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Scholarly publishing - a long and distinguished genealogy

By Rosemary HerbertRosemary Herbert is a free-lance writer living in Newton, Mass. / February 3, 1984



Volumes have been written on the history of printing and publishing. With gratitude to the authors of these, this article continues our investigation and celebration of scholarly presses with a nutshell history of the advances that made publishing possible.

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Before there could be publishing as such, there had to be a means of printing that could turn out multiple copies of texts with some speed and economy. A German Renaissance man, Johann Gutenberg, is credited with inventing movable type and the printing press. Writes Warren Chappel in his excellent ''A Short History of the Printed Word,'' (Boston: Nonpareil Books. 1970), ''The invention of typographic printing did not drop from the heavens, although it must have been very much in the air, and the air was becoming increasingly charged, intellectually, by the emerging Renaissance.'' In Gutenberg's day several essential technologies, invented centuries earlier, had made their way to Europe: The idea of printing from raised characters in stone or other carved surfaces was employed by the Chinese as early as the second century; ink was developed that would spread evenly, and transfer well to paper; and the papermaking process invented about AD 105 by the Chinese had reached Europe in the 12th century.

Although wooden, stone, and bronze printing had been developed in Asia, the invention of movable type by Gutenberg was an independent development. And although scholars note that a Hollander, Laurens Janszon Coster, may have invented an earlier but inferior process before Gutenberg, the German's work remains the landmark effort in early printing. A goldsmith by profession, Gutenberg sculptured his letters, modeled on the fashionable hand of his day, in steel from which a casting mold could be made. His great achievement was to form letters that could be moved and used in different order to print texts that would change from page to page.

No less important are his invention of a printing press and a means of holding the type in place while the printing process occurred.

By 1487 presses were established in major cities throughout Europe. It was at one of these, Cologne, that William Caxton learned the art of printing.

Caxton was a cultured Englishman about 55 years old when he ''retired'' from his business and diplomatic pursuits and turned his hand to literature, notably to translating into English ''The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy.'' This book , printed at Caxton's Press in Bruges in 1475, is recognized as the first book to be printed in English.

One year later, Caxton established in London the first printing press in England. Caxton not only oversaw the printing work in his establishment but, encouraged often by members of the royal court, he continued in his translation endeavors, putting out between 1469 and 1491, 24 translations from the Latin, French, and Dutch.

According to George Parker Winship's ''William Caxton and His Work'' (Berkeley, Calif.: Books Arts Club/University of California, 1937), this remarkable man is also responsible for printing ''four cornerstones of English literature'': Chaucer's ''The Canterbury Tales'' and his ''Troilus and Cressida''; William Gower's ''Confessio Amantis''; and Sir Thomas Malory's ''Morte d'Arthur.''