Age of the Incunable [...]

After the western invention of movable type not much changed for a very long time. It took many many years for people to realize the peculiar possibilities of cheap, printed texts.

Gutenberg invents the Western version of movable type in the 1440s, and it’s in use by 1450. He thinks of it in terms of cost, really. Efficiency.

You can print cheap bibles – still in Latin, mind you. Affordable chess manuals.

He dies broke, by the way.

For almost fifty years, change creeps along.

They have a name for books of this period, which I love: “Incunabula”. Or if we go singular, the incunable. So we could call this the “Age of the Incunable”.

Detail of a Gutenberg Bible
Detail of a Gutenberg Bible. Source.

This is what books look like at that time. Almost identical in form and function, style and content to medieval manuscripts.

Just to be really clear – this is a machine printed book here, later adorned by hand. In case you didn’t notice.

There were printed books, but there was no book culture. There were printed books but there was no shift in what those books did.

But then things change. First in the Italian presses. Bibles are printed in Italian, for example. Illustrations become more common.

Aldus Manutius creates the “pocket book” in an octavo format, somewhere around 1500. We get cheap mobility. In 1501, his shop ditches the Calligraphic font for early “Roman fonts” more like the unadorned fonts we know today.

Sentence structure starts to change. We start to develop written forms of argument that have no parallel in verbal rhetoric. Ways of talking that don’t exist in oral culture.

People learn to read silently, which is huge, at three to four times the speed of reading aloud.

And here’s the transition: We start to think the sort of thoughts that are impossible without books.

De Revolutionibus Orbium, by Copernicus, 2nd edition. 1566.
De Revolutionibus Orbium, by Copernicus, 2nd edition. 1566. Source.

And it’s almost 70 years after Gutenberg that you see a real print culture emerge. Copernicus, Luther, etc. What we start to see is how fast new ideas can spread. We start to see what happens when every believer has their own Bible in which to look up things, in their own language.

We see what happens when an idea can be proposed and replied to across a continent in months rather than decades. We start to see the impact of the long tail of the past, what happens when esoteric works of the past, long hidden away, can be mass produced. What happens when you get Aristotle for everyone. What happens when every scientist can get his hands on a copy of Copernicus.

And Churches fell. And Science was born. And Governments toppled.

But 70 years later.

It’s something worth remembering for those of us excited about the educational affordances of digital material and networked learning. For a long time I thought — well, change is faster now, right? Technological change is, maybe. But it may be the case that certain types of social change are as slow as they ever were. There are days when I think they might even be slower.

We’ll see. For the moment, whether fact or fiction, the belief that this is just a lull will power me through. We’ll get there yet.


Voyager Expanded Books was an early attempt to capture the possibility of digital texts.

The Social Book was an attempt to update books for the digital age as well.