innovation in technology and the humanities

In an era of obvious technological change, we tend to overestimate the impact of new technological tools and overlook innovations in the humanities. The classic example is the Gutenberg Revolution. Supposedly, the invention of movable type, which lowered the cost of reproducing documents, shattered the control of the hierarchical Catholic Church and permitted Protestant reforms such as the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages.

I’ve argued before that this history is mistaken. To recap the main points: The Bible was translated into vernacular languages many times during the Middle Ages. Translation was allowed and even strongly encouraged by some leading thinkers. Erasmus, a Catholic, a critic of Luther, and an adviser to popes, wrote a manifesto in favor of translation: “I would to God, the plowman would sing a text of the scripture at his plowbeam, and that the weaver at his loom, with this would drive away the tediousness of time. I would the wayfaring man with this pastime, would express the weariness of his journey.” His was not a radical position but had much medieval precedent.

Today, Catholicism has a reputation for opposing translation because after the Protestant Reformation, at the Council of Trent, the Church adopted that position. The story is not: 1) the Church opposes translation; 2) Gutenberg invents movable type; and thus 3) translation occurs. It is rather: 1) The Church generally encourages translation, 2) Gutenberg invents movable type, which is helpful to Protestant pamphleteers and translators who make specifically Protestant translations of the Bible; so 3) after 150 years, the Church bans translation.

But why were translations fairly rare and unimportant in the Middle Ages and then extremely influential and controversial in the Renaissance? The reason is innovation, but not a new technology. In the Middle Ages, the best way to read and discuss the Bible was to use the Latin Vulgate edition, originally translated by Saint Jerome. That was because Latin was a living, vital language, very widely taught and understood by literate people, and shared by Europeans from Iceland to Sicily. Also, the Vulgate was a good edition, made by a great scholar directly from Greek and Hebrew. Very few medieval Europeans knew Greek, let alone Hebrew, and they had poor or inconsistent texts of the Bible in those languages. Before it was possible to make a good translation into, say, English, they needed to invent Greek and Hebraic scholarship. Thus Erasmus, in his argument for translating the Bible into the vernacular, cites the “new and marvelous kind of learning” that has made this possible. He was talking about what we call the Renaissance, not the printing press.

Another change happened simultaneously that was just as important: the vernacular languages became worthy tools for translation. At first, in the wake of the Roman Empire, there were no languages like English, French, Dutch, Spanish, German, or Italian. There were rather local dialects of Latin or German that were different from village to village and had fairly rudimentary vocabularies. That is one reason that not only scholars, but merchants and minor officials, learned Latin from a young age–it was a better means of communication than their birth tongues. To create a real language took deliberate work. Literary authors had to develop vocabularies, often borrowing from ancient languages, and their works had to achieve wide renown so that the languages could unify. For instance, Dante helped to create Italian by writing so well in his own Florentine dialect, by borrowing thousands of Latin words, and by being so widely imitated throughout the peninsula.

Thus the story is not: 1) The Church kept the Bible under wraps by banning translations; 2) the printing press expanded freedom; so 3) the Bible was translated. It is more like this: 1) People used the Bible in Latin because that was the easiest and best language; 2) Modern languages developed as a result of literary and scholarly work; 3) Scholars learned Greek and Hebrew and created reliable editions of the original scriptures; 4) Martin Luther, John Wykliffe, and others were in a position to make vernacular translations, which, in turn, helped to form modern German, English, and other languages. I think all of this would have happened without Gutenberg, because the Renaissance was already well underway when he started printing around 1439.

The moral is to pay more attention to the growth of scholarship and literature when trying to explain great changes in society–not only in 1510, but five centuries later.


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One Response to innovation in technology and the humanities

  1. Peter Levine says:

    From Elin Whitney-Smith, by email:

    I would agree with:

    “1) People used the Bible in Latin because that was the easiest and best language; 2) Modern languages developed as a result of literary and scholarly work; 3) Scholars learned Greek and Hebrew and created reliable editions of the original scriptures; 4) Martin Luther, John Wykliffe, and others were in a position to make vernacular translations, which, in turn, helped to form modern German, English, and other languages.”

    And I would agree that the Church supported lay learning throughout the later middle ages. It especially supported technological innovation that would make labor more productive because it held the right of direct taxation – the tithe – and therefore benefited from the wealth of the laity.

    But I would argue with the following:

    “I think all of this would have happened without Gutenberg, because the Renaissance was already well underway when he started printing around 1439.”

    I would suggest that the Renaissance was classical in orientation, used classical languages, and concentrated on scholarship. It was oriented toward the upper classes. Without the press it might well have been confined to Italy.

    The new learning that began to spread throughout Europe was practical in orientation, used vernacular languages and concentrated on business, technology and science. It was oriented toward the crafts and business classes.

    I would also suggest that Luther would have been just another heretic if it weren’t for the press. By the time he was asked to recant his works had been published throughout Europe and translated into most vernacular languages.

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