Caxton, the Printing Press and the Disintegration of Communication

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.

One of the beautifully-preserved Caxton pages

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.

William Caxton (1422-1491)

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’.

Caxton demonstrating his printing press to King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth

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.

Extract from the Gutenberg Bible

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.

An unmistakable symbol…Twitter has changed the way we communicate and read news

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.

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Trump Ascent Raises Nuclear War Fears: yet a nuclear accident remains far more terrifying

The possibility of nuclear war is a persistent concern of the human race. It seems to be the only way in which we can destroy ourselves in one fell swoop. Perhaps Donald Trump’s ascent to the US presidency will exacerbate these fears; perhaps his isolationist tendencies will alleviate them. Either way, the fear of nuclear destruction remains a constant, even if such a likelihood is in reality remote.

Some fear that a Trump presidency will lead to nuclear proliferation and perhaps war

Whether it is rogue states possessing nuclear weapons (North Korea, Iran), deranged leaders with their fingers on the red button (Kim Jong-un, Trump?), the potential for swift nuclear proliferation (the Middle East, Asia-Pacific) or the acquisition of nuclear devices by terrorist organisations, the worst-case scenario of nuclear war never fails to unsettle world leaders.

In part it is a hangover from the Cold War when mutually assured nuclear destruction did at times seem imminent, no more so than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, as Dr Strangelove magnificently parodied, it would have taken major misunderstandings and maniacal decision-making for such an eventuality to have materialised.

A more plausible scenario for nuclear annihilation is an accident. We have seen in recent years the devastating radioactive fallout caused by the Chernobyl disaster – whose crumbling reactor is soon to be encased by a giant shield – and the Japanese tsunami of 2011 which caused major damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Disaster at Chernobyl, 1986
Disaster at Chernobyl, 1986

Such terrifying incidents have raised major questions over civilian nuclear power generation, not to mention further strengthening the case for nuclear non-proliferation.

Just as alarming as these unfortunate, if potentially avoidable, disasters are the ‘near-miss’ operational incidents involving nuclear weapons, most of which remain shrouded in secrecy.

The possible discovery by a diver last week of a missing Mark IV nuclear bomb off the coast of British Columbia brought such eventualities back into the spotlight. In 1950, a US Air Force B-36 aircraft began to experience engine trouble during a flight between Alaska and Texas. The device now thought to have been uncovered off the Canadian coast was jettisoned before the crew ejected, allowing the plane to continue on autopilot until it crashed into a mountain range. This was the first recorded loss of a nuclear weapon in history.

Although some aviation experts have dismissed the possibility of the device being the missing Mark IV, either way it is not nuclear-ready; i.e. it is has a lead, uranium and TNT filling but not the plutonium necessary for a nuclear detonation.

Other past operational incidents have further demonstrated the precariousness of ‘routine’ nuclear weapons deployment.

For instance, on the 27th July 1956 a B-47 bomber crashed into a storage igloo at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, within which three Mark VI nuclear bombs sat silently. As with the B-36 incident, the bombs did not contain any fissile material yet they had a considerable amount of high explosive content and a detonation could have proved catastrophic.

More controversially, on the 21st January 1968 a B-52 bomber crashed near Thule Air Base in Greenland with four hydrogen bombs on board during a ‘Chrome Dome’ alert mission at the height of the Cold War.

The nuclear payload of the four devices ruptured and dispersed across the sea ice as the conventional explosives in the aircraft detonated. More worryingly, despite an extensive clean-up operation by the American and Danish authorities, it has since been revealed that a secondary stage of one of the weapons was never accounted for. The Danes had kept the American nuclear presence on Greenlandic soil a secret from their own people, leading to a major political scandal almost three decades later.

Blackened ice at the Thule crash site
Blackened ice at the Thule crash site

There have been further military-related nuclear incidents, several associated with the meltdown of reactors in Soviet submarines. It is likely that others have yet to be disclosed and perhaps never will be without a whistleblower breaking the radio silence.

It seems that the apocalyptic consequences of a military-nuclear disaster resonate with us and our leaders in a more poignant way than ongoing crises such as climate change, rising sea levels and mass population displacement, all of which will ultimately have dire consequences if left unresolved.

Soviet submarine K219 sunk after a fire - possibly caused with a collision with a US sub - in a missile tube. It went down with 34 nuclear warheads which were not recovered
Soviet submarine K219 sunk after a fire – possibly caused with a collision with a US sub – in a missile tube. It went down with 34 nuclear warheads which were not recovered

Whilst efforts to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology at a state level remain critical, putting further safeguards in place to avert an accidental nuclear catastrophe are even more important, for such a scenario is considerably more likely than nuclear war.

As Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control has demonstrated, there is an ‘illusion of safety’ when it comes to nuclear weapons, regardless of the perceived responsibility of those powers controlling them.

In the absence of a nuclear-free world – now an unattainable goal – it is hoped that military leaders, and their counterparts in the civilian world, take note of the near misses of the past to try and securitise the future as best they can.