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Panta Rhei – everything changes

Sumerian_26th_c_AdabThings change. They always have, they always will. Take, for example, the written word. If we were to travel 5 000 years back in time, there was not much written word around. Yes, we had the hieroglyphs in Egypt, the cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia, but in general, the vast majority of the human race had no written words – nor did they perceive a need for it.

725px-Ägyptischer_Maler_um_1400_v._Chr._001Interesting that: at times, something has to become available before people realise they really need it. Take the mobile phone for example; there we were, happy as bunnies in clover in a world without mobiles or smartphones, and then one day it was there and collectively humanity expelled a loud “YES! We need it!” Of course, some of us retain a love-hate relationship to this electronic fetter of ours, but that is neither here nor there. Back to the written word!

The centuries rolled by. Someone decided we needed to record the word of God, and so the earlier chapters of the Old testament were jotted down – in writing, as it was difficult to memorise all that. In Mesopotamia, the epic of Gilgamesh was recorded, and both these examples show writing moving away from the dry recording of facts – many of the oldest clay tablets with cuneiform writing are essentially accounts – to the somewhat more imaginative. Fiction has been around for ages – about as long as humans have congregated around fires, I’d imagine – but written fiction was as yet not on the books, so to say. (If we’re going to be correct, books weren’t on the books either – not back then)

Hep! Yet another leap forward, and we land among the ancient Phoenicians. Savvy tradespeople, globetrotters and in general very innovative. Western writing as we know it started to take shape, but writing was still an art restricted to the few, as was reading.


In Ancient Greece, however, writing and reading became hallmarks of the well-educated man. (Women were neither here nor there in the eyes of the Ancient Greek, even if I’d hazard quite a few Greek women knew how to read and write as well.) But what did they read? They read scrolls, laboriously copied versions of one story being transferred over to another scroll. Not, one would argue, the most efficient distribution channel. Still, rich men hired scribes to copy one work after the other, and the concept of a private library developed. The well-educated man not only knew how to read and write – he had a library of books from which to choose. And then, of course, with the Ancient Greek came Homer – father of European fiction (even if Mr Homer himself recited from memory).

The Ancient Romans were good at stealing with pride. They came to Greece, they coveted Greece – and they wholeheartedly bought into this reading and writing stuff. Somewhat miffed at not being mentioned in ancient stories such as the Iliad, the Romans quickly developed their own myths, and so the Aeneid by Virgil saw the day of light. Pure fiction, one could argue, tracing the descents of the Romans from Troy. Still written on scrolls – but, I suspect, a very frequently copied scroll, a bestseller of the times if you will!

Notice that there seems to be no copyright issues around. The author painstakingly wrote the original scroll, shared his writing with his friends by reading out loud, and if popular, his friends would beg to borrow his original and make copies. Everyone was happy: the author saw his work disseminated, his ideas discussed, his readers got another scroll to add to their library, and the scribe earned enough money to go out for a binge and a bath in the Roman night.

medieval_book-and-monk2For the following centuries, things remained the same. Literary work was produced and then it was copied. As the erudition of the Romans and Greek sank into the mists, the people who retained reading and writing skills were much sought after, and many of them became servants of the Holy Church.

Jeanne d*Evreux Book of Hours

Monasteries produced breath-stealing works of art, embellished manuscripts with decorated letters, miniature drawings around the margins. Mostly on vellum, and sometimes as scrolls, but also, as the years went by,  in shapes resembling our modern day books, with pages one turned. Medieval breviaries still exist that cause book-lovers to salivate – badly. They still had to be copied though, thereby reducing the spread of the written word. This was considered a good thing by the Holy Church and other powers-that-were. There was no need for common people to read for themselves, much better that someone in authority interpreted things for them so as to ensure no misunderstandings.

At this point in time, writing was no longer about openly sharing your ideas and opinions. Intellectual discourse was encouraged within the frameworks of approved doctrine, but anything that stepped outside the boundaries was quickly condemned as heretic and destroyed. (Surprisingly, quite a few such subversive texts managed to survive) Of course, there was literature being produced that did not fall into the category of religious writing – writings such as the Roman de la Rose and all its spinoffs in which courtly love was presented to a starry-eyed audience, writings along the lines of the Chansons de Geste. But even these books complied with overall religious doctrine in that never is God – or His representatives on earth – questioned.

medieval-woman-writing-bigHumans are by nature curious. Over time, more and more people discovered the art of reading. But getting hold of books to read was difficult, and most of the writing was in Latin, a language the majority of people did not speak – they simply heard it in Church. But things were a-changing, as they say. Some people had the temerity of suggesting the Holy Writ be translated to the vernacular. Hang on; some people actually did the translating themselves, and contraband Bibles in the various languages of Europe slowly began to spread.

The Holy Church would as a matter of course destroy any such bibles, and it was difficult for the proponents of writing in vernacular to keep one step ahead. First of all, many of them were imprisoned – even executed. Secondly, all that copying took so much time. Enter Johannes Gutenberg. Now, it would be wrong to credit Mr Gutenberg with the invention of printing – that honour goes to the Chinese. However, it was Gutenberg who introduced moveable type printing in Europe, and we should all of us doff our caps and thank him for that. On his invention stands the present day literacy of Europe – as well as the havoc of the Reformation, the birth of the Enlightenment and the general development of modern society.

Gutenberg Bible – GORGEOUS

Obviously, the first books printed were mostly Bibles. Gutenberg’s invention could mass produce up to 200 pages in an hour, and his efforts were applauded by the Church – as long as the printed words were in Latin. Gutenberg himself seems to have been no radical, but others quickly realised the opportunities – and threats – offered by his invention. Luther nailed his theses to the cathedral in Wittenberg? Some days later, they were available in printed form. A Bible in English? Some weeks later, hundreds of copies existed that could be smuggled to the wannabe readers.

And so, dear people, literacy exploded. People read, people discussed, people expressed their thoughts – in writing – and these thoughts could be printed as pamphlets, evoking more discussion, more debate, a hubbub of thoughts and opinions that contributed to the spread of Protestantism, of Humanism.

Detail, Gutenberg

Books, however, remained precious. While most households in Protestant Europe had a copy of the Catechism and the Bible, that was about it. Not only was this a question of frugality, it was also due to the lack of selection in printed matter – and the censorious approach adopted by all churches to frivolous reading matter.

The publishing industry consisted of the publisher, full stop. An author wanting to see his book in print paid for the service – vanity publishing was first off the ground, so to say, and remained the main source of new books over the coming centuries. At some point, publishers were made responsible for what they printed, and suddenly it was in the publisher’s interest to vet the work prior to setting it. From there it was a minor step to purchasing the work upfront from the author. Traditional publishing was born – well, without the agent.

As man freed himself from the intellectual shackles imposed by blind faith and obedience to the church, so literature began to flourish. Once again, books were about ideas, about philosophy and opinions. Men like Locke, like Voltaire, they all existed in a society that embraced the idea of Free Thought – like those ancients had done. And side by side with these intellectual endeavours, fiction was finding its printed voice.

I’m not going to bore you with a long list of landmark novels. Firstly, because the list would be subjective rather than objective, secondly because the list is very dependent on where you come from. Suffice it to say that by the twentieth century it was taken for granted in the western world that books could be about anything – well, almost. A certain prudery remained, as did a belief that books for women should protect these tender souls from the grimmer aspects of life. Ha! As if women don’t have to face the grimmer aspects of life on a daily basis anyway…

So, once upon a time, writing was done on clay tablets. Obviously, not the best medium to reach a mass market. Some years down, and the clay tablet had become papyrus or parchment, writing done with ink. People copied scrolls into new scrolls, and so multiple copies sprang into existence – maybe a couple of hundred, perhaps up to a thousand. Scrolls became books, beautifully illustrated manuscripts that were luxury items, intended for the selected few.

And then came Gutenberg, bringing with him the birth of the book as we know it, almost six hundred years ago. These days, the traditional book is being challenged by the rapid growth in e-books. The simplicity of e-book technology allows authors to side-step the cumbersome process of traditional publishing, thereby giving rise to self-published books. But as you can see, this is nothing new: through the ages, authors have for the most part done their own publishing, eager to share their visions and thoughts with a somewhat larger readership than Number One.

Heraclitus with an anachronistic globe, but still

Personally, I am of the opinion that people who write and read are people who think – no matter what they read. The more thinkers we have on this little planet of ours, the higher the chances are of us building a better future. Besides, it is generally futile to attempt to turn back the flow of time, which is why it makes better sense to embrace both the e-book and the upsurge in self-published authors. Will it have an impact on the book industry? It already has. Is that good or bad? Me, I think it is good – but I don’t know. What I do know is that change, dear people, is the only constant in our lives. Panta Rhei, as Heraclitus so wisely said well over two thousand years ago.  Panta Rhei – nothing stands still, everything changes. Thank heavens for that, because seriously, reading a clay tablet in bed? Don’t think so!

5 thoughts on “Panta Rhei – everything changes”

  1. Thanks so much for this wonderful post.
    By golly, aren’t words and the ways we use them revealing? Last year I transcribed and edited the Notebooks of the canal builder James Brindley (1716-1772). Engineering folklore often makes out that he was unable to read or write, which isn’t strictly true, although it is fair to say that he wasn’t always on entirely easy terms with written English. One of the things that intrigued me about working on the four of his notebooks which survive in the public domain – they date from 1755-1763, but there are large gaps in the sequence – is the way in which over the years his day-to-day record keeping changes.
    In the mid-1750s, he writes only for the purpose of making out accounts; noting the dates of site visits and listing his labourers by name with their weekly wage. By the early 1760s, though still brief in the way he expresses himself, he is to all intent keeping a daily diary. In it, he remarks on the weather, comments on progress of the Duke of Bridgewater’s Canal, refers to an all-night drinking session and charts a disagreement with the Duke’s agent John Gilbert. It is a remarkable testament of the change that increased command of language brings about.

    1. What a beautiful comment – and yes, you are right; the development of writing from a tool for factual communication to a tool for describing the abstract and the emotional is definitely expressed in how each individual develops their writing skills. After all, a child often starts by writing his/her name. Fact. Many of those children progress to be beings with a rich prose and a vivid imagination. Somewhat of an egg & chicken conundrum – does vivid imagination help develop a rich prose, or does command of language foster an unhindered imagination?

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