Monthly Archives: December 2018

Knowledge Unchained

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The week before Xmas my wife and I saw Ian Anderson, rock flautist of Jethro Tull fame, perform a concert in Hereford Cathedral, to raise money for the Cathedral’s Perpetual Trust. Alongside the unlikely Lloyd Grossman, gastronome and musician, Anderson cavorted beneath the high altar like a sprite, the red, gold and violet lights glinting on his silver flute (and his bald head).

The next morning — before tackling the drive back to London — I visited the Cathedral’s Mappa Mundi and adjoining library. A national treasure inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, the 1300 Mappa Mundi (Latin for ‘map of the world’) is the largest surviving medieval map of the world.

Featuring 420 cities and towns, biblical events, plants, animals, birds and mythological creatures (including ‘blemmyes’, headless men with faces on their chest), it shows how 13th-century scholars interpreted the world spiritually and geographically.

I then crossed the threshold into the adjoining library…and entered yet another world. Awe-struck, I contemplated row upon row of ancient manuscripts in open, wooden cabinets, with every volume listed on fading sheets at the end of each row. The sheets were a roll call of seminal writing, including 16th century editions of Tertullian and 14th century editions of Augustine’s AD 400 De Trinitate (On the Trinity). What struck me, though, was the sight of iron chains hanging from each book.

The famous Chained Library.

20181219_114314The books it houses — formative of our civilisation, culture and ideas — are of such rare and exquisite beauty that, from birth, they have been tethered to the wooden shelves on which they sit. The chains are attached to the front of the book, not the spine, allowing the reader to simply take it off the shelf and open it, without having to turn it around from spine to front. This stops the chains twisting and tangling, and damaging the book.

I found this ironic.

That we can free ourselves through the knowledge and wisdom contained in books, yet here they’re shackled. Of course I understood why, but I was intrigued by this visual irony.

And that got me thinking about books in general.

Where would we be without them? Without books, human civilisation would be very different, if it could exist at all. They help us to map our own world and travel in other people’s. Imagine a school or university without books. How would we educate ourselves, pass human wisdom from one generation to the next? Granted, online learning is available to all, but the source material still needs to be written. A 2014 study into the correlation between exposure to books and academic achievement in 42 nations found that the number of books in the family home exerts a strong influence on a child’s academic performance and, ultimately, their life chances. (I recall staying in a trailer home in California where, scarily, the only written literature was the TV guide.)

As Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, says in his wonderful book, A History of the World in 100 Objects, ‘Of all mankind’s great advances, the development of writing is surely the giant: it could be argued that it has had more impact on the evolution of human society than any other single invention.’

Having written something, however, how do we share it with the world? That’s where Herr Gutenberg comes in.

Johannes Gutenberg was a 15th century German blacksmith and goldsmith who introduced printing to Europe with the printing press, inspired by the traditional wine press. His invention of mechanical movable type started the Printing Revolution in Europe and is considered a milestone of the second millennium, ushering in the modern period. It played a huge role in the development of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution, laying the basis for our modern, knowledge-based economy. 

(As an aside, movable type was first invented in the Far East, as was paper. In around 1450, completely independently, Gutenberg invented movable type in Europe. This is a fascinating example of what scientists call ‘multiple discovery’ — where two or more people in different parts of the world hit upon the same idea at the same time, eg calculus, oxygen, black holes and the theory of evolution, to name a few.)

Gutenberg’s technology accelerated mass printing to warp-speed. An estimated 8m books were printed between 1450 and 1500 — more than all the scribes of Europe had produced in the previous 1200 years.

Fast forward to the 21stcentury, and more books have been published in the last 50 years than in the previous 500, a trend that looks set to continue.

And in the UK — despite chaining some of them up — we love our books. The UK publishes more books per capita than any other country, releasing more than 20 new titles every hour.

How far we’ve come, yet the basic technology of the book hasn’t changed a jot: think black words in straight lines on white paper bound inside a jacket of either leather or card. Sometimes there’s magic in the simplest, most humble ideas.

Books are a form of time (tome?) travel: they allow us to hear an author’s voice across the vastness of time, space, culture and language, shrinking the millennia between the birth of an idea and our consumption of it and eternalising thoughts from humans long-dead.

If that’s not Magick, frankly, I don’t know what is.

© Scott Keyser 2019