A researcher at the University of Reading has made a startling discovery. Pasted into the spine of an unrelated text Erika Delbecque found a double-sided leaf of paper thought to have been printed on one of William Caxton’s first presses, probably in the 1470s.
The pages are from a book called the Sarum Ordinal, a guide book for priests detailing the feast days of English saints. They are thought to be unique, with no other known copies in the world. Indeed, the only other eight pages from the text believed to have survived are currently housed in the British Library.
Such a seminal find is not only incredibly rare but also illuminating, particularly pertinent in our modern society of instant communication.
Caxton was a merchant who had spent much of his career in the Low Countries, where he had been exposed to the new printing technologies pioneered and perfected by the German Johannes Gutenberg during the mid-fifteenth century.
In 1476, Caxton brought his own press to Westminster and started printing a range of British and foreign literature. Amongst his early focuses were Chaucer, Malory, Gower and Lydgate. By reading these literary titans, Caxton claimed in his 1477 Book of Curtesye, one improved his social education. The work of Chaucer, he noted, ‘enlumened hast alle our bretayne’.
The importance of the establishment and expansion of the printing press and printing houses in Europe during the 15th century cannot be overstated. Volumes and volumes of treatises, religious texts and prose were no longer the preserve of the monarchy, the clergy and the ennobled. The dissemination of the printed word – particularly when published in the vernacular – made a greater contribution to the spread of ideas through societies than any other invention in the late medieval period.
Not only books but pamphlets began to proliferate, allowing radical theories and doctrines uncensored by the authorities to find a path to the less enlightened. It was of little relevance that illiteracy rates remained high; it only took the voice of one who could read to impart upon the masses the myriad terrors and delights of the new printed form.
This, in turn, fostered a greater intermixing of the previously segregated class structures, as the influential realised the power of print over the unprivileged. In many cases, this increased social cohesion. The folk tales of old, many now committed to parchment, were embellished by the great stories of European literature. Whilst for agitators like the Protestant reformers, a platform for their eventual triumph over the forces of tradition had been created.
It is the nature of technological development that in some industries change is gradual, whilst in others it is both explosive and tumultuous. The printing press undoubtedly falls into the latter category and, indeed, the communication of the written word barely changed for the 500 years after its inception.
Books, pamphlets and (from the early 17th century) newspapers remained the primary sources of information for a mass audience into the late 20th century when the next tumultuous change occurred; the invention of instant messaging.
Starting with computers and progressing through mobile phones and the internet, the ability to communicate information to billions of others instantaneously has altered the course of history. Now with Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Snapchat, anyone with an internet connection has access to almost limitless news and knowledge at the touch of a button.
The process of communicating with one another has never been easier and yet, if anything, social cohesion has diminished. People no longer need to interact in the flesh, living their lives as keyboard warriors at the forefront of technical change. Whilst in some instances this has brought people closer together, people who would otherwise never interact, in too many cases the results are negative.
It is surely a fact that a person is less likely to spread hate and abuse in person than they are online? How many men and women would be openly homophobic, sexist, racist or generally unreasonable when face-to-face with their apparent adversaries? How many would publish their views in a book, a pamphlet or a newspaper? The norms of conventional society have simply yet to translate to the world wide web, where vitriol and anger is the order of the day.
Caxton and his fellow pioneers would doubtless be horrified by the gradual diversion away from their beloved presses, whose transformational importance is symbolised in the beauty of the early printed works. The masters of the trade knew the sanctity of their craft.
Perhaps this is why the Reading discovery evokes a poignancy equal to its historic value. We must remember how precious the art of communication really is.