As a Print Geek, This Oldest Historical Printed Material Is Truly Awe-Inspiring
The following post was originally published by Printing Impressions. To read more of their content, subscribe to their newsletter, Today on PIWorld.
So I’ll be the first to admit — I’m a certified print geek. I fell into this industry right out of college, and despite leaving to work in other fields a few times, print always pulls me back. There is just something about ink on pretty much anything that never fails to get me excited.
I am also a history buff, and there is something about the history of print that really captures my imagination. I was fortunate to have been able to visit the Museum Plantin Moretus in Antwerp, Belgium, back in 2018 — pre-pandemic days when international travel was still routine — which is a house, garden, and printing factory that once belonged to the Plantin-Moretus family. It is a museum rich with the history of print, with a wide range of early examples of the craft, plus plenty of original presses that helped create and shape what we think of as printing today.
One of those displays was a Gutenberg Bible, printed in 1460 — the second to be printed by him, according to the museum information, with initials and details inked by hand. Being just a few feet away from this document that ultimately helped propel print into the hands of the masses, was humbling.
Fortunately, you don’t have to travel all the way to Antwerp if you want to have a similar experience — Yale University actually has a Gutenberg Bible of its own on display — there are 21 known complete copies still in existence, with another 28 partial copies that have survived. And now that historic printed document is joined by another: the university is now displaying a 1,250-year-old printed scroll of Buddhist prayers.
According to YaleNews, this scroll is the single oldest piece of printed material in the world that can be reliably dated, and the fact that it has survived all this time, and is still very much legible, is astonishing. Yes, it was made with wooden block prints (although there is apparently some debate that it very well could have been done with metal blocks) instead of the moveable type that led to modern printing, but it’s still ink, printed on paper, with the intention to mass produce — supposedly there were up to 100,000 of these scrolls produced and distributed to temples.
And that is awe-inspiring.
Print, as a medium, endures in a way that nothing else ever has, or ever will. It is a window into the past, a way to connect with those who came before us, and leave a message for future generations that will withstand the test of time. It is easy to get lost in the day-to-day business of print, no matter if you’re producing marketing collateral, posters, banners, signs, direct mail, vehicle wraps, or books. But this is a good reminder to stop and really appreciate the rich history of print, and the way it has helped shape our world for hundreds of years.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to start pricing out plane tickets to Connecticut.
Toni McQuilken is the senior editor for the printing and packaging group.