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On Culture: The Open Journal for the Study of Culture

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History of books, Publishing


In order to distribute our thoughts and feelings, we must make intelligible and distributable copies of them. From approximately 1375 to 1450, certain Europeans started fully mechanized replication of texts and images, based on predecessor “smaller” technologies. What they started became the most powerful means for the distribution, storage, and retrieval of knowledge in history, up until the invention of digital means. We have scant information about the initiation of print technologies in the period up to Gutenberg, and the picture of Gutenberg that we have has become a great deal more complicated than hitherto. There has not been, however, an approach to the “pre-print-ing” period in terms of the history of idea or intellectual history. After a brief survey of established approaches, this essay argues that distribution by impression, or print, is bound up with ancient metaphors for understanding communication by the making of multiples. I suggest that there is a rich field of study for printing history in the sophisticated concepts of reality that medieval and late Scholastic philosophy developed. These concepts helped to express and develop a desire or need for communication that led to the technology of replicating texts and images for wide and continued distribution.


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