Adventures in Forensic Bibliography #2

The Case of the Credulous Quoter, or, Dead German Printers Tell no Tales.

One day, during a tutorial, I explained to my students some of the pitfalls of research and how important it was for them to check their sources, use credible material, and properly footnote content. This went beyond the basics of avoiding plagiarism and was more a briefing on common errors in choosing relevant sources.

I had illustrated a point by example of a paper that used 5 books on the First World War, which was a good bit of leg-work, but all the books were written for the k-6, and 9-12 grade ranges. These were not suitable sources for a first year university research paper. This produced the following exchange with a student:

Student – Are you actually checking every footnote and reference?

Me – Well, yes…

Student – …oh.

Rest of class – [silence, such that the dull hum of the central heating was the only audible sound]

I have actually warned students that my habit of marking involves reading the footnotes and the bibliography first before I read any of the actual content. Experience has proven that the papers with decent notes and bibliography are usually decent papers and that the inverse is true. Students are also unaware that I was, in the geologic past, a terrible student. I am an ‘award winning’ poor student (if one reverses the value judgment inherent in a university requiring you to ‘discontinue studies’). So great was that accomplishment that one particular university refused to let me re-take a class 18 years after I had previously failed it (twice). That’s its own story, but suffice it to say, I know what sort of problems students can get into without them even knowing they are in trouble.

This diligence, born from experience, also gives me the peculiar pleasure of tracking down an odd source, or deciphering what is obviously an incorrect one. Which leads me to the forensic case-file for this entry.

One student wrote a short paper on the influence of the printing press on the Reformation. I am reconstructing this one from memory but I’m fairly sure of the basic facts. The student had supplied her paper with a pithy epigram:

It is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams.. Through it, God will spread His Word. A spring of truth shall flow from it: like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine amongst men
Johannes Gutenberg

You don’t need to be a Gutenberg scholar to question the validity of this quote. Not only is it a fairly bald bit of religious demagoguery of exaggerated prophetic potency, and oddly Catholic in tone, it contradicts the familiar notion that Gutenberg himself is a historical non-entity.1 As far as I knew there was no record of Gutenberg’s thoughts about his ‘invention’, let alone something this explicit and moralistic. By all accounts Gutenberg was a simple businessman who had as much philosophical interest in the role of the printing press as a widget salesmen has for his widgets. Actually, Gutenberg was a poor businessman, and his great bible was a loss-leader. It was the cheap indulgences and ephemera that brought in the steady cash.2 Where did this student find this bit of dramatic fluff?

A Google search of the above quote will find it on dozens of websites, some of them databases of ‘famous’ quotations, many of a religious nature. Anyone looking up Gutenberg will find these without effort. Few of them will tell you anything about the quote beyond the claim that Gutenberg uttered it. You will need to wade through the dross for a while before you get anywhere substantive. Looking in Google Books gets you farther, but the first two hits are misleading to the inexperienced student. A casual scan of either of these books may not raise suspicions, but both of them are focused on a particular, ecclesiastical, approach to history. Neither of these books are works of reliable scholarship. They tell you more about contemporary Christian world-view than the history of printing.

Andrew Skinner, writing about the King James Bible, sourced his quote from David Faust, writing with less obvious concern for historicity, features the quote as well, and cites Charles F. Horne, ed. Great Men and Famous Women: A Series of Pen and Pencil Sketches of the Lives of More than 200 of the Most Prominent Personages in History (New York: Selman Hess, 1894) vol. 5.

C. F. Horne (1870-1942) collected his biographies from various sources and the Gutenberg piece is attributed to Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869). The Gutenberg biography appeared, in English, in Memoirs of Celebrated Characters, 2 vol. (London: Richard Bentley, 1854-5).

Lamartine was a staunch Catholic and literary type in the Romantic mode and he wrote his historical ‘memoirs’ without the aid of historical sources. The Gutenberg biography, and all its very pro-Catholic monologues, were Lamartine’s invention. The historical value of Gutenberg’s quote is relevant only to the political and artistic temperament of the Second Republic, not 15th century Mainz.

Now this did take me some digging, and anyone searching indiscriminately online for material on Gutenberg would need to work fairly hard to prove, definitively, that the quote used was total fiction. A knee-jerk rejection of the quote, while an entirely acceptable reaction, is a poor example to the student. Proving that the quote is fiction is, itself, a good exercise in the ‘science’ of history.

I will admit that I feel no guilt over questioning the truthfulness of any source published outside academic or university presses. Yes, this is a subtle variation on an appeal to authority, but I can’t do all the fact-checking myself. At some point, you have to trust your sources, if only because they have made their own investment in credibility. Likewise, I will ignore any online content that is not obviously the work of a credible institution, credentialed academic, or is not otherwise tediously referenced to other sources that meet the aforementioned criteria and sometimes, Wikipedia actually fits that standard. But I still tell students not to use Wikipedia, directly. Just farm the bibliography.

This mistake is forgivable, within reason, because it is so easy to fall prey to poor sources when you have not developed the deep cynicism of the practicing researcher. As it stood, the quote was used only for colour. There were other problems with the paper, but indicative of a general abundance of unwarranted credulity. Those were less fun to correct than this one.


1 The most important work of scholarship on the printing press, which has been criticized for overstating the influence of its development, is Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe, ed. in 1 vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979 [2009]). A nice, brief, biographical treatment of Gutenberg, free of silly quotes from Romantic French poets, is John Mann, The Gutenberg Revolution: The Story of a Genius and an Invention that Changed the World (London: Review, 2002). You can tell from the title that Mann has a similar opinion of the value of printing as Eisenstein.

2 A well researched and readable work on the early years of printing as a business is Andrew Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2010). Pettegree points out that the early years of this new business were very uncertain and it took a long time before a commercial model was developed that actually made printers stable income. That problem of the market, as an influence on the development of the press, is really discussed in the standard studies of the printing press.


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