L’esprit d’escalier – the art of thinking, as you walk down the stairs, of the bon mot you should have said in the drawing room. Or, in this case, the studio. On Thursday, after recording In Our Time, we were escorted down in the lift, but since then it is as if I have been on a staircase where the steps are never-ending. I am continually conjuring up in my mind the things that should have been said. So, here are some more ‘outtakes’ from the programme on Caxton and the printing press.
For me, the most interesting question Melvyn Bragg asked was one that was unscripted: did print increase the authority of the written word? Both myself and Julia Boffey gave answers to the question, pointing out the limited literacy rates and the continuing significance of the hand-written word. But the answer I would now like to have given would run something like this: the written word was in no need of having its authority improved, thank you very much. Print was not ‘the coming of the book’ – the book had arrived and had its feet well under the table long before the new technology was on the scene. On occasion, it had a mystique, a sacred aura to it which may even have been weakened by the products of the printing press, with the broadsides, the newsletters and the cheap prints making it difficult not to realise for what ephemeral purposes the written word could be used.
A separate issue that is going around in my mind is an heretical thought that I mooted in conversation with my fellow participants after the programme had finished. I mused whether Caxton’s engagement with print was a successful businessman’s retirement project. He was in his fifties when he began to show interest in the new technology. His first major publication in the Low Countries was his own translation of Raoul Lefèvre’s History of Troy, a text that, by his own admission, he had worked on intermittently for several years – it sounds very much like a pet pastime. His early printings may have made him suppose that his new-found hobby might be financially viable as well as enjoyable. But his choice of texts when he finally returned to his homeland, after his long career abroad, was not necessarily the most obvious ones from which to make money – perhaps his interest in the vernacular works was, in fact, a reflection of personal taste rather than any shrewd judgement of the market. That is not to say we should revive the erroneous image of him as a printer-scholar: it was clear that he did have an eye to what would be profitable, but those products were perhaps less often the vernacular texts in which he took a personal delight than the ephemeral prints he was commissioned to produce, or the sure-fire best-sellers of liturgical texts. An implication of what I am saying is that we may want to think further about how he considered the finances: did he see it less as a matter of making his fortune but, rather, as a way of spending some of the money he had already amassed. Of course, business acumen may not have deserted him: he may have allowed himself some self-indulgences – paid for by selling indulgences. In other words, maybe he worked to minimise any losses his personal predilections may have caused. And, perhaps for that very reason, he made a better fist of print as a business than others – like Gutenberg himself – who perhaps thought that it could be a source of wealth, only to find instead that it could be a fairly quick route to bankruptcy.
So, if everyone is allowed fifteen minutes of fame, I must now be overdrawn from the fame-bank to the tune of 25 minutes. I have just walked away from Broadcasting House where Richard Gameson, Julia Boffey and myself were discussing with Melvyn Bragg ‘Caxton and the printing press‘. Of course, there are, in fact, no outtakes from BBC Radio Four’s In Our Time, as it is broadcast live — a fact that yesterday I was facing with equanimity until a friend pointed out that it has an average audience of 1.5 million (thank you, Jonathan). But it would be unnatural not to rewind in one’s mind what was said and, more importantly, what we did not have time to say. As I think any listener would have discerned, the participants all enjoyed the conversation and could not stop discussion afterwards, so in some way this is a little insight into what happens in the interview room over tea and croissants after the programme is done.
There is so much I would have wanted to say: I talked about Caxton working with a printing press in Ghent or Bruges and made the point that Bruges is a more significant commerical city than London in these years, but I did not have chance to expand that further. It would have been useful to explain more fully how ships from the Mediterranean travelling north might stop off at Southampton or London but there final destination was usually Bruges; that this traffic made the Channel and the North Sea a thoroughfare rather than a barrier; and that books crossing from the Low Countries to serve an English market were no new thing with print, since there were manuscript Books of Hours made in Bruges speculatively for potential owners in the British Isles.
We also talked about Caxton’s rivals printing in England — Theoderic Rood in Oxford, John Lettou and later Richard Pynson in London — as well as Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton’s protege and successor in Westminster. But perhaps we did not draw out clearly enough that Caxton is unusual for being English: in most countries, the first printer was a German, and in England the print market was dominated by immigrants, into the sixteenth century. This was not an entirely new phenomenon, as I explained in my chapter in The Production of Books in England edited by Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin, but the intensity of English debt to continental expertise was increased by the intervention of print.
That continental expertise was also increased by print’s preference for paper over parchment — here was a technology that helped make print possible, and that was known across Europe, with paper being used in England. But, apart from ten years at the end of the fifteenth century, there was no paper-mill in England: in other words, the vast majority of paper used in books was imported. That includes every page printed by Caxton. Without continental materials, there would have been no printing in England in the 1470s or 1480s. Nor was this a passing phenomenon: after the closure of that first mill, there was not another until well into Elizabeth’s reign and even then the import trade remained the main supply.
And I am sure I used the ‘b’ word live air: England was a backwater. Of course, in other of my studies, I am emphasising the contrary — the engagement of England in humanist activities suggests cultural proximity within a shared civilisation, not unbridgeable distance. But, in terms of print, and partly through Caxton’s idiosyncratic choice of texts, England was certainly at the periphery, with many of its leading scholars, like Thomas More or Richard Pace (let alone visitors like Polydore Vergil), preferring to have their major works printed on the European mainland.
What a good interview I could have given! But, then, if I had said all this, the programme would have had to have been so much longer, and consequently I would be in debt to the fame-bank to such a degree I would be as likely to go bankrupt as many early printers were — excepting Caxton.
The phone rings and it’s the BBC. They want to know more about Poggio Bracciolini. Our humanist friend is not having a bad year: he has already gained some celebrity for being the man who unleashed Lucretius on an unsuspecting Christian world. Now, the travelling scholar who also ‘discovered’ Quintilian and other authors, the humanist who was at the vanguard of reviving the Ciceronian dialogue form, the scribe who designed the new ‘littera antiqua’, the script of humanism which is the progenitor of the typeface you are reading — this man of many parts is to appear on BBC4.
The title of the programme in which he is to feature is revealing: ‘The World’s Oldest Joke’. He is to enter the limelight not because of any of his achievements just mentioned but because he had a fine line in blue humour, as recorded in his Facetiae, the set of jokes and other tales that originated (he reveals at the end of the work) in the bugiale — the lie-factory that was the waiting-room in the Vatican where papal secretaries like Poggio would loiter in anticipation of an audience with the Holy Father. And Poggio’s humour proved infectious, some of his facetiae reappearing in vernaculars across sixteenth-century Europe. Indeed, as I have argued recently, this collection of tales that was a work of his old age became the best-known element of his oeuvre because of the intervention of an invention with which he could have only had brief familiarity: the arrival of print could help circulate one’s works much more quickly than the scribal activities in which Poggio himself had been immersed, but it could also re-shape and contort one’s reputation. Poggio was known in his lifetime for his dialogues with their moral message and was sometimes accorded the sobriquet of ‘philosophus’; but, though those works travelled across Europe in manuscript, they were not the ones that were first to reach the printing-press: it was the Facetiae that most often was printed in the first decades of the first information technology revolution. And so, Poggio the philosopher became a dirty old man.
There is, then, an enjoyable irony that where print went, the second information technology revolution follows. Poggio is about to receive, through the television screen, a much wider audience than he can usually hope to command nowadays: a name that would usually only be heard in the sedate surroundings of Senior Common Rooms will be projected into lounges across the country, not because of his scholarly achievements but because of his ability to make people laugh.
Some might conclude that this is nothing more than is to be expected of a medium that popularizes and so has to entertain more than it educates. But I find myself not sharing those thoughts — after all, humanists like Poggio consider that you could educate through entertainment, that you could play seriously. What strikes me, instead, is that the scholarly Poggio, the scribe, the moraliser, is as partial a picture as one that concentrates solely on his joke-telling. Should we not be intergrating them together to get closer to Poggio the man?
I put that as question because the answer is by no means clear-cut: I, who am so precious about separating the different elements of my life, am the last person to suggest that you need to know the whole person, even if that were possible. Most of us live out lives knowing others in part, not wholly — others and perhaps ourselves as well. That may be our tragedy, or maybe it is our survival mechanism. Poggio himself may have been frustrated that his Facetiae should feature so large in the world’s memory of him — or, rather, Poggio aged forty may have been crestfallen to hear a prophecy that a work Poggio aged seventy would compile might become remembered as his main achievement. Perhaps he too would like to have kept his different lives separate one from another. But, equally, this was a man who berated others for not so much living as ‘doing life’, someone whose earthy experiences influence his scholarship.
The lady from the BBC was enthusiastic about Poggio and finished our conversation by saying how he deserved a biography or historical novel about his life. (It is not a challenge to which I think I could rise: ‘Poggio, when you have quite finished with your mistress, write me a letter’, ‘Yes, my lord of Winchester’). Perhaps I should have asked her ‘which life?’ And, perhaps, indeed, that would be the greatest challenge — to do justice to the many facets and the changing character of this man, without imagining he was all of them all the time. Let us hope, that, if such a work did come into being, it could let us both see his skill in writing and hear his laughter.