The Church and the Book
Luigi Balsamo’s ‘Bibliography: History
of a Tradition
The three chapters (2,5,8) of Luigi Balsamo’s ‘ Bibliography: History of a Tradition’ summarises the history of the written word under the form of the codex and the book. I would like to discuss the different roles (positive and negative) that the Church played in the transmission of texts since the Middle Ages.
The fall of the Western Roman Empire (495 AD) was a turning point in the history in general and in the book trade in particular. As Balsamo notes, the author disappeared as well as the booksellers’ shops. All codex-related activities “became the exclusive responsibility of the writing workshops of individual bishops and monasteries” (p. 8). At this point, the Church played a decisive role in the survival of the written word, which is highly positive. Otherwise, who would have cared for all these classics that we can still enjoy today?
Balsamo goes further to say that “the monastery was able to provide for all phases of the [production] cycle (here one may refer to Darnton’s circuit)- from the production of the writing materials [authorship], and the execution of the writing and binding [printing and publishing], to the gathering [distribution] and organization of the books in a library, and the daily use of the books[reader]”.(p. 8). Also, monks played a crucial role in distributing and circulating written texts as Balsamo notes on p. 12, that they would move from one place to another to establish new libraries. The situation remained so until the rise of universities in the late Middle Ages, when universities and related institutions started taking care of the book. They inherited about eight centuries of monks’ relentless endeavour.
The Church which had praised the invention of the printing press disenchanted when it realised the danger that it presented and launched a pitiless offensive. Its role was totally the reverse of the one it played before the rise of universities. Instead of encouraging the circulation of written texts it rather limited it.
Here, one has to consider the role played by Martin Luther, who was not only a religious reformist but also a reading reformist since he “asked for the development of libraries furnished not only with Bibles and the best ancient commentaries, but also with works in all fields of knowledge, regardless of whether the authors were pagan or Christian”(p. 61). This does not mean that the virus that had infected the Church before the Reformation was suddenly killed because even Protestants would burn “heretic” books and persecute their authors (Case of La Mettrie’s L’homme machine in Leiden in 1748).
The third chapter (Towards new developments) reveals the absence of the Church in the future of the book. This coincides with the general decline of the Church. Individual priests (like Walter Ong) contributed considerably to the advancement of book studies as scholars and not on behalf of the Church.
It is quite amazing to realise on the one hand how the Church moved from a 100 percent control of the book trade to a 50 percent one and then to a 0 percent one; and, on the other hand, how it helped rescuing written texts and then hindered its development before absenting itself totally from the book trade.