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Blessings in Bubonic Rags
The Plague and the Printing Press

Blessings in Bubonic Rags
  • Proverbs and Common Sayings from the Chi... (by )
  • Gutenberg, And the Art of Printing (by )
  • The Black Death and the Dancing Mania (by )
  • The Influence of the Black Death on the ... (by )
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There’s an old Chinese proverb about a farmer, his son, and their horse. One day the horse ran off, and when the neighbors heard, they came to commiserate. But the farmer rejected their sympathy, saying to them, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” The next day, the horse returned and brought with him a wild horse. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to give their congratulations, but the farmer rejected their congratulations and said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” Later, when the son was trying to tame the wild horse and was thrown from its back and broke his leg. The neighbors came to the farmer once more saying “How unfortunate! Now your son cannot work on the farm with you!” And once more the farmer said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” And as it happened, the next day officials arrived in the town to conscript all able-bodied young men to fight in a war, but since the son was injured he was spared.

This paradoxical domino effect can be seen—and in fact, finding these effects is a practice of many historians—when studying the many differing impacts of historical events.  

One paradox can be found during the Black Death
For the print revolution, the plague of the 14th century had a timely arrival. Mass production printing was simply waiting around for all the right components to come to a head. This included oil based inks rendered by the Renaissance painters, movable metal type which had first been seen in Korea as early as the 13th century, a press which found its roots in Chinese woodblock printing many years before, and of course cheap material to print on. 

Print books of the time required much much more than a labor of love; they required the discipline and education of a lifetime. Most books were then handwritten by monks who dedicated their lives to reproducing works for the Church and a select few of the upper crust who had both physical access to and the education required to read these texts. Exclusivity was also raised by the rarity of paper. It was much more common to print on parchment or vellum—made from sheepskin and calfskin respectively—of which the creation was highly time-consuming and often in short supply. 

Mass production of any item requires cheap, easy to make, and accessible materials. So people turned to a material that was in high supply at the time: rags from victims of the plague. Waste not want not was the order of the era, and thus began the European production of rag paper, which was a form first developed in China during the Han dynasty.

Materials aside, two other factors contributed to confluence of the printing press. The first was the death of most of the monks in the book-producing monasteries. The plague was allowed to easily ravage their close-quarter environments. The high death count of these script producers created a hole that needed to be filled with a more effective process. The second factor was that the high death loosened the control of the religious powers in control at the time, and left space for a money and material driven economy. This led in no small part to the funding of the Italian Renaissance and the adaptation to oil based paints

And so it came to the German Johannes Gutenberg to synthesize and mechanize each of these developments into the first printing press. The printing press was an inevitability. But without the plague, the opening of the printing revolution and the subsequent Age of Enlightenment might not have come for another hundred years. So who knows what’s good or bad? We can only know for certain that information brings us closer to the future. For more reading, look into Gutenberg and the Art of Printing by Emily Clemens Pearson, The Black Death and the Dancing Mania by Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker, and The Influence of the Black Death on the English Monasteries by Peter George Mode.

By Thad Higa
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