Was there an Asian influence on printing of the early European Renaissance?

xensen's picture

I was interested in an aspect of this typophile discussion in which John Hudson wrote that “The invention of moveable type in China is an interesting historical fact, but of no direct significance for westerners.” Although I have been hanging around Typophile long enough to develop considerable respect for Mr. Hudson’s erudition and judgment, I was not so sure that this statement was altogether true, and I decided to research the matter.

I’ve posted the results of my research in an article I’m calling (at least for now) Gutenberg and the Koreans. While it’s true that there is no “smoking gun” directly linking the considerable Asian experience in cast-type printing to the print explosion of the European Renaissance, there is enough circumstantial evidence of probable influence that I think the burden of proof may be on those who claim that the two were unconnected.

In a way this post is a little premature. I’m still fiddling with the essay a bit (and I confess that permissions for some of the images are pending). I’m intending the piece for print publication and I’d love to get some feedback from typophiles -- many of whom I’m sure know more than I do about many aspects of this topic. (Be warned the piece is a bit long at around 6000 words.)

Thanks!

t

Gutenberg and the Koreans

bieler's picture

xensen

Actually, no, the burden would be on those trying to make a direct connection. There is no direct connection in terms of Asian type. Punchcutting is actually a very old process and was used by the Europeans for coinage, medallions, etc. It is likely that the written word had more social restrictions to the point that no one could think outside of the box. Which, wasn't such a cool thing in those days anyway.

However. The Europeans had seen Asian currency and the Europeans had been printing for nearly a century prior to Gutenberg; but not with metal type.

But the impetus for the development of mechanical writing was with the Church. It not only promoted the idea to eliminate the problem of corruption of text (copying error after error, and introducing error) but was also willing to finance. The prize was there for the taking. All one had to do was figure it all out.

The Printing Museum of Tokyo has a few catalogs out that provide a great deal of information about Asian type with many wonderful illustrations of the sand moulds.

Gerald
http://BielerPress.blogspot.com

xensen's picture

Thank you. Still, I think there is less likelihood that word of the Korean advances failed to travel the usual routs of transmission of print technologies -- considering that the gates were open during the centuries the Koreans were actively working with movable metal type -- than that it did travel them. I'm not claiming direct influence.

bieler's picture

xensen

The gates may have been open to Islam, but certainly not to Christianity, which was keeping its doors tightly closed during that period. It wasn't until the invasions of Spain that transmission with the outside world began to be realized and Europe began to wake up from its long dark dream. There is a reason they call it the renaissance.

Gerald

xensen's picture

Gerald

Now that is simply false. There is plenty of documented contact, including exchanges of both emissaries and documents, between the Franks and the Persian Ilkhanate, for example. The quaint view of the Medieval period as a "Dark Age" when nothing was happening intellectually is an artifact of Victorian notions of "progress."

bieler's picture

xensen

I don't disagree with this, but one does not first throw pearls. . .

The generality, though, is not across the board false, but details of historical incidence (such as your information about the exchanges) are sometimes surprising, if not disturbing, to accepted views.

I would agree that the Dark Age is a falsehood, especially considering European advances in mechanics, metallurgy, merchantilism during this period, which lay the groundwork for the notion of "progress" which infects us still.

So, to get back to it: the transmission of information East to West from about the period 1200 to 1400... What are the instances that would lead one to conclude a Korean influence?

Gerald

bieler's picture

xensen

Something unstated here, and which bothers me a great deal about getting into "real" discussions on lists such as this where folks can use monikers rather than reveal who they are is that one never knows who they are actually talking to and should likely be suspicious of someone who would disguise their identity. So if I am not forthcoming and it seems like I am testing you, there is a reason.

Gerald

bieler's picture

xensen

This has bugged me a bit so I went and examined the information that you present on the site. I kinda screwed up here didn't I? I don't see problems with the historical presentation. It's better than most. Actually, far better than most. There are certainly Asian influences that "could" be discerned (and they are accurate as far as I know) but I don't see any viable connection with Korea or Japan there and I would think these would be crucial to your thesis. (?)

If you like I will furnish you information regarding the Printing Museum of Tokyo data (some of which is not translated) or I can furnish you with the direct contact there who would more than happy to influence you!!! and probably send you a bunch of stuff.

Gerald

Max Grody's picture

While there is always the possibility that a Korean book, or word of the Korean invention, came through Mainz in years prior to Gutenberg's invention, it seems less likely by the fact that there wasn't an outbreak of printing presses being made in Europe.

Gutenberg was a goldsmith, and he became very familiar with the trade and like many of his time he used a punch hallmark to imprint his 'signature' onto metal creations. From there, it isn't a far leap to understand how he figured out the idea of a type machine based on the hallmark punch. Especially since the punch and the type he made were relatively similar in construction. So his understanding of metals and a tool he used most likely spurred him onto a fantastic idea.

Other aspects of European life in the earlier century also led to the probability or feasibility of the printing press invention. Since the black plague left so much money in the hands of the remaining citizens, better clothing was acquired which lead to more stray linen that could be used for making paper. Paper was cheap and plentiful. Also, the black death killed off many of the scholars and scribes so it opened a need for printing to convey information without needing to pay ridiculous amounts to someone who knew how to write and do it well.

It isn't uncommon for inventions to simultaneously be spawned, or discovered in two unrelated areas or times. Asian wood block printing never advanced much due to the nature of wood and wear, and the amount of characters in Chinese (and Japanese) language. But, korea would have been perfect since they had a more limited alphabet (I'm assuming their text was fairly similar in 1200 ad to now). However, Korea wasn't quite as central in trade and information as Europe was so it is an easy place to lose development of a valuable invention.

xensen's picture

Gerald

I am beginning my workday now and unable to spend time on this (tough deadlines!). Of course I would love to see the information you generously offer.

But let me quickly respond to this comment: Something unstated here, and which bothers me a great deal about getting into “real” discussions on lists such as this where folks can use monikers rather than reveal who they are is that one never knows who they are actually talking to and should likely be suspicious of someone who would disguise their identity. My typophile handle is xensen but my identity used to appear in these forums as "tom christensen." I don't remember changing that (but maybe I did?). Anyway my contact information is available in my typophile profile, and also on my website where the piece was posted (and where you can learn more about me than you could possibly want to know).

Thanks for your comments.

Cheers,

t

xensen's picture

Gerald

Well, one more comment. When you write There are certainly Asian influences that “could” be discerned (and they are accurate as far as I know) but I don’t see any viable connection with Korea or Japan there and I would think these would be crucial to your thesis. (?) you are actually quite close to my position. All I am really able to show is that such influences "could" have occurred. I feel that the statement that started me on this, "The invention of moveable type in China is an interesting historical fact, but of no direct significance for westerners" is a bit too emphatic and dismissive of the Asian tradition, and I was trying to demonstrate the possibility of transmission. I have no proof that it occurred in any direct way.

The connection with Korea is that both China and Korea were part of the Mongol empire, and there was a great deal of cultural exchange between China and Korea -- I feel confident I demonstrated that. There were Europeans in Beijing at the time, and it would be surprising if they did not hear anything of Korean printing. I didn't mention it in the article (maybe I should) but China actually commissioned printing of Buddhist texts from Korea, where they had been better preserved because of Korea's intensive print tradition.

As for Japan, I don't know much about its print tradition and consider it a little tangential to my present argument, which is intended to show that we cannot simply assert as a fact that no word whatsoever of movable metal type printing reached Europe.

xensen's picture

Max

I'm less interested in Gutenberg the individual than Gutenberg as a symbol of a development in Western printing. I did mention his background as a goldsmith, and Helmutt Lehmann-Haupt has suggested that he invented not just the printing press, in the form he used it, but also the technique of copper engraving. He printed copper plates for playing cards -- which incidentally developed in Asia and spread from there to the West.

Hangul, the Korean script you are thinking of, was created in the mid fifteenth century during the Joseon dynasty -- too late for the present argument.

Asian woodblock printing was highly developed and well suited to Asian cultural needs. For one thing, it enabled combining illustrations with type, which is something the Europeans struggled with. Also, East Asians were not especially concerned with printing large numbers of copies. Chinese block hardwoods like beech and jujube were actually quite durable. I think you probably mean printing with movable wood type when you say "Asian wood block printing never advanced much." However we do know of wood type that was still being used to print books more than 200 years after it was cut (Pi Sheng's type, from around the end of the first millennium, was still being used under Khubilai Kan, who reigned at the end of the thirteenth century).

bieler's picture

Tom

I think the information you portray about the exchange East and West, or at least the possiblility of it, or the potential for it, is quite good. But the information about the development of Western printing is a bit weak and it might be because you, as stated, regard Gutenberg as a symbol rather than an individual.

A while back the artist Jeffrey Atherton and I decided to do a book project on Gutenberg. The idea at first was to do a three-act play based on the myth. So we started to do the research. I had actually amassed whatever I could on Gutenberg in terms of printed material for something like twenty years and we started there. We eventually interviewed and corresponded with scholars who specialized in the formative years of Western printing.

There is an awful lot of wrong information that contributes to the myth. And the more we got into it the more the myth slowly faded away and, so did Gutenberg. At the higher levels of research, he hardly exists. There is very little known about Gutenberg except for information culled from legal documents, most of which surfaced in the mid-nineteenth century. There is, for instance, no evidence that Gutenberg was a goldsmith. There is documentation that he was associated with the mint but not a member. This would not be abnormal considering his social position. To a large extent the investigation here needs to get beyond the acceptance of the symbol and that is where the needed discoveries may be found.

Your statement about copper plate engraving is of interest as I think that Gutenberg has been short-changed by the emphasis on his involvement with the work on B42, whereas his various activities prior to that project offer more clues in regard to the formative aspects that led to the "perfection" of mechanical writing. Typography does not begin with Gutenberg, it begins with Shoeffer. Gutenberg needs to be examined not as a printer but as a very inventive mechanic (in the sense of what that term meant in the time period).

Gerald

John Hudson's picture

Tom, I'm glad to see that my comments have sparked such a well-researched response. I'm preparing to leave for Europe shortly, to attend the ATypI conference in Lisbon, so do not have time now to read through all your essay, but I am impressed by what I see so far.

The very widespread trade and movement of people during the Middle Ages is something that interests me very much, and for which I have healthy respect. I studied mediaeval history at university, and have always been impressed by how widely people travelled considering the difficulties of such journeys.

There are a few things that should be kept in mind though (perhaps you consider these in the parts of your essay that I have not read yet). European trade with Asia was conducted through a series of intermediaries. Goods travelling from China passed through several marketplaces before they arrived in Europe, and there is frequent evidence that Europeans didn't always know where goods had originated. This observation isn't limited to the Middle Ages, of course, it is true even today. This isn't to suggest that material Asian influence in the development of moveable type in Europe wasn't possible, but that such material influence was most likely to be diffuse. That is, it is unlikely that any direct model influenced the European development, but a long, gradual trade would have contributed to technologies that made the development realisable. Of course, one also shouldn't assume that the trade was in one direction only. And European metallurgy had many centuries of development prior to the idea of casting letters in metal. So one also has to ask at what stage are technologies considered 'naturalised' and their further development not attributable to possible earlier influences.

The other question that occurs to me is 'Why Mainz?' If a material Asian influence was significant, I can think of lots of places in Europe where the development of moveable type would have been more likely to occur.

Regarding the burden of proof, I don't think 'circumstantial evidence of probable influence' is sufficient to shift the burden on to those who think that the Asian and European developments were unconnected. In any case, it is impossible to prove an absence. Applying Occam's razor, one can ask whether such an influence was in any way necessary to the European development, or were all the pieces -- the material, the metallurgical and punchcutting skills, etc. -- necessary for the invention of moveable type present in a sufficiently developed state in Europe?

xensen's picture

Thanks, John and Gerald

I will edit the information about goldsmithing. As you know, I do begin by talking about how we know very little about Gutenberg.

I regret the comment about where the burden of proof lies. That question is irrelevant to what I'm trying to do and is just acting as a distraction. I will remove it from the article.

I am delighted to get such thoughtful and helpful responses.

bieler's picture

Tom

Just something further. Some of the speculation presented in the Helmutt Lehmann-Haupt study (I assume you are referring to Gutenberg and the Master of the Playing Cards) is no longer valid, having been dismissed by subsequent research. A number of similar perfectly common-sensical ideas have been dropped by the wayside as well. An example would be that the wood block book preceded books printed with movable type. This would seem to be a logical progression but there is no evidence that this was the chain of events. Rather there is evidence that it was not.

A book you might want to acquire is Printing in the Endo Period / Ieyasu: Typographic Man, which was published by the Printing Museum, Tokyo in 2000. Interestingly, therein is an article on the influence of Korean Dynasty Metal Type Culture on Japan as well as an article describing the introduction of Western printing to Japan. The first printing press arrived there in 1587–1590. The book is an attempt to examine and promote Japanese achievements and progression in printing history but despite this (from my reading of it) there is nowhere to be found within any claim that developments in Korea or elsewhere had influence on or were known in the West.

This is a catalog of an exhibition and there are numerous photographs of printed materials, casting moulds, cast type.

Gerald

xensen's picture

Gerald

I did wonder about Lehmann-Haupt's work but couldn't find much in the way of responses to it (although I haven't visited a research library on this point -- it's a bit of a side issue for me because I'm basically reviewing the Asian print situation and the routes of possible transmission). Can you refer me to an article?

I can't really go into depth on what happened on the European side because the article is already longer than I'd like it to be, and I think this material has been addressed by others. I was aware of the question of the chronology of block printing and movable type printing in Europe. If I misrepresented this it was through carelessness.

bieler's picture

Tom

I'm not sure if you have already examined this but the most recent in-depth examination of Gutenberg is Albert Kapr's Johann Gutenberg: The Man and his Invention, Scholar Press, 1996. In his chapter Printing Parallels he has a section Did printing in Asia influence Gutenberg's invention. He examines the transmission lines or again the possibility of transmission. Much similar to your account. But he does end with a very important clue. Nicholas of Cues, the very same Papal authority who advocated for the development of a form of mechanical writing and is thought to have been involved with the planning of B42. Cues had gone to Constantinople in regard to the Council of Ferrara and Kapr suggests that his interaction there with folks who may have had knowledge of Asian developments could have resulted in his advocacy. He notes that this would not have had an effect on Gutenberg's experiments at the time but it may have provided the way and means for their realization.

On the other hand, had this not actually happened, Gutenberg's work could have gone down the same dead end road as the Korean's.

Not all scholars will agree with Kapr and not quite what you are looking for but if you have not already read the book you might very well want to.

Gerald

xensen's picture

Gerald

That's a great tip -- thanks! I was able to consult a copy of the book. While I find Kapr's argument a bit muddled, the mere fact that a Western printing scholar is seriously entertaining the notion of influence is heartening.

t

bieler's picture

Tom

I was over at your site and borrowed the image of the paizi. This is of the type issued to Marco Polo I assume. I was struck by the clarity and uniformity of the lettering so I thought a view in Photoshop might tell me something. I'm not all that familiar with the casting of coins and medallions but that sure looks like controlled punch work. Early experiments by Gutenberg included punchwork on a mirror holder that he and his partners hoped to sell to crusaders. The crusade left without them. Any idea of the date of the paizi?

Gerald

xensen's picture

Gerald

Ha, well, I borrowed it (just temporarily) from the Met's website, where it's identified as 13th c., China. The Met says

"Although it was in use in China before the advent of the Mongols, the paiza, an inscribed metal plaque that functioned as a passport or a patent of office, became a symbol of Mongol administration used to regulate and secure communication in the vast empire. Most paizi were circular or rectangular and were worn either fastened on an item of clothing or suspended from the neck to make them visible to customs officers. These metal plaques are not only important historical documents but are also of great interest for the study of Asian metalwork during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a time of massive movements of people and rapid exchange of ideas and technology."

I guess the singular is paiza and the plural paizi.

xensen's picture

By the way, this is iron with silver inlay.

bieler's picture

Tom

I don't think I made my point well enough about the implication here, not that I am sure there is one. The paiza may be the key.

Gerald

xensen's picture

Gerald

Well, Marco Polo carried one, and there must have been many Europeans who were aware of them. Polo's story was much translated and popular throughout Europe. Yes, the Gutenberg parallel is provocative.

The paizi would be interesting to research. A good place to begin might be Needham's Science and Civilization in China.

Rob O. Font's picture

This is a fine essay, Tom. It pretty much cements the idea that easern "printing" was well known to 13th and 14th century Europeans.

You start with...
"Johannes Gutenberg’s development...helped to spark the European Renaissance.1 Although ...[this] honor is sometimes claimed for a handful of other printers. This dispute has little bearing on the present argument."

But in fact it does. The issue is first, how western printing developed from Gutenberg to an industry, via "revolution", if you want, (though I don't). Then you see why, "in Korea, where printing with movable metal type was perfected", is not really true, is it? unless it comes down to terms, granularity, and each of our "understandings".

I think we all agree what "printing" is... But moveable type is several things. Printing a whole plate of Kanji is printing and at one point the type was perhaps moveable at the granularity of word, idea or linokanji. But the invention that changed the west was a sure and swift process from striking the punch to the finished letter in the hands of "a nobody", and then, the development of this into a profitable and unfettered industrial process, not by revolution, but rather by careful interplay between clients, readers and what was then the baby font industry.

This part of your essay, "Lastly, one scrapes and files off the irregularities, and piles them up to be arranged." is at a heart of my "point". This point of the process, when each letter is being improved ex post matrix, is something JG shared with your Koreans, and in my opinion separates the process of moveable type from that of "makeable" type. Regardless of what JG might or might not have seen, if he saw printed materials from China, Mongolia or Korea, how would he have known if the type that produced it was movable? And even if said printed material was joined by a translatable expert from the east, JG did not get it, or he either could not afford or find the right materials, relative to the later craftspeople who did in fact, and "perfected" the process. And these unknown craftspeople most certainly knew more about JG than about Kang.

Cheers!

bieler's picture

The concept of movable type ex post matrix may confuse the discovery process. If a European was examining an Eastern artifact and noted that each instance of a glyph was identical, in the right mind set that could trigger a realization that some form of mechanical "setting" was at play. When I examined the paiza in photo editing software, and transposed image over image, it seemed to me that certain instances of glyphs were identical. The resolution of the original image is so poor it is hard to say for sure. The problem really is a transfer of thinking about the way coins and medallions were produced to that of making the same process work as writing. I suspect cultural traditions in regard to writing prevented the connection. Punches are thought to have been used in some manner (for casting) for quite some long time. The Koreans were the first to resolve this. Add evidence of paper printed from mechanical forms to that of evidence of identical glyphs in cast artifacts and someone could have made the connection. The fact that printing in the West progressed from its source is simply the reason a possible connection was lost. It is clear from artifacts that survive, moulds, type, that Korean type was movable not just makeable.

bieler's picture

David

Yes, those unknown craftspeople would not have known about Kang, but they would also not have known about Gutenberg. He never made a printed claim to have perfected mechanical writing, nor identified himself in any printed material thought now to have been produced by him. Nor was he claimed in any of the literature as the inventor of printing with movable type for quite some long time. The fairly well known colophon describing the circumstances of the invention of printing, in a book printed in 1515 by Johann Shoeffer, grandson of Fust, makes no mention of Gutenberg.

Gerald

Rob O. Font's picture

Gerald, I'm sure I understand all of the points you've made, yet...The paiza?

". The problem really is a transfer of thinking about the way coins and medallions were produced to that of making the same process work as writing."

I don't thing so. The problem is solving "who cast first" without post processing the results. The reason I say this, is because the solution to this problem, I believe, lies in combinations of combinations of metal, and very skilled typeface design. Coins e.g. usually one or two metals, should not be post-processed, (in a strictly controlled mint), because of the relationship between the value and the form. Medallions are closer to their Sumerian or Minoan forebearers and thousands of years of similar artifacts, than to moveable Latin type primarily because medallions don't need to do much other than to "hang around", maybe diving into wax once in a while, or being rolled around on paper, but we are not talking about a part of a mechanism there.

"a European examining an Eastern artifact and not[ing] that each [..] glyph was identical, in the right mind set [..] could trigger a realization that [...] mechanical “setting” was at play"

Sure, but it could equally trigger a craving for Chinese food;) Glyph fidelity is hardly a characteristic of moveable type is it? An artifact could have been made as a whole plate, with templates used to start each repeating glyph, (as unlikely in Kangi) as that my be) ,with no moveable type to speak of at all...

Rob O. Font's picture

http://www.princeton.edu/pr/pwb/01/0212/
...should have started some branch research, and I don't know if it did or not. If it did, someone is looking for the first printed evidence of a punch matrix system.

bieler's picture

David

I'm not stuck on the validity of the idea, just entertaining it as a possibility for the sake of thinking about it. I don't think there is probability at play here. But I'm having a hard time following your argument regarding post-processing.

The methodology of using punch, matrix, and mould to produce movable type that we know to be the successful approach may very well not be the way that it all began. Recent Gutenberg studies have turned up anomalies in letterforms in early printed artifacts that could indicate that the casting process initially employed was dissimilar. The development of movable type in the West was likely a bit more tortured than we have assumed. It is quite apparent that Gutenberg et al spent a great deal of time experimenting with various techniques but these recent studies would suggest that the eventual successful application may not have been fully resolved in the earliest of printed books.

Gerald

bieler's picture

David

I saw your note regarding the Princeton thing after I posted. Yes, this is one of the recent studies, there is another, more recent, that suggests that the letterforms in B42 were composites of letterforms rather than a glyph in its entirety.

Sand casting was the traditional technique for casting coins and medallions and was used by the Koreans in the casting of their type. It was as well used in the West for some long time—Moxon writes about it (in 1683) as used for the casting of large letters. Moxon is credited as the first writer to fully examine the printing process (Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing). However, when I early on made an inquiry to a knowledgable source about the sand casting theory in regard to B42 his remark was simply, "There wasn't enough blue sand in Mainz."

Gerald

xensen's picture

Some points

The question of whether Gutenberg was first is not of great importance to me because I'm working on the cultural level, not the individual level. I take Gutenberg on the Western side to be similar to Cai Lun on the East Asian side -- We know that Cai Lun did not really invent paper, but he represents the invention of paper. I hope that someone else might want to follow through at the individual level, but this is beyond what I can do. (Albert Kapr tries to do something at the individual level, as Gerald noted above.)

Because of the enormous amount of printing that occured in the second half of the fifteenth century I think it is fair to call it a revolutionary development. Once the spark of that revolution was lit the Europeans developed it into a formidable industry. When I refer to the Koreans' "perfection" of metal printing I of course mean that they made it meet their needs and produced a high-quality result. I'm not trying to judge their work by the standards of a foreign culture with different goals and values (I began my account by describing some of those differences). I'm quite happy to acknowledge the tremendous European achievement. I'm showing connections between cultures, not judging the achievements of one against the achievements of another.

And a question

What term (if any) would you folks prefer to "movable-type printing"? It seems a little misleading to me, but I've used it just because it seems to be the most common in the writing on this subject. (In places I've used the term "cast-type printing.")

bieler's picture

Tom

Cast-type printing could work. There was no viable industrial alternative to letterpress until about the mid-twentieth century thus the process was never referred to in this manner since there was no need. Note that type was actually never called by that name until 1701. Moxon simply referred to type as letters, which is probably what they were called for over two hundred years. Cast printing letters would probably make more sense in regard to the Korean work.

Gerald

bieler's picture

Tom

For your interest the first known term was the Latin formae. The oft quoted passage below is the earliest description of the process. Patronae would be the mechanism of production. What is most surprising about this is not the mention of the process but the revealed knowledge of historical writing implements.

Gerald

By the assistance of the Most High, at whose bidding the tongues of children become eloquent, and who often reveals to the lowly what He conceals from the wise, this noble book, Catholicon, in the year
of our Lord's incarnation, 1460, in the mother city of Mainz (which belongs to the illustrious German nation, and which God has deigned to prefer and to raise with such an exalted light of the mind and
of free grace above the other nations of the earth), was perfected, not by means of quill, reed, or stylus, but by the admirable concord, proportion, and measure of patronae and formae . . .

Colophon from the Catholicon of Johann Balbus of Genoa.

xensen's picture

This article has been accepted for publication by Arts of Asia (a good glossy art magazine with both high-quality image reproduction and serious content). It won't appear in print for a while, but they're okay with my leaving it up on my website. Thanks for your help.

Tom

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