Philobiblon: Uses and abuses of printing

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Uses and abuses of printing

I'm often in the British Library, but usually trying to read too many books in too little time, so it was only finally today, since I really wasn't in a working mood, that I checked out the displays.

The Magna Carta was on the essentials list, of course, and the Codex Sinaiticus, a codex of the Bible in Greek from the middle of the 4th century - now that is an astonishing piece of material survival.

But what most took my fancy was the "Indulgentia" an A3 size sheet (landscape form) printed in 1454, possibly by Gutenberg. The display told me:
"Indulgences were among the first items printed in the West. [They] meant an end to the labour-intensive and costly procedure of writing thousands of letters for visits to a single town, thus maximising profits."

The purchaser had them signed, this one was for Hinrich Mais, a pastor, "and several of his female relatives", issued at Neuss, near Dusseldorf, and could then show it to his or her parish priest as proof of the transaction - a receipt in fact, no doubt the first printed receipts.

But I couldn't help wondering how this contributed to Luther and all of that - the printing made the church's entirely mercenary view of the transaction transparent, whereas at least when a cleric had to laboriously write out in a beautiful hand your indulgence, you were getting his time and labour, and theoretically goodwill (although possibly in practice curses) in the process.


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