Incunabula Profile picture
Sep 6, 2021 49 tweets 15 min read Twitter logo Read on Twitter
European civilization is built on ham and cheese, which allowed protein to be stored throughout the icy winters.

Without this, urban societies in most of central Europe would simply not have been possible.

This is also why we have hardback books. Here's why. 1/ ImageImage
Cheese meant female sheep & cows were usually more valuable than male ones which were accordingly slaughtered young as they were not worth feeding through the winter. The skins of these young animals was used to make vellum, giving us the basic material of the European book. 2/ Image
Vellum tends to buckle & ripple, it doesn't lie absolutely flat like paper. So it was bound between heavy wooden boards to keep it flat - this is the origin of the hardback book, a book format - expensive, hard to make, & prone to damage - almost never seen outside Europe. 3/ Image
Ultimately, the hardback book exists because of cheese. 4/ ImageImage
Cheese 🧀 is one of the 5 things the Western book as we know it depends on. The other four are snails 🐌, Jesus ✝️, underwear 🩲 and spectacles 👓. If even one of these things was absent, the book you hold in your hand today would look completely different. I'll explain why. 5/
There are -surprisingly - only four definite independent originations of writing, of which only two survive today, and there’s only ONE alphabet - the one developed by the Phoenicians, from which all the others, including our own, derive. 6/ Image
A particular characteristic of an alphabet (as opposed to a syllabary) is its ability to adapt to represent entirely different sounds and languages. This was likely important to the Phoenicians, whose civilization was spread out over 1000s of km of Mediterranean coastline. 7/ Image
The Phoenician civilization extended over these vast coastal distances at least partly because of the economic importance of their dye-extraction industry. A sea snail - Bolinus Brandaris, the dye-murex - provided the sought after purple dye for which they were famous. 8/ Image
So no sea snails, no widespread Phoenician civilization, and no widespread use of the Phoenician alphabet, from which our ABC today derives. No alphabet would mean no widespread use of movable type (as in Asia, where it was tried, but proved inferior to woodblock printing). 9/
In short: the letters in the book you are reading today, and the near universal adoption of movable type printing in the West, both depend on these sea-snails. 10/ ImageImage
So that's why our books depend on cheese and snails. What about Jesus, underwear and spectacles? 11/
In antiquity, the book in Europe and the Near East was written on tablets or on scrolls. The adoption of the codex form in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD coincided with the early spread of Christianity, and is vastly more prevalent in early Christian texts than in secular ones. 12/ Image
The reasons for this are not clear & all the hypotheses are disputed to some degree. One idea is that Christianity was spread by proselytising preachers who were able to hold their codex gospels in one hand (a scroll would require two), leaving the other hand free to gesture. 13/ ImageImage
Whatever the reason though, there’s no disputing that the adoption of the codex form and its near total replacement of the scroll format in Europe and the Near East, coincided with and was intimately tied up with the early spread of Christianity. 14/ Image
So that's cheese, snails and Jesus explained. Why underwear and spectacles? 15/
Without the availability of paper, there would have been no printing revolution in the 15th century.

Without underwear, there would have been no widespread availability of paper.

The book in Europe developed as it did, because of underwear. Here’s why. 16/ Image
Traditional papermaking in Asia uses the inner bark fibers of plants. Papermaking in Europe developed on fundamentally different lines because of the absence in Europe of an indigenous pulp source such as the paper mullberry [Broussonetia papyrifera] widespread in Asia. 17/ Image
It was not until the early 19th century that paper production from wood pulp became technically and commercially viable in Europe. Until then paper in Europe was made from rags. But what rags? 18/
Rags for papermaking needed to be generally uncolored, and made from linen, hemp or cotton. Most clothing was made from wool, and wool fabrics were not usable at all for rag paper production. So what was the source of uncolored linen or cotton rags? Primarily underwear. 19/
While loincloths were worn, by slaves particularly, in Roman antiquity, it was only from the Middle Ages onwards that the wearing of underwear became widespread in all classes - specifically linen braies or drawers for men, and linen shifts or chemises for women. 20/ Image
Key to this was the availability of affordable linen, which, unlike wool, was cool & comfortable on the skin. The breakthrough was the invention in the 14th cent. of the spinning wheel for flax, which made manual spinning obsolete, and resulted in drastically cheaper linen. 21/ Image
Linen underwear - uncolored and washed often (and thus prone to wearing out) - was an ideal source for rags for papermaking. And the new availability of low-cost linen due to the spinning wheel coincided exactly with the hugely increased demand for paper in the 15th century. 22/ Image
Printing was only economically viable because of the availability of paper. It would never have developed in the 15th and 16th centuries into the vast Europe-wide industry it did if vellum - hugely expensive and difficult to work with - had been the only available option. 23/
Paper production was viable because of the availability of linen rags. And linen rags existed - not exclusively, but certainly above all - because people wore linen underwear.

No underwear - no rags, no paper, no printing, and perhaps no book as we know it today. 24/
We've now covered cheese, snails, Jesus and underwear. Spectacles next! 25/

🧀 + 🐌 + ✝️ + 🩲 + 👓 = 📖
The invention of spectacles made Gutenberg possible.

Gutenberg’s invention - and the spread of European printing that followed it - was not just a technological revolution, but a commercial one as well. Spectacles enabled it. Here's why. 26/ ImageImage
Manuscripts were - primarily - produced on a one-off basis as needed. But printing involved producing and financing an entire edition - 100's or 1000's of copies - upfront. This necessitated finding many buyers rapidly, so that the printer could recover his capital outlay. 27/
From the 13th century, the customer-base for manuscripts had expanded beyond the traditional monastic, clerical & courtly circles to students, scholars and lay-people - a process which had resulted in a streamlining of production and the organization of scribal workshops. 28/
All this resulted in falling production costs. The advent of printing not only accelerated this out of all recognition, but made it absolutely imperative to sell books to the widest market possible - printing needed customers, and lots of them, to be commercially viable. 29/
Then and now, a key book-buying demographic was men - and women - in their 40s and upwards. These people were disproportionately likely to have the leisure time to read and the all-important wealth or disposable income needed to actually buy books. 30/
The problem though - then and now - was that most people over 40 can no longer read comfortably or even at all, due to the naturally occurring presbyopia - age-related long-sightedness - that inevitably comes with the onset of middle-age.... 31/
Most historians believe that the first form of eyeglasses was produced in Italy by craftsmen in Pisa (or Venice) around 1285-1289. These lenses for reading were shaped like two small magnifying glasses and set into metal or leather mountings, balanced on the bridge of nose. 32/ ImageImage
The manufacture & use of eyeglasses spread rapidly across Europe from the end of the 13th century onwards. By 1301, there were guild regulations in Venice governing the sale of eyeglasses. By the late fourteenth century they were common objects, widely available everywhere. 33/ ImageImage
So when Gutenberg set up his press in the 1450s, his customer base - and that of the printers who followed him in subsequent decades - included the all important 40+ demographic, who were, thanks to eyeglasses, able to comfortably read his books. 34/ Image
Without spectacles, Gutenberg would have had significantly fewer customers - and given that the economics of early printing were very finely balanced between success and failure, perhaps too few to make his new process commercially viable. 35/
It's worth reading Vincent Ilardi's excellent "Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes" on the early history of reading glasses - it's an interesting subject with all sorts of ramifications in other spheres, quite apart from book production. 36/… Image
So - finally - after this meandering thread of 36 tweets, we see that 🧀 + 🐌 + ✝️ + 🩲 + 👓 = 📖

Some hard-to-please curmudgeons [note to self: replace with "valued followers" before tweeting] have complained that the section above on sea-snails is insufficiently clear. So let me elaborate on these connections in a little more detail. 38/
I'm not saying that we would not have a writing system without the Phoenicians (or the dye murex). Of course we would have. What I'm saying is:
1. Without the dye murex, Phoenician civilization would likely have developed differently, both temporally and spatially. 39/
2. As a result, it’s entirely possible - perhaps even likely - that the Greeks would have developed or adopted another writing system, not specifically the one the Phoenicians used. Remember that almost all European alphabets in turn derive from the Greek one. 40/
3. Considered globally, an alphabet is an extremely unusual form of writing system. Most writing systems - the Chinese one is a good example - are syllabaries, combined with logograms. This is arguably the “natural” form of writing systems. 41/
In the 19th century, when missionaries created writing systems de novo for indigenous peoples in the Americas or Asia, they almost always settled on syllabaries (even though they themselves wrote with an alphabet). A syllabary is simply much easier and more natural to learn. 42/
4. A characteristic of all syllabic writing systems is that they require far more graphemes - ie symbols - than does an alphabet. Where this is combined with logograms as well, this number can be very high - for example, potentially 50 000+ for Chinese and Japanese. 43/
5. The unstoppable success of movable type printing in the West from the mid 15th century is intimately tied up with the small number of graphemes in our unique and unusual writing system: the alphabet. 44/
The complexity, expense, and overall difficulty of casting and setting type for many hundreds or thousands of different characters, rather than the few dozen we have, can easily be imagined. 45/ Image
6. This is the primary (although not only) reason that movable type printing - although developed in China and Korea centuries before the West (and used in Japan in the late 16th and 17th century) - never caught on to the same extent as in Europe. 46/
In all three countries it was largely abandoned with an across-the-board reversion to woodblock printing. China, Japan & Korea, having abandoned movable type continued to use woodblock printing until the advent of technologies like lithography & stereotyping in the 19th cent. 47/
So in short, a line can be drawn from the dye-murex, via the Phoenician alphabet, to the unique success of movable type printing in the West, a success not duplicated in a similar way anywhere else, & never with the non-alphabetic scripts that are the norm in Asia especially. 48/
For more on the role cheese and cheesemaking has played in human civilization, from earliest antiquity through the Middle Ages and into the modern era, read Paul Kindstedt's excellent "Cheese and Culture". 49/ ImageImage

• • •

Missing some Tweet in this thread? You can try to force a refresh

Keep Current with Incunabula

Incunabula Profile picture

Stay in touch and get notified when new unrolls are available from this author!

Read all threads

This Thread may be Removed Anytime!


Twitter may remove this content at anytime! Save it as PDF for later use!

Try unrolling a thread yourself!

how to unroll video
  1. Follow @ThreadReaderApp to mention us!

  2. From a Twitter thread mention us with a keyword "unroll"
@threadreaderapp unroll

Practice here first or read more on our help page!

More from @incunabula

Jul 16
Oy. Forget about being a "rabbi", if you had even a kindergarten level knowledge of Hebrew (or Judaism for that matter) you'd know that this is not old, not Jewish, not an amulet, and nothing to do with kabbalah (which you grotesquely mischaracterize). It's a crude mishmash of……

One of many previous threads on these fakes.
When looking at any purportedly ancient Jewish manuscript, bear in mind:
1. Jewish manuscripts are generally austerely plain and written in black ink only. Red ink is seen occasionally as a highlight color in for example Yemenite manuscripts, but gold ink is essentially never……
Read 6 tweets
Jun 9
Oi u luzi chervona kalyna - Oh, the Red Guelder Rose in the Meadow - is the anthem of 🇺🇦 Ukrainian resistance to Russian oppression.

Written in 1875, it was adapted by Stepan Charnetsky in 1914 to honor the Sich Riflemen of the First World War. 1/…
The red guelder rose or viburnum of the song ('kalyna' in Ukrainian) - a shrub that grows four to five metres tall - is referenced throughout Ukrainian folklore. It is depicted in silhouette along the edges of the flag of the President of Ukraine. 2/ Image
Due to the song's association with the Ukrainian people's aspiration for independence, singing of the song was banned during the period in which Ukraine was a Soviet Republic(1919-1991). Anyone caught singing it was jailed, beaten, and even exiled. 3/
Read 12 tweets
May 14
Bought this this morning at our regular Sunday market in Bon-Encontre.

This bread is called a 'tortillon', and has been made since the late 17th century ONLY in this one tiny village just outside Agen in the Lot-et-Garonne, ONLY on Sundays and holidays in the month of May. Image
The tortillon celebrates the feast days of Notre-Dame de Bon-Encontre in May.

The flour is blanched and then boiled in hot water, before being baked in a wood oven. It's traditionally eaten with sausages and white wine. 2/
The idea that there's an entirely unique type of bread that exists exclusively in one tiny French village for 5 or 6 days of the year only - and that this has been the unchanged situation for over 300 years - is exactly the kind of thing that makes me love living in France. 3/ Image
Read 5 tweets
May 2
This is the 2001 first edition of the Ruhnama (Book of the Soul), written by Saparmurat Niyazov, the self-styled Türkmenbaşy, President of Turkmenistan from 1990 to 2006, intended to serve as the "spiritual guidance of the nation" and the "centre of the Turkmen universe". 1/… Image
The Ruhnama was introduced to Turkmen culture in a gradual but increasingly all-pervasive way. Niyazov first placed copies in all the nation's schools and libraries - but by the end of his reign, an exam on its teachings was an essential element of the driving test... 2/ Image
It was mandatory to study the Ruhnama in all schools, universities and governmental organisations. New governmental employees were tested in detail on the book in job interviews. 3/ Image
Read 8 tweets
Apr 26
Huge excitement here at the Incunabula Library - 26th April is OLD PERMIC ALPHABET DAY! 🥳🎉 🍾 Image
Old Permic script (Важ Перым гижӧм), sometimes also called ANBUR, was used to write medieval Komi, a Uralic language spoken by the Komi peoples in the northeastern European part of Russia. 2/ Image
Old Permic was developed by the Russian missionary, St Stephen of Perm (Степан Храп, св. Стефан Пермский) in 1372. The name Anbur is derived from the names of the first 2 characters: An and Bur. The script is derived from Cyrillic, Greek, and runic-style Komi "Tamga" glyphs. 3/ Image
Read 6 tweets
Apr 25
"Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia" - a 1984 report by the semiotician Thomas Sebeok for the US Human Interference Task Force on the problem of marking radioactive waste sites, some of which will be dangerous for over 100 000 years. 1/… Image
After an introduction to semiotics and other digressions, Sebeok comes to his proposed solution: what he calls "Folkloric Relay" & the "Atomic Priesthood". The first involves the use of artificially created myth - perhaps something along the lines of "this ground is cursed". 2/ ImageImage
The theory is that this type of 'folklore' is transmitted over longer temporal distance than scientific facts. The real facts though would be entrusted to a commission made up of eminent physicists, engineers, psychologists & semioticians - the so-called "Atomic Priesthood". 3/ Image
Read 8 tweets

Did Thread Reader help you today?

Support us! We are indie developers!

This site is made by just two indie developers on a laptop doing marketing, support and development! Read more about the story.

Become a Premium Member ($3/month or $30/year) and get exclusive features!

Become Premium

Don't want to be a Premium member but still want to support us?

Make a small donation by buying us coffee ($5) or help with server cost ($10)

Donate via Paypal

Or Donate anonymously using crypto!


0xfe58350B80634f60Fa6Dc149a72b4DFbc17D341E copy


3ATGMxNzCUFzxpMCHL5sWSt4DVtS8UqXpi copy

Thank you for your support!

Follow Us on Twitter!