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A Matter of Fact: Printing Transforms Knowledge 

The introduction of practical mass printing ends Europe's predominate reliance on memory and its related concepts of reality and authority.


James Burke


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Episode cast overview:
James Burke ... Self - Host
Roger Avon Roger Avon ... Judge
George Malpas ... John Den
John Moore John Moore ... Old Man
Roy Evans Roy Evans ... Will Falconer


The introduction of practical mass printing ends Europe's predominate reliance on memory and its related concepts of reality and authority.

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Memory > Printing > Books > Knowledge > Uncertainty.
26 October 2012 | by rmax304823See all my reviews

Once upon a time -- in the early 1400s -- questions and disputes were settled by opinion based on memory, and the memories were often encapsulated in rhymes. ("Thirty days hath September....) Then Gutenberg invents the mechanical printing press. Right away there is an explosion of "indulgences" by the Catholic church. What's an indulgence. It's a printed excuse for some sin you've committed, or that you MIGHT commit in the future. A market demand for indulgences appears. If you're rich enough, you can buy an indulgence from the church and then go out and commit the sin. You can even sell your indulgence to someone else, so that indulgences become a kind of fiat currency. (I give you one indulgence for ten handfuls of chestnuts.) This annoys the hell out of Martin Luther and he pins up his fourteen points or however many there were. Maybe I'm thinking of Woodrow Wilson.

Anyway, Luther begins the Reformation, which is followed by the counter-Reformation. The revolt against the Roman church spreads like wildfire, helped enormously by the fact that the Bible no longer needs to be laboriously hand printed but can be ground out like hamburgers or Wittenbergers, if you will. The Bibles, pamphlets, and propaganda leaflets can now be printed not only in Latin but in the parole. Everybody can now read the Bible for himself, with no need of middlemen like priests to translate it for him. And where does that get us? Quakers, the Society of Friends, a denomination so radical that it doesn't believe in church leaders at all -- or in war either. Actually, Burke doesn't make some of those points: the connection between the vulgarization of theology and the decline of church elders, for instance, but I think it's significant.

So books abounded but they were all piled up and specialized and it wasn't until cross-indexing came along that societies were able to organize logically the facts that were available. But look where THAT got us! The computer. Burke ends his presentation with a kind of monitum. Nowadays facts that are available at the speed of light on the internet quickly turn into "facts." It doesn't take long for memes to mingle fact with rumor. There is the danger that the moment you know something it becomes obsolete.

Truer now than ever before -- and Burke was writing this in 1985, a quarter of a century ago. Can we believe something we read on a blog? Even if it were true yesterday, is it still true now? Was it ever true? We seem almost back to opinions again.

The episode is no better or worse than others in the series. They're all consistently splendid, but the subject this one deals with is exceptionally important because it's so hard to guess what the next chapter is going to be.

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Release Date:

9 April 1985 (UK) See more »

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