Age of Invention: Chivalric romance, Cairo eunuchs, and the Turkgeld
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Last week’s free post on why the Ottomans didn’t introduce any Arabic-character printing presses before the eighteenth century provoked some great debates on twitter — the kind that used to be very common on the platform c.2014-16, but which I think have unfortunately become quite rare.
The economic history blogger Pseudoerasmus suggested that I may have overestimated the level of demand for printing in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Istanbul — something that would have exacerbated the problem of capital costs by making any investment less worthwhile. This is because of the nature of the languages used. In Europe many early printers found commercial success publishing religious works in the vernacular. There turned out to be a huge market for the Bible in German, for example, rather than just in priestly, scholarly Latin. There was no vernacular equivalent in the Ottoman Empire, however. Classical Arabic was (and sometimes still is) like Latin — an ancient language for the use of officials and elites, and one with no obvious vernacular alternative. Languages like Ottoman Turkish, written in Arabic characters, were highly artificial constructs made up of many Arabic words that would have been totally unfamiliar to most: such Arabisms were purged from the language by Atatürk in the 1920s, along with the Arabic alphabet.
Unlike in Europe then, there were no vernacular versions of the Quran to print — it was meant to be in Arabic, and Arabic alone. I’m still not wholly convinced this would have been an insurmountable barrier given that even a single press could still have found a market from amongst all of the vast empire’s scholars and officials, but it’s an interesting point worth researching further. In fact, we should be careful not to extrapolate too much from the experience of fifteenth century Europe — a point Pseudoerasmus rightly also raised. Just because vernacular religious works became popular in Germany doesn’t automatically imply that the same would have happened in the Ottoman Empire.
Indeed, the early spread of the printing press in Europe was itself highly varied. William Caxton introduced printing to the English in the 1470s with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and a few chivalric romances. The Bible only began to appear in print in English decades later in the 1520s, whereas sections of it had begun to appear in German and French within just a few years of the printing press’s spread in the 1470s. We need to be careful not to let our hindsight about the eventual rise of the Reformation warp our understanding of the technology’s early spread in Europe, let alone our assumptions about the demand for printed material in the Ottoman Empire.
A few people also asked whether my posts refute the work of Jared Rubin, whose book Rulers, Religion, and Riches makes much of the Ottoman Empire having banned, or at least dissuaded, the establishment of Arabic-character printing presses. But I don’t think they do. For a start, my first post on the evidence of a ban ended inconclusively. I explained the basis of my hunch about how a ban was probably really just against non-Muslims printing in Arabic characters, but without further evidence it’s still just an informed hunch. I’d call it probable, but not certain.
I also think there’s the potential for a synthesis of our views. Although capital costs may explain why apathy from those in charge would have been sufficient to prevent the introduction of Arabic-character presses, it’s possible that many of the sultans before the eighteenth century actually did actively suppress them — as Rubin argues — under pressure from religious interest groups.
After all, there’s some evidence to suggest that at least some of the literati of the empire disapproved, though it’s not entirely clear how influential they were. In a work published in 1650, a Flemish traveller named Vincent Stochove reported a conversation with a eunuch who taught medicine in Cairo, whose arguments I find too unique and messy, like a real-life conversation, to be entirely fabricated. The eunuch’s opinion was that the Europeans had too many books, which served to confuse more than they made people wise. He said they ought to have things in moderation, as wise Solomon had advised, and then made a few points about quality control that I’ve not seen made anywhere else. He reportedly noted that printing enabled many bad books to be published, whereas the high cost of having something transcribed by hand meant that people only bothered to reproduce the best works. Higher costs were supposedly a form of quality control. And he noted that such destabilising, defamatory things as satire and libel were rendered impossible, because it was relatively easy to identify people’s handwriting. When Stochove and his friends responded that they had official censors to ban such things, the eunuch pointed out that “the nature of men brings them to all things forbidden”. Better to simply have no printing presses at all, than to try to ban books.
It’s hard to say whether these arguments were merely just-so stories from local literati to explain away the absence of the press to curious foreigners, or justifications for an actual policy. Yet their existence suggests that there was a measure of scepticism about the press — perhaps sufficient, at the very least, to make a sultan think twice before supporting an official press at great expense. So I don’t think my explanation is mutually exclusive to Rubin’s. His accounts for why people may have been motivated to oppose its introduction; mine for why, even without opposition, apathy in the context of the economic conditions may have been enough to prevent any being established.
Where we still differ, however, is on how many people could have afforded to set up an Arabic-character press. He suggests that, like in Europe, there were plenty of rich people who might still have afforded it, whereas I think that realistically only the sultan could. I stand by that, based on the evidence from western Europe, where only Popes and wealthy Medici ever successfully set them up, not to mention the evidence for the empire itself, where the two early attempts were funded by rulers — first the prince of Wallachia, and then the Sultan himself. It’s not conclusive of course, but I do think it’s suggestive.
One commenter even pointed out that the capital costs of installing a printing press in Istanbul may have been even worse than I thought: interest rates there were so high there, that European trading companies like the English Levant Company forbade their merchants from borrowing from local markets. So not only were Arabic-character presses much more capital-intensive than those in Europe, but capital was also harder to come by.
There’s also the fact that the high capital cost was one of the few things that any of the two known pre-eighteenth-century Ottoman sources on the printing press bothered to note: in the 1640s the historian İbrahim Peçevi, described how the process of typesetting was about as laborious as writing a manuscript, but that then many hundreds of identical copies could be printed. He also noted how the high up-front costs were overcome in Europe through patronage. Hint hint? Peçevi’s favourable impression of printing’s utility also suggests that not all of the Ottoman literati were as dismissive as Stochove’s Cairo eunuch — a diversity of opinion much like that seen in fifteenth-century Europe.
I think it fairly likely that many Ottoman elites would actually have been quite favourable towards printing, with high capital costs being the thing that prevented wealthier sorts from investing. Not only do we have Peçevi’s mention of printing’s utility, but the other of the two Ottoman sources to mention the printing press before the eighteenth century — the cosmographer Katib Çelebi — remarked on how printing would have allowed him to include many more accurate maps in his work. It’s not exactly a gushing endorsement, but it is an acknowledgement of one of the technology’s benefits to scholars.
And Ottoman elites were often in favour of other European technologies. In the post I mentioned the Holy Roman Emperor’s ambassador to Istanbul, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, who in 1560 reported back about religious reasons to reject the printing press. He also mentioned how the Ottomans had been ready adopters of anything useful — especially firearms — but that some technologies were considered superfluous. Public clocks, for example, were apparently unnecessary because the muezzin already issued the call to prayer from atop their minarets.
Yet de Busbecq failed to anticipate the growing Ottoman demand for more private timekeeping devices. Just a few years after his letter, the Ottoman chief astronomer Taqī al-Dīn was constructing clocks of his own, and foreign clock- and watchmakers were soon recruited to the Sultan’s workshops. The Austrian annual tribute of gold and silver to the Ottoman Empire since 1547 — a sort of Turkish version of the Danegeld, the Türkenverehrung — was even partially paid in clocks. European watches and clocks remained popular as luxury imports or diplomatic gifts well into the eighteenth century. So Ottoman attitudes to foreign technologies could change quickly, and were specific. They was no blanket official opposition to innovation.
I realise that last fortnight I said I’d talk about some little-known cases of Europeans adopting technologies from the Middle East. But I’ll save these for another time, and probably for one of the public posts. I’ve decided that it’s something worth sharing widely, and there was so much more to talk about this week following all the debate.
In next week’s public post, however, I’m going to take a break from the Ottomans — who have provided a months-long distraction from writing my book on the Industrial Revolution — and talk about a paper I’ve written with Ned Donovan for The Entrepreneurs Network (where I work a day a week as head of innovation policy). Look forward to something with present-day relevance, related to the discovery of Uranus, specific to the 12th of June, and with some beautiful illustrations… Any more clues and I’ll definitely spoil it!
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