Magnificently Illuminated

Reading The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Benjamin, 1936) in which Benjamin comments on the democratization of reading and writing, and thinking about the shift in cinema from analogue to digital, I was reminded of a book written by Johannes Trithemius, De Laude Scriptorum Manualium (In Praise of Scribes).


Trithemius was an monk and abbot in 15th Century Germany. Obsessive in his pursuit of learning, he wrote prolifically, his most notable work being Steganographia (Secret Writing) written around 1499. Never fully published due to the occult overtones of the text, Trithemius writes about magic as a tool for communicating over long distances without a physical message or messenger. (A partial copy can be found here, written in Trithemius’ original Latin.)

Being a keen writer in 15th Century Europe, Trithemius watched the rise of the Gutenberg printing press intently. And he was not enamoured of what he saw. His displeasure at seeing the handcrafted work of his monks streadily replaced by the mechanisms of the new press prompted him to write De Laude Scriptorum Manualium, published forty years after the press was first used in Germany.


In this book Trithemius outlines his fundamental and deeply held belief that the act of writing is as important as its content:

And while he scribes the good texts, he is introduced little by little to the great mysteries, and his inmost soul is magnificently illuminated. What we write we imprint more forcefully on our minds, because we take our time reading and writing. (Trithemius, 1492)

He goes on to laud parchment, on which books were traditionally hand written, whilst deriding the paper used by the new printing press:

Who doesn’t know how great is the distance between a scribed and a printed book? The scripture on parchment can persist a thousand years, but on paper, how long will it last? It’s a great thing if a paper volume lasts two hundred years; but many are those who judge that their own texts ought to be printed. Posterity will judge this question. (Trithemius, 1492)

Replace parchment and paper with analogue and digital film, and this quote could slot right into the debate on the death of film with hardly a raised eyebrow.

Trithemius finishes this section of his text with a denouncement of the printing press as a tool in the creation of true literary art:

He who ceases the work of a scribe because of printing is not a true friend of Scripture, because heeding no more than the present he takes no care to educate posterity. But we, dearest brothers, heeding the reward of this sacred labor we will not cease our work, even if we have many thousands of printed volumes. Printed books will never equal scribed books, especially because the spelling and ornamentation of some printed books is often neglected. Copying requires greater diligence. (Trithemius, 1492)

Trithemius’ writing is fascinating to me. I think there are few who would argue that the invention of the printing press and the subsequent democratization of literature was a bad thing. And yet the arguments that he puts forward are so close to many raised against the shift from analogue to digital cinema.

Is novel technology always viewed negatively when applied to the arts? And do we, as individuals and as a society, perceive change to be happening faster and more perniciously than it really is? It’s another strand that links back to the subjectivity of our perception and the fallacies inherent in memory and nostalgia.


Amman, J., (1568) Eygentliche Beschreibung Aller Stäande auf Erden, Franckfurt am Mayn: G. Raben in Verlegung S. Feyerabents

Benjamin, W., (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, London: Penguin

Meister H. B., (no date) Johannes Trithemius, Musée Condé, Chantilly

Trithemius, J., (1492) De Laude Scriptorum Manualium

Trithemius, J., (1499) Steganographia

Steganographia (Secret Writing), by Johannes Trithemius. 1500, Esoteric Archives, Available from: [Accessed on 18 September 2015]

Excerpts from Johannes Trithemius, In Praise of Scribes, Available from:  [Accessed on 17 September 2015]



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