In Search of a Holy Magic - Part 4
5. ‘The Black Art’ - The impact of the Invention of the Letterpress
Having examined the role of the medieval scribe in the previous chapter, let’s take a look at the invention that would kill its profession entirely within a few decades. The first manual letterpress was invented in 1440 in nowadays Germany by one Johan Gutenberg. Its advent is of significant importance for the tradition of Western magic. More importantly, however, the Renaissance as we imagine it today would not have been possible without its invention. Let me try to explain why.
The daily output of a medieval scribe is estimated to have been less than fifty pages. By the year 1600 European letterpress companies had developed an average performance of roughly 3.600 pages per day. Now, for a moment let’s not look at the art of writing through the eyes of a scholar, priest or magician. Let’s switch perspective and look at it through the lens of the early capitalists in the 16th century: the production of costly codices was a monopolised business owned, administered and distributed by the Roman Catholic Church. This monopolisation dictated not only the maximum production output of its scriptoria and thus the availability of knowledge, but also its immense costs. Even if one had the financial means, still the general availability of knowledge at the time was dictated by the Church. In stark contrast to these limitations of codices production through copying, the early capitalists found themselves surrounded by an ever increasing amount of universities that bread an ever increasing amount of scholars all across Europe. In short: the thirst for knowledge and education exploded during the late Middle Ages. And as medieval scribes struggled to keep up their production with its demand - an the Church tried to maintain its monopoly and maximise its revenue - the new technology gave rise to an unprecedented business opportunity.
The quick ascent of the book-printing industry had a massive impact on the Medieval world. In Germany alone during the short timespan from 1518 to 1524 the book production septupled. The new technique quickly began to fulfil its promise of enabling education at much lower costs and accelerating scholarship and science to completely new heights. And of course it single-handedly pushed the paper-production industry into its own revolution. With the new printing techniques not only the written word in all it forms became available broadly, but also accompanying tables, graphs and explanatory drawings that could now be placed alongside the text. This eradicated the century-old problem of manual copying errors by scribes and enabled scholars across the European world to compare research results in much more reliable terms and almost in real-time.
Now let’s return to the perspective of the Catholic Church. Yet, this time, let’s also include the view of university deans of the Middle Ages. Since the 12th century these institutions had created the perfect pact and come up with a unique and compelling way of protecting orthodoxy and stability of power: The Church ‘owned’ access to the literacy world by tightly managing its huge fleet of European scriptoria. It kept its access locked not only through control over which manuscripts were copied and made available for larger distribution, but also by ensuring all codices continued to be written in Latin rather than the vernacular language of each region. Before the advent of the universities, however, the actual problem to conserve orthodoxy sat with the scholars themselves. The generally acknowledged way of how a scholar transitioned from student to teacher since the times of the ancient Greeks was quite simple: they rebelled against their teacher, came up with more compelling ideas and stole away their teacher’s students. As no such thing as official titles, degrees or institutions which held a public mandate to manage recognised knowledge existed, the real currency of power was the amount of students any teacher could gather around themselves. Equally there was no publicly controlled or supervised space of teaching. The ancient Greeks had met and debated on their market places; unfortunately during many months of the year that proved to be a place too cold for long hours of scholarly debate in most central European countries. Thus people gathered in privacy at their homes. See, the real difficult problem before the advent of the printing press was how to control the spoken word, not the written one. The latter problem had been addressed by the Church already and was relatively easy to control due to its slow and laborious production methods: Manuscripts before the times of the Renaissance were so rare that they were objects of public interest. They would be read out aloud during scholarly gatherings and often times studied over and over again. What was much harder to control were the ideas and assumptions people derived from them. If manuscripts were seeds the Church did everything to control the plants that grew from it; and yet they struggled to control the public debate. And that’s where the newly invented universities came in.
The main problem that the invention of universities solved was to lend protection to its teachers and to the canon of knowledge they aimed to preserve. The invention of academic titles and degrees - without which one didn’t hold sufficient authority to participate in and effectively shape the public debate - was the true masterpiece of its creators. Suddenly even the smartest students could be forced to stay within the boundaries of ‘accepted’ knowledge at least until they finished their studies and received their degrees. A curriculum was designed that shaped the minds of young people to comply with commonly acknowledged truths. And by withholding the necessary academic title all of the unruly could be sorted out. The universities were a safe-haven for teachers and in alliance with the Catholic Church the two institutions began to control and synchronise large parts of the European intellectual world. This alliance proved to work perfectly for several centuries throughout the Middle Ages - until the invention of the letterpress.
Think of any industry, any product-category that is growing at a rate of 700% over a few years only? Now, imagine this growth doesn’t take place in a globalised world with international standards, corresponding legal frameworks and global authorities to oversee revenue streams and transactions. Can you believe it: What a mess! Or what an opportunity? It really depends upon your viewpoint - whether you want to uphold orthodoxy or get rich quick. The early capitalists banking in on the opportunity had a hugely disruptive impact on the scholarly world of the 16th century. In particular they disrupted the fine balance established between the Catholic Church, its scriptoria as well as Medieval university authorities. 'The black art’ - as the printing industry quickly was labelled - became a breakthrough milestone on the journey towards the democratisation of knowledge.
Of course this revolution didn’t go unnoticed by the authors and publishers of interest for our study - the magicians, witches and heretics amongst the world of Renaissance scholars.
“Because of the printing press, authorship became more meaningful and profitable. It was suddenly important who had said or written what, and what the precise formulation and time of composition was. This allowed the exact citing of references, producing the rule, ‘One Author, one work, one piece of information’ (Giesecke, 1989). Before, the author was less important, since a copy of Aristotle made in Paris would not be exactly identical to one made in Bologna. For many works prior to the printing press, the name of the author has been entirely lost.” (wikipedia)
‘Creative disguise’ - as explored in the 3rd part of this series - suddenly became much harder. Public interest in identifying the author of any new publication had significantly increased and equally had the risk of printed works being caught in the net of the Catholic inquisition. Now, to truly appreciate the impact of the ‘black art’ on the dissemination of magical knowledge we have to understand how this process had worked before the advent of the letterpress.
For centuries manuscripts of explicit magical content had been traveling well over hidden pathways. The circulation of these manuscripts amongst initiated communities of scholars had been a long-standing tradition. (Note: for more information refer to Paola Zambelli, White Magic Black, Magic in the European Renaissance, 2007, Chapter 3, §1. ’To publish or not to publish?’) Even Agrippa of Nettesheim, seventy years after the invention of the letterpress, decided to circulate his ‘De occulta philosophia’ for more than twenty years amongst European adepts in manuscript form only. His teacher the German ‘black abbot’ Johannes Trithemius had done exactly the same with his most explicit magical works. (Zambelli, 2007, p.75) Not allowing for a manuscript to be printed, did not mean it wouldn’t find its audience. Quite the opposite: it meant the circle of readers could be chosen much more deliberately by the author. This in return in allowed the author a significantly higher degree of openness and detail when it came to dealing with heretical subjects.
“It has been noted that in the early sixteenth century, under the Catholic kings of Spain, the new figure of the censor came into being: ‘a faithful scholar of good conscience’, whose task it was ‘to prohibit apocryphal, superstitious and condemned works as well as vain and useless things.’” (Zambelli, 2007, p.73)
Publishing a work under one’s own name, on the other hand, suddenly had turned into a new way of engaging with a broad public audience. With that, many new concepts emerged at the same time: the idea of a personal ‘copyright’, of a singular definite version of one’s work, of a public persona as perceived through the corpus of one’s complete writings as well as publicised reputation that over the course of one’s lifetime one had to uphold and protect.
The scholars of interest for our study therefore were faced with a severe inner conflict: Should they continue to write in manuscript form - optimised for circulation in closed communities of adepts, allowing them at least a certain level of control over the dissemination of their work as well as a significantly higher degree of freedom when it came to expressing their ideas and describing their actual heretic practices? Or should they aim to publish their works in print, ideally in honour of a potentate who might offer protection and even gratuity in return, contributing to the public debate, increasing their own scholarly prestige and further defining their public persona - yet needing to alter and tune their tone, convictions and even content according to the preferences of the Catholic Church and Renaissance zeitgeist? At least for the ones we remember until today, this wasn’t an either-or decision. We can still find their public persona preserved in their printed works, as well as traces of their initiated self in posthumous publications or rare copies of their manuscripts.
Most importantly, however, we can now see the lay of the magical land towards the end of the Middle Ages: By no means was the ‘renaissance of magic’ a rebirth of magic, i.e. the revival of a tradition interrupted since classical times and only preserved in Greek or Arabic source texts. The magical tradition towards the end of the 15th century was well and alive. Yet, its blood pulsed through veins hidden from the public eye. All that was visible from the outside - if discovered at all by outsiders - were cryptic sigils in manuscripts, instructions on ’shew-stones’, circles from ashes and long list of recipes and barbaric incantations. What was visible from the outside were the bare bones of a tradition that was but an “instrument to bring on prophetic states” (Klaassen, p.212) and to create communion with the sacred. The essential problem our Renaissance forefathers encountered, was not that a magical tradition had once been alive and flourishing and now had ceased to exist and needed to be rebuilt from its ashes. The essential problem they encountered was how to interpret and create meaning from a initiatory tradition that had maintained and evolved itself over centuries in silence and secrecy only (Klaassen, p.211).
How they solved this riddle - or at least how they made the readers of their public works believe they had done so - we will examine in our next chapter.