Friday, June 10, 2011

Printing Press

I might just as well write another.  It's been only three days since writing about paper, and thus the subject is still there in my head.

The printing press did not represent an invention so much as a conglomeration of existing tools that had been around for several centuries.  The press itself was used to press olives and grapes; the lettering was casted metal; paper had been manufactured industrially in mills for a hundred and fifty years; and the book format for reading predated Christ.  Even the idea of reusuable type had been first invented by the Koreans four hundred years ago, and printing with blocks by the Chinese before that.

Yet the innovation of pulling these things together merely changed everything.

There had been a great deal of knowledge recorded on very few books translated into Latin from Greek for a few hundred years, describing Medicine, Astronomy, Engineering, Mathematics and so on, whose availability to the ordinary person was about nil.  In a population of tens of millions of persons, books numbered only in the thousands.  The knowledge itself is best thought of as a wild horse kept restrained in a stall behind heavy wooden doors.  The printing press let the horse out.

Printing presses started in Mainz, in Germany, as a business venture, and printers thought at first that their biggest customer would be the church, with the expectation of printing sermons and various books.  Mainz was an Archbishopric, with lands and relations scattered in a hundred states throughout middle Europe, and the church was big business in that town.  But it did not take long for people to perceive that printing single pages in a very short time would allow individuals to scatter information throughout the surrounding counties by runner, organizing or motivating hundreds, even thousands of persons towards a particular action in a comparatively short period of time.

As well, a few charlatans associated with the church saw the opportunity to expand a little money earning scheme that had been around for ages but which had never been big business.  An indulgence was a little piece of paper by which you paid to have your former dead relatives released from an invented place called Purgatory, where one cleaned up somewhat before entering heaven.  As a church-created piece of flim-flammery, it is just a bit worse than the 700 Club.  Writing indulgences by hand had proven to be a slow task, so the appalling nature of the scheme was easily overlooked ... but then the printing press allowed the easy and quick manufacture of as much phony nonsense as you could ever hope to have, and the pressure to buy indulgences was ramped up by the local churches.  What had been mildly taxing was now unforgiveably annoying - as if the 700 Club were to suddenly appear on every station, all day long.

A remarkable friar, Martin Luther, nailed a few comments upon a church about that and other things in 1517, and this began the first full-scale propaganda war between the church and those protesting against it - the 'protestants' (it is generally forgotten that Lutherans and the forerunners of the Presbyterians, the Calvinists, were essentially the 16th century equivalent to Berkeley Campus).  Printing presses which had already proliferated throughout central Europe became, at a stroke, the fiercest weapon against the established powers everywhere, as they were able to rouse people to arms against ... well, whatever the writers could come up with.  Peasant rebellions and a series of wars followed, culminating in the 30 Years War that settled - more or less - the dividing line along which Christians would be free to worship as they liked.

In between the questionable benefits of an incensed populace, the scattered knowledge that had been there prior to Gutenberg's invention slowly made its way into the hands of scientifically and creatively inventive persons, though it took 80 years and more for books to make their mark.  The various powers of Europe did all they could to stand in the way of independent thought, having recognized in Luther that knowledge was a dangerous thing, and that the spread of knowledge could lead to the toppling of power.  Nevertheless, books written by the ancients and the new scholars (such as Copernicus and Erasmus) began to take root in the consciousness of intellectual Europe.  By the 1600s the Church had lost all power to influence the spread of knowledge, which doesn't mean they didn't try, vis a vis Galileo, who's biggest mistake was not fleeing Italy as hundreds of others did.  The only true success the Church had was to destroy learning in Italy by the 1700s and further encourage the success of Northern Europe, that did allow the free spread of ideas.

And now, D&D.  It seems a little strange to talk about the staggering changes that were going on with knowledge and development in the age of the printing press when books have so little value - magical tomes aside - in the D&D universe.  The flow of knowledge about the world that comes to the players comes only from the tight-fisted DM, who distributes knowledge about cities, distant regions, magic or technology with an eye-dropper.  The principles of a D&D world, subject to the amount of fantasy the DM holds dear, demands that parties be restrained from implementing the sort of changes found in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  If there is anything in the game that is to be constructed from a book's descriptions, it will surely be something huge and expensive, or in the very least magical:  a castle or a golem.  A player is unlikely to find a book describing how to smelt metal and make weapons and armor, or how to set up a fish trap to catch food, or how to use two ten foot poles to lever dungeon doors open.  All knowledge is presumed to be something the character has gained prior to entering the milieu, and as something that takes years to acquire ... where, in fact, books were proliferated in the 15th century that quickly undermined a great many guild 'secrets' and made them available for the common populace - just as books continue to do today.  The technological innovations of Europe prior to 1400 were not so complicated that an intelligent person could not take the instructions from a book and apply them.  That is, in fact, the very purpose towards which books were written at that time.  The most common books were 'how to' books, ranging upon every subject from how to recognize plants to how to manufacture your own astrolabe.

It is the modern mysticism that we place behind technological innovation that prevails in descriptions of impossible-to-make Japanese swords that were really only as 'complicated' as the making of biscuits.  The innovation is in the patience and the application; a katana sword takes a great deal of time and must be made in a very specific way with specific components ... but it is not the equivalent of quantum physics, where only a very few people could possibly comprehend how it is accomplished.  There were very few katana sword makers because they were expensive to make, the demand was rather limited in that they were expensive to buy, and most peasants of Japan did not have the means or the opportunity.  At present, the notion is proliferated that to make a katana sword one must be somehow special or blessed or even chosen, when in fact all that is really needed is an instruction book, patience and money.

But of course we wouldn't want everyone to know that, would we?  It would somewhat diminish the romance behind such swords ... along with the romance behind everything from good soup making to palm reading.  Advertising, not a lack of knowledge, dictates that these things MUST be impossible for the ordinary person, or else everyone would do it.

Naturally this fanciful presentation is extended into the fantasy propositions behind D&D, I think probably because most of the creators and writers of the game ignorantly believed in this sort of hokum.  They were, after all, merely college students, with little conception of the greater world beyond their mother's apron strings and their paid-for dormitary rooms.  The D&D world was manufactured from the half-education they had yet received, and betrays all the limitations of an imagination fed on a popular 1960's mythology.  These were not historians or philosophers or even experienced engineers, and their sense of how the world was constructed was very limited indeed.  They had had little time in their lives to find themselves pushed to the wall and forced to re-examine their assumptions or their training.  They did not yet know how to further the half-life of their education through books.


Joseph Browning said...

"It is the modern mysticism that we place behind technological innovation that prevails in descriptions of impossible-to-make Japanese swords that were really only as 'complicated' as the making of biscuits."

Ha! Well put.

Claudus exertus said...

I think probably because most of the creators and writers of the game ignorantly believed in this sort of hokum. They were, after all, merely college students, with little conception of the greater world beyond their mother's apron strings and their paid-for dormitary rooms.

I think your more then a bit off on this notion.
Most of the writers/developers were beyond college. Arneson and Gygax were both working regular jobs when creating/publishing D&D.

Alexis said...

Yes, Gygax's one-year of anthropology courses at a junior college more than demonstrates how I'm wrong in that. His experience with Avalon Hill games in the 1960s satisfies certainly all the historical background anyone creating an RPG based on history needs.

I grant you, Gygax was 33 when Chainmail was released in 1971. On the other hand, Arneson was the ripe old age of 24, and had one whole year of post-secondary history to his credit from the University of Minnesota.

So I stand corrected.

ChicagoWiz said...

*chuckle* Leaving little bomblets for those rabid fans to pick up and have explode in their faces... and while I'm on vacation even!

I think it was rather a focused, limited knowledge that wargamers would have, versus a well rounded knowledge that a historian might have. I believe Messrs. Gygax and Arneson had different goals for their game of D&D as you do.

That does nothing to invalidate your point, rather it strengthens it.

Bar Harbor is gorgeous. I think rather than mustard farming, I'd take up fishing or lobster harvesting though.

Alexis said...

Fish? I can work with that. Quick research tells me your schooner can manage 1,608 lbs. of cod per day.

5stonegames said...

A couple of things, making a sword from a book isn't as easy as you think and making a good sword is even harder.

It still requires skill and a bit of instinct for metal. If its a fantasy world, a little magic won't hurt either and that may or may not be something that anyone can learn

Also re: Medievalism, well D&D is a more Conan than anything and as such is lensed more by "whats fun" that whats accurate.

Even if they had wanted more accuracy
Gygax and Arneson et all were working within the limits of their age as much as any Medieval person was.

While sure books were plentiful and cheap in the late 60's and 70's but scholarship was often bad, limited by Victorian preconceptions or simply as yet undone.

And yes sure there were some very good books they could have selected, Durant, Gies etc but D&D is a game made by accident not design.

Even later games such as Runequest suffered from those limits. RQ combat was very good for a game of its period but its HtH rules were informed by a very new combat sport the SCA. Access to Fetchbuchs was essentially unknown and as such they has to guess.

Scholarship on that period when wanted is simply more available now than ever as as denizens of such an age we are spoiled.

I guess its kind of a happy coincidence that D&D got a lot of us into scholarship and the Medieval period and as the same groups of people were into computer too, well the knowledge spread.

Now my rare reprint of Silver's Principles of Defense (some SOB took it years ago) is now commonplace and I can have it or dozens of others for the asking and a few (or no) bucks and I think that is an indirect product of D&D

Alexis said...


Thank you, very educational. I had thought skill and a feel for the metal was gained from practice and had nothing to do with how something is done, but I see that I’ve been wrong. Also, I hadn’t realized the state of historical scholarship was such a disastrous minefield in the 60’s, and that virtually all the genius work has been done since then. Thank you for enlightening me.

I’m pleased that you’ve corrected my assumptions about the limits of work that can be done by people who are 24 and 33. It’s reassuring to know that no one of those ages could possibly do better than Gygax and Arneson. They truly were stunning intellects to which all other young people everywhere, regardless of their educations, must bow.

Of course, I agree that no scholarship that existed in the past can measure with the scholarship being done today. Papers and books written without the internet? Ridiculous. People back then should have known better than to waste their time with such worthless, sub-par ‘history writing’ efforts. I know I'm going to throw my Arnold Toynbee away.

Thank you 5stone, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I shall correct my short-sighted perceptions in future.