Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Am I an Historian?

[PS, 19. March 2016: No, I'm not an historian, I'm an essayist with a strong interest in history who's also written novels, stories and plays.]

Well... yes, I think perhaps I am, I think an historian may be what I am turning into. If an historian is someone who not only studies historical topics a lot, but also often has questions, the answers to which he does not find in other peoples' historical writings, and is seized by the strong desire to search among primary documents and artifacts as well as in secondary sources until he finds those answers, and then writes about what he has found, then, yes, I am very much an historian.

Here's an example of one of those questions which occurred to me recently: I had been aware that Johannes Gutenberg, whether or not he actually invented printing, had begun printing sometime in the 1430's or '40's, and from that I had assumed that the editio princeps of many a work of Classical antiquity dated from before 1450. But this appears not to be the case: I know of only one Classical work printed before 1469: Cicero's De Officiis,printed in 1465. Then beginning in 1469 a great number of first editions of Classical authors followed in close succession, with editions of Apulius, Livy, Lucan, Vergil, Caesar and Pliny the Elder all appearing in that year alone,

Why did it take so long for printers to get around to printing Classical texts? Was the interest in Classical material really so small? Were students of Classical literature somehow averse to the new technology?

No, and no. Rather, it seems that I had been puzzled because I made a couple of anachronistic assumptions: that the invention of printing, once achieved, became widely-known with a speed analogous to the news of inventions in out time; and that Gutenberg and other printers would seek out any and all customers for their invention. Actually, Gutenberg, and other of the earliest European printers in Gutenberg's corner of Germany, did not seek to publicize his invention. On the contrary, he tried very hard to keep it secret, so that others couldn't imitate what he did and compete with him. This naturally meant, for as long as they successfully maintained this secrecy, that their potential market remained small and local. And the customers they knew wanted primarily Christian things: parts of the Bible, eventually whole Bibles,and contemporary and medieval theology. The Classical printings came in great quantity as soon as the techniques of printing became less secret, and spread across Europe. This appears not to have happened until about 1469, when it spread very rapidly indeed all over Western Europe.

If I had a little more professionalism as an historian, I could, and would, tell you from exactly whom I learned all this. Unfortunately, I remembered roughly what was said and forgot who said it -- somewhere on the Internet. That was several months ago, though, and I'm getting more conscientious, more into the habit of recording attribution more as a matter of course when I note things. Good historians are good about giving attribution in their footnotes. Not only is this polite and proper, it also answers the question Oh yeah? Who sez? with which we (they? we) are perpetually confronted.

Years ago -- 10 years? 15? 20? I don't know how many years ago, I hadn't gotten into the habit yet of writing such things down -- a question which I much wanted to answer was, What was Charlemagne's native language? I read accounts of Charlemagne in several history books without learning the answer, until I found it here: Karl der Große. Mit Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten,by Wolfgang Braunfels. It turns out that Charlemagne's native langugae was German; in fact, the written German language pretty much begins in his reign, and, more than that, at the very least the process of making German a written language received his strong support. It may have been his idea. (In those days people tended to write in languages which already had a tradition of writing: Latin, Greek, Hebrew and so forth -- mostly Latin in Charlemagne's Empire -- and it seems only rarely to have occurred to anyone to write in one of the various spoken languages of Europe.)

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