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34.4 How Paper Liberated the Human Mind

The development of free discussion in Europe during this age of fermentation was enormously stimulated by the appearance of printed books. It was the introduction of paper from the East that made practicable the long latent method of printing. It is still difficult to assign the honour of priority in the use of the simple expedient of printing for multiplying books. It is a trivial question that has been preposterously debated. Apparently the glory, such as it is, belongs to Holland. In Haarlem, one Coster was printing from movable type somewhere before 1446. Gutenberg was printing at Mainz about the same time. There were printers in Italy by 1465, and Caxton set up his press in Westminster in 1477. But long before this time there had been a partial use of printing. Manuscripts as early as the twelfth century display initial letters that may have been printed from wooden stamps.

Far more important is the question of the manufacture of paper. It is scarcely too much to say that paper made the revival of Europe possible. Paper originated in China, where its use probably goes back to the second Century B.C. In 751 the Chinese made an attack upon the Arab Moslems, in Samarkand; they were repulsed, and among the prisoners taken from them were some skilled paper-makers, from whom the art was learnt. Arabic paper manuscripts from the ninth century onward still exist. The manufacture entered Christendom either through Greece or by the capture of Moorish paper-mills during the Christian reconquest of Spain. But under the Christian Spanish the product deteriorated sadly. Good paper was not made in Christian Europe until near the end of the thirteenth century, and then it was Italy which led the world. Only by the fourteenth century did the manufacture reach Germany, and not until the end of that century was it abundant and cheap enough for the printing of books to be a practicable business proposition. Thereupon printing followed naturally and necessarily, and the intellectual life of the world entered upon a new and far more vigorous phase. It ceased to be a little trickle from mind to mind; it became a broad flood, in which thousands and presently scores and hundreds of thousands of minds participated.

One immediate result of this achievement of printing was the appearance of an abundance of Bibles in the world. Another was a cheapening of school-books. The knowledge of reading spread swiftly. There was not only a great increase of books in the world, but the books that were now made were plainer to read and so easier to understand. Instead of toiling at a crabbed text and then thinking over its significance, readers now could think unimpeded as they read. With this increase in the facility of reading, the reading public grew. The book ceased to be a highly decorated toy or a scholar’s mystery. People began to write books to be read (as well as looked at) by ordinary people. With the fourteenth century the real history of the European literatures begins, we find a rapid replacement of local dialects by standard Italian, standard English, standard French, standard Spanish, and later, standard German. These languages became literary languages in their several countries; they were tried over polished by use, and made exact and vigorous. They became at last as capable of the burden of philosophical discussion as Greek or Latin.

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