In 1452 the Monks were arrogant.
“Have you seen the ‘books’ that Gutenberg is turning out with his printing press”? they asked each other.
“What a disaster! No golden lettering, no hand-drawn cherubs. What terrible technical quality! Who is going to read that???”
The monks were quite preoccupied with the craft of their day – the fine hand copying of the Bible. They had been at it for over a thousand years and their jobs and their futures seemed pretty secure. Books, after all, were hand written in the Monastery by Monks! It was a long, arduous job, but they really worked at their craft. They were well rewarded for their work and everyone admired it.
Then, along comes Gutenberg with this ‘new technology’, his ‘printing press’, and he thinks that now any idiot can publish a book in a few weeks when every good Monk knows that it takes years.
And just look at the poor technical quality of his printed page!
The public will never accept this!
The monks laughed and laughed at Gutenberg, and talked to each other incessantly on their own websites and blogs.
Then, seemingly in the blink of an eye, it was over.
A thousand year profession, the hand crafting of lovely books, came to an end.
No one, it turned out, really cared how well the letters were shaped.
Or how lovely the golden “c”‘ was made.
Or how beautiful the cherubs were drawn into the columns on the side.
No one cared.
And the monks, who for more than a thousand years had known the kind of job security that only tenured professors at Harvard can feel, were suddenly unemployed. And unemployable. Their ‘skill’ was suddenly rendered worthless.
This is the inevitable consequence of a new technology.
Gutenberg’s printing press would never make books as beautiful and luxurious as the hand crafted Bibles of the Middle Ages. But it did not matter. Gutenberg’s printing press made books that were ‘good enough’. The people, it turned out, were far more interested in the content than the shape of the letters.
And of course, the vastly lowered cost of production meant that many more people could now afford to buy books and read them.
All in all, there is a lesson here.
For Gutenberg and his printing press were about much more than just cheap bibles. They also brought down the power of the Church and its monopoly on the written word.
I think of that this morning as I look out my window and watch the sun glint off St. Patrick’s Cathedral and cast it’s shadow on the NBC Building at Rockefeller Center.
The more things change……