Let’s celebrate the truly revolutionary spirit of paper by considering some of the huge transformations paper has bought to our societies throughout history.
If a thought is worth keeping, one should put it to paper. We know this in our everyday lives from the special feeling we experience when we receive a thoughtful handwritten note from a lover, friend or acquaintance.
But the rousing emotions we feel reading a heartfelt note are nothing to the revolutionary spirit paper has helped to foster in many ways and in many places around the world. The one thousand paper cranes folded by Sadoko Sasaki, the little girl poisoned by the atom bomb in Hiroshima who started a peace movement, are just one example of the impact paper can have.
But there is a form of paper that has had an even more transformational effect around the world – the printed pamphlet.
When Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable metal type and inks of the printing press in Germany in 1452, he probably had little inkling of the transformation his invention would bring to society. Yet transform it did…
This time of progress in the arts, science and politics was already well underway when Gutenberg printed his first works, but Gutenberg’s invention made it possible for Renaissance ideas spread more quickly from Florence and a small, wealthy elite. It placed the ideas of ancient Latin and Greek writers in the hands of a much wider audience.
The Rise of Pamphleteering
While printed books were much cheaper than the intricate Latin tomes produced by hand in a scriptorium, pamphlets were cheaper. And if you wanted ideas to spread quickly to the common man and woman, pamphlets soon became the go-to way to get the word out.
Before 1518, there were few pamphlets being printed in Europe but, by 1524, their production had increased by more than one thousand percent. The difference?
A provincial German monk called Martin Luther whose radical theses – spread widely across Europe through printed paper pamphlets – triggered the Protestant Reformation.
Importantly, instead of publishing his tracts in Latin, Luther’s words were printed in German, making them more accessible to the masses.
The English Civil War
By the end of the seventeenth century, pamphlets were being used to influence readers in moral and political matters – from the Elizabethan religious controversy, through the English Civil War and the Restoration.
Pamphleteering as Entertainment
The convenient and price-sensitive medium of the pamphlet was not only beloved by political antagonisers, however. It was a cheap way to produce fiction; forcing a serialised form on writers including Defoe, Hobbes, Swift, Milton and Pepys.
The American Revolution
It has been said that in the American Revolution, the pen and press had merit equal to that of the sword. The Stamp Act politicised print in an already febrile and revolutionary atmosphere in the colonies; feeding a rebellion against the heavy tax burdens demanded by the British crown.
Printed paper pamphlets became an important way of bringing the diverse communities in the American colonies together when war broke out in 1775. The printed word was so politically stirring that printers would often find themselves face to face with angry mobs, demanding to know who had authored a pamphlet for one side or the other.
Amongst this mix was one of the most famous pamphlets ever produced: Common Sense published under the anonymous name of “an Englishman” (a.k.a. Thomas Paine) in 1776. This pamphlet, which crystallized sentiment for independence, earned Paine a reputation as the Father of the American Revolution.
When the revolution came to France in 1789, a system of censorship had prevented the rise of pamphlets seen elsewhere. After the storming of the Bastille, however, pamphlets and newspapers came rolling of the presses to explain and support the revolutionary events. When printed voices of dissent began to appear after 1793 Robespierre cracked down on them, such was the power of print.