more fascinating claim concerning the history of printing:

How about “Muslims were practising the craft of printing for some five centuries before Gutenberg”

Now I’ve read an awful lot about the history of printing and although I’m well aware that Gutenberg was by no means the first person to invent movable type I was not familiar with any Muslim predecessors, in fact I thought the exact opposite to be true; that is the Arabic Empire had never invented our acquired movable type printing. So it was with some interest that I followed the supplied link to an article with the title Muslim Printing Before Gutenberg.

The article starts with a whole paragraph presenting an overblown statement of the author’s qualifications and expertise for writing the article. I wouldn’t mention this if the article didn’t contain a fundamental flaw, which I will elucidate shortly and which no qualified expert should have made. We will let the author introduce himself in all his glory:

Dr Geoffrey Roper is an international bibliographical and library consultant, working with the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations in London and other scholarly bodies. Educated at the University of Durham and the American University in Cairo, he was from 1982 to 2003 head of the Islamic Bibliography Unit at the University of Cambridge and editor of Index Islamicus, the major current comprehensive bibliography and search tool for publications on all aspects of Islam and the Muslim world. He has also been editor of Al-Furqan Foundation’s World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts, Chairman of the Middle East Libraries Committee (MELCOM-UK) and contributor to various reference works. He has researched, written and lectured extensively on bibliography and the history of printing and publishing in the Muslim world, and has curated exhibitions on the subject at Cambridge University Library and the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. He is currently an Associate Editor of the forthcoming Oxford Companion to the Book. For a comprehensive list of his publications, see below at the end of this article.

We now turn to Gutenberg and the history of printing:

The 15th-century German craftsman Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz is often credited with inventing the art and craft of printing. There is no doubt that this brought about a tremendous revolution in human communication and accumulation of knowledge, but was it really “invented” in 15th-century Europe?

The straight answer to Roper’s question is no, and once again I shall be returning to it again shortly. Roper gives he own answer to his question.

Gutenberg does seem to have been the first to devise a printing press, but printing itself, that is, making multiple copies of a text by transferring it from one raised surface to other portable surfaces (especially paper) is much older. The Chinese were doing it as early as the 4th century, and the oldest dated printed text known to us is from 868: the Diamond Sutra, a Chinese translation of a Buddhist text now preserved in the British Library

This answer is totally correct as far as it goes, except that the earliest examples of Chinese printing date back to the second century CE. So far so good but what about the Muslims? Roper now turns to them:

What is much less well known is that, little more than 100 years later, Arab Muslims were also printing texts, including passages from the Qur’an.

This I have to admit was new to me and an interesting addition to my knowledge of the history of printing. It should be pointed out, because it is somewhat ambiguous, that 100 years later is one hundred years after the printing of the Diamond Sutra and not after the fourth century. What follows, is some details of the history of Arabic printing and the inevitable question as to whether it influenced the introduction of printing into Europe; for which Roper admits there is no evidence before he closes with the conclusion already stated in the title:

What is not in doubt is that Muslims were practising the craft of printing for some five centuries before Gutenberg.

I wouldn’t deny this statement so what’s my beef? Why am I writing this post and what is the author’s fundamental flaw that I alluded to earlier?

Our supposed expert on printing is, in his article, confounding and confusing two different technologies, block printing, and movable type printing, which whilst related are not the same at all. Worse than this, his claim that the Muslims got there five hundred before Gutenberg is based on this confusion.

His article is about the history of block printing, that is when a relief is cut out of a block of material, wood or as many of us know from our childhood even the humble potato, is smeared with some form of pigment, paint or ink, then pressed on to an absorbent surface, fabric, paper or whatever, to produce a reverse image of the cut out relief. All of the printing that Roper describes is block printing including the Diamond Sutra, the earliest known example of a so-called block book. This technique has its origins in the shapes pressed into unfired clay using seals and stamps, going back thousands of years, and as a form of printing appears to have first appeared in China around the beginning of the Common Era.

What Gutenberg is credited with having introduced into Europe is movable type printing, a different beast altogether. In moving type printing the texts to be printed are composed of individual letters carved or cast in reverse, which can be then taken apart and reused in different combination multiple times.

This technology was not first invented by Gutenberg but had been invented several times before. The Chinese used both wood and ceramic movable type in the eleventh century CE, the latter replacing the former as it proved problematic. The Chinese were also using bronze metallic movable type by the twelfth century CE, using it to print money and documents. There is evidence that they also used it to print books but the oldest surviving Chinese book printed using movable type post dates Gutenberg. The Koreans are known to have printed books using bronze movable type in the thirteenth century CE but the oldest surviving Korean printed book dates from the fourteenth century, i.e. before Gutenberg.

This brief sketch of the history of printing throws up some interesting questions. If block printing dates back to the first century CE, or possibly even earlier, why did this technique only appear in Europe in the fifteenth century around the same time as Gutenberg invented his version of movable type printing? I know of no reasonable answer to this question.

Did Gutenberg or the other Europeans who were experimenting with movable type around the same time have knowledge of the Asian movable type? Was there a technology transfer? This question has been thoroughly investigated from all sides by many scholars and absolutely no evidence of a technology transfer has been found leading to the tentative conclusion that Gutenberg’s was an independent invention. It should also be pointed out that Gutenberg seems to have been the first to use movable type in a printing press and also to have been the inventor of an oil based ink that greatly facilitated the process of printing on paper.

Another interesting question that relates directly to Roper’s article is, if the Muslims acquired the technique of paper making (along with many other things) from the Chinese, which Roper mentions in his article, and which they passed onto the Europeans through Spain, why didn’t they also acquire the technique of movable type printing? This is a question that has also been investigated by many scholars without reaching any really convincing conclusions.

I find Roper’s article both disingenuous and disturbing. For people not knowledgeable in the various types of printing and their histories it would appear that Roper has uncovered another example of Europeans claiming credit for an invention that by rights belongs to the Muslims of the Arabic Empire. However this is not the case and I personally think that somebody as qualified as Roper should have made this clear in his article.


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Filed under History of Technology

One response to “Printing mistakes

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #07 | Whewell's Ghost

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