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Guttenberg's Success -- Papal Indulgences

Guttenberg is certainly considered creator of one of the most world-changing devices ever built but, as commerce and society would have it, the early years of print were not earth-shattering, according to The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree, reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, August 15, 2010.

What sold best?  Certificates of papal indulgence.

“In the days of papal indulgences, people liked a certificate, perhaps suitable for framing like a diploma…Over two years at the end of the 15th century, a single monastery commissioned 200,000 of these documents, with a space for the sin-free name to be filled in.”  Two hundred thousand? That’s an enormous number, considering the population of the time.

My novel, The Mandrake Broom, includes material involving the impact of the printing press, so I was particularly interested in this book review.  I know that while the Bible was the first book printed in what I thought was a mass quantity (Pettegree says only 180 copies were printed), The Hammer of Witches, a manual for torturing women, was the second.

But what also struck me in the review of this book is the way that literature, even then, took a back seat to commerce: what was churned out were “posters, handouts, pamphlets, pictures, almanacs…Classical authors accounted for ‘around 5 percent of all printed books published in the 15th century.’”

There are also interesting differences between our times, though: copies of the printed scripts of plays were popular.  And the printing press had its detractors: “by making book ownership more common, print also “diminished the luster of the Renaissance library,” causing many collections to dwindle or dissolve altogether as “the library as a cultural institution struggled to adapt to the new age.”

Another fascinating point to keep in mind is that the book was not originally for solitary entertainment. “The 16th century verse romances and other episodic books like The Decameron were suited for reading aloud – enjoyed in a communal, social setting.”

Sounds more like TV than high-brows would like, I imagine.

The real pity of it, though, as far as I’m concerned, is that while the world celebrates Gutenberg’s achievement, he was plagued by feelings of failure. “Johannes Gutenberg did not find a way to profit from his technical achievements.” He “died bankrupt and disappointed.”