It all started last April when Brother Michael from the scriptorium stopped me on the way to evening prayers.
"It’s Gutenberg down in Mainz," he exclaimed, "I just heard from my cousin the indulgence salesman that he's invented something called a printing press. It can reproduce the same book over and over again in a fraction of the time it takes us to copy a text!"
I had heard this sort of talk before—the manuscript is dead, technology will make scribes obsolete—but it had never amounted to anything. Sure, some engravers and woodblock printers had thought they could threaten our hold on the publishing industry, but their attempts at mass-produced texts had not taken off. The quality was poor, the print hard to read, and they lacked the marketing know-how to break into the business. Whereas we at the abbey had been copying texts by hand and selling them throughout Europe at a tidy profit since Charlemagne was a boy.
"Peace, Brother Michael, put your faith in God and fear not. Gutenberg and his invention are of no concern to us. Even if he can print a hundred bibles a year with his infernal machine, the world is not ready for a new publishing platform. Our faithful readers love the feel of fresh parchment between their fingers and will gladly pay a few extra ducats for quality."
But I began to worry in early summer during the feast of St. John the Baptist when our wholesalers usually placed their big Christmas orders. The marketplace in Heidelberg had bought only half as many breviaries as last year and the biggest prayer book distributor in Saxony was avoiding me at mass. I cornered him outside the chapel and demanded an explanation.
"It's these new books that Gutenberg is putting out," he replied sheepishly. "No one wants to buy a hand-copied codex when they can get a printed version at half the cost. The young priests especially, they aren’t afraid to break from tradition and try something new. I can always sell a few old-fashioned manuscripts to elderly nuns in Bavaria, but the demographics clearly favor the printed book. You boys in the abbey have got to change with the times."
I refused to believe that readers would abandon a thousand years of hand-crafted tomes for the latest craze. We began a marketing blitz for the holidays with discounted manuscripts in all the leading stores. A handful of big-time authors backed us by refusing to sign a contract with Gutenberg or at least delaying print publication of their upcoming best-sellers until the manuscript versions had sat in the shops for a few weeks. We hired consultants and conducted focus groups, but nothing helped. All the religious orders were buying printed books now instead of manuscripts. Even the laity was jumping on the bandwagon, with merchants and farmers from Oxford to Ravenna ordering the latest mystery thriller and political biography. The number of readers was growing like never before with no respect for scribes with their ink-stained fingers who labored so hard at their writing desks.
It was the dawn of a new age of publishing, but the end of an era at the abbey. By St. Brigid's Day we had shut down the scriptorium and moved in our own printing press. Our books will even have color illustrations and fit nicely into the hand for travel. I'll miss the old manuscripts, but life goes on.
Philip Freeman is a professor of classics at Luther College. He is the author of nine books in the last nine years, several focusing on Greek and Roman mythology and philosophy including most recently "How to Win An Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians" and the sequel "How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders."