How many famous western civilization's historical events are you familiar with?


This site has been preserved and archived as required reading material for George Dell's Western Civilization I elective. In addition to his history studies, Dr. Dell is a consultant and principal partner in the digital agency TrueNorth, where he has been responsible for many widely acclaimed promotional efforts, often with history related themes, including the viral "Move Me" campaign for Baltimore moving company The 100+ year old Baltimore mover has one of the best local reputations and the campaign was designed to bring awareness to their history as a family run enterprise. He also was responsible for the online campaign for Association Of The Dark Knight Realm - a comedic look at the Batman craze in America. This is also a history related project focused on the start of Batman in 1939, leading up to the appearance of Batman shirts in the democracy movement in Hong Kong. Students can download the full course reading list from the history department's webpage.


How many famous western civilization's historical events are you familiar with? This site thoughtfully listed many of them.
Below are articles about just a few such events from the 2011 archived pages of this site.


Thales and Democritus Change the Basis of Man’s Thinking

Phoebus was the sun: he wore brilliant robes, of gold, or red or purple, even green, often slipping on the red one as his daily chariot trip across the heavens ended, so that of a sudden the whole earth was bathed in rosy light. When the journey was over, and Phoebus had dismounted from his chariot, those with the blessing of the gods could visit him in his temple, find him sitting on his throne, a throne that sparkled and burnt with emeralds. On his right and left were the gods of the Day, the Month, the Year, and the Century. Even the Hours, little fellows, were standing side by side, with exactly the same distance between each one and his fellow. Not only this: there was Spring in a robe of flowers; Summer garlanded with ears of golden corn, sheaves of wheat; Autumn with her dress stained purple from the juice of grapes; and scowling Winter, with his white, dishevelled hair. They held court each night, while the world slumbered. Then, in the morning, when the Moon-Goddess had ended her own nocturnal dash across the heavens, Phoebus would set off again, in his fiery chariot, galloping across the sky, while the others went about their business.

Iuppiter Tonans

Iuppiter Tonans

Of all this, there could be no doubt: for centuries, men had known it, been brought up with it, accepted it as fact. Any unusual behaviour in the heavens: a sudden storm, eclipse of the sun, heat wave or flood, could be ascribed to the irrational behaviour of the gods. Often, of course, man had a hand in his destiny, was unwittingly its cause. Old men told stories of the Flood, when there had been such wickedness on earth, when men had behaved so vilely to each other, had shown such little respect for the gods, that Jupiter, King of the Gods, had let loose the South Wind, with thunderclouds upon Ms brow, to bring down rain. He had struck, men said, with his fist; there had been thunder, the heavens had opened. Water had poured down, torrents of it, beating men’s crops into the earth. Iris, Juno’s messenger, dressed in the colours of the rainbow, had brought jugs of water to the clouds, to feed them: the rain never stopped. Then Neptune, Jupiter’s brother, god of the Sea, took a hand. There were tidal waves and floods, and soon the earth was a mighty sea, a sea without a shore.

All this was history, made sacrosanct by the gods themselves. If a man were fool enough to question any part of it, express any doubt, even to himself, the gods would come down and punish him: his children would turn upon him, his wife would vanish; as when Jupiter, turning himself into a bull, ran off with the young and beautiful Europa on his back.



In about the year 600 B.C., there came what can only be called an explosion, an explosion in men’s thinking. In the town of Miletus, in the ancient Greek state of Ionia, was born Thales, and to this man belongs the credit.

Thales was a member of one of the great families of Ionia, in an age where the differences between social classes, between soldiers, merchants, philosophers, slaves, were of greater account than the differences between races. There were, living proudly together in the little state, men of every language and complexion, from all corners of the ancient world, all of them proud to be members of such a community. Thales was a man of initiative, with sufficient wealth to be able to indulge it: he travelled to Egypt, to the interior of Asia Minor, to Chaldea; and there he absorbed ideas that the people of these countries had collected over the centuries.

He noted that their myths, tales of their gods and their doings, were different to his own, though often they differed only in the names of the gods. But scattered among these strangers’ stories were grains of information, complementary information which Thales on his return began to assemble. His motive was not just pure research, a seeking for knowledge because it was there: it was a severely practical exercise, because Thales was a practical man. He was a merchant and an engineer; his livelihood depended on the safe arrival of ships bearing his goods from the ends of the earth. Slowly, he divested his mind of gods, so that he could look to the sky and treat stars, for the first time in history, as entirely natural objects, made of earth and fire. He was the first to predict that when the moon, no goddess, this, just a lump of earth, came between earth and sun, there would be an eclipse. We do not know whether in fact he predicted the eclipses of 610 and 585 B.C., but we know that he predicted their possibility.

He made charts of the heavens, proved to the wondering men of Miletus that these could be used for safe navigation across the sea. Indeed, men had used the stars in much this way for years, but treating them with suspicion, as unreliable gods and goddesses with human attributes, likely as not to alter their positions or obscure each other, just to cause shipwreck. Now, in this dawn of scientific thought, all changed. The stars were there, but they were physical, material things, not helped or hindered by the gods; and they had practical uses.

For example, as Thales proved, the Little Bear in the heavens, and of course, as he pointed out, it was no bear, it hardly even looked like one, could be a better guide for sailors than the Great Bear, even though the Great one had been deemed to rule the heavens. He and those of his Ionian school developed processes of stellar navigation we use to-day. Then, having proved them accurate, Thales went on to establish a means of telling the distance of a ship at sea. In the past this had been a matter of guesswork, good eyesight. A ship, viewed as a tiny object on the horizon, would be farther in the distance than a similar one appearing larger: if half as big, it was twice as far, though even this was guesswork. Thales established that by measuring two angles to the ship from opposite ends of a measured distance on the shore, the range to the ship could be calculated exactly. In the same way, the height of a mountain could be calculated by measuring the horizontal distance to its base, and the vertical angle to its summit.

But Thales’s discoveries were not confined to the sciences of geometry and navigation, though he is best remembered for his contributions to them. He set off such an explosion of scientific thinking, that everything from architecture to commerce was rethought, done differently. It was in his native Ionia that men came to realize the squat columns of the Doric temple need not be thick and ugly; that columns, scientifically designed, could be slender, elegant and beautiful, and still hold up a single roof. It was in Ionia that men rediscovered coined money; that banking and bills of exchange began to be used. Many of these devices had been tried, one by one, and rejected, in more ancient times: now they were re-thought, given new uses, by this eager people, fired with the spirit of Thales.

Though the gods had been relegated to their proper place, the people of Ionia did not reject them. Gods were there, but man still had control over his destiny in this world; the gods need not be invoked, consulted, placated, at every crossroads in his life. For years men had observed phenomena, “red sky at night, sailors’ delight”, is an axiom that goes back thousands of years, and had made use of them, one by one. Now, with the birth of scientific thought, these phenomena were assembled: men saw that one was often closely bound up with a dozen more, that hypotheses could be constructed from them. If the hypotheses fitted the knowledge available and were plausible, they were valuable: they could be proved or disproved later. In the meantime, the coming of rains, warm weather, the duration of a journey, the height of the highest mountain, the distance to the horizon, the depth of the sea, the total interest on a loan, all these could be observed or calculated. Trade could be made a thousand times simpler, less laborious, more profitable, by the use of money. No longer was it necessary to swap a basket of olives for a pair of sandals: one could part with the olives in exchange for a silver coin, and buy whatever one wanted when one wanted it.

Because he was a famous man, much of what Thales did has been obscured in the mists of time. Any new invention, any theory that saw the light of day was immediately ascribed to him, even after his death, and we have little means of finding out which particular discoveries were his own. We can be certain, though, that he established a climate of opinion, a desire for truth and a habit of hard, constructive thinking, which made what followed possible. He built a bridge between the ancient world of myth and the world of reason: man, cautious at first, terrified lest the bridge break and leave him stranded out of reach of his gods crossed it.



As we have seen, Thales set scientific, rational thought in motion, and others, inspired by his example, clamoured to follow. Scientists like Anaxagoras and Empedocles went further than he did, developed his ideas of astronomy, expanded his meagre tally of geometrical theorems, and blazed a trail to the two great discoveries of the fifth century B.C. These were an exact knowledge of the annual movement of the sun in the heavens, and the determination of musical intervals, the discovery that every note has an exact mathematical relationship with every other.

The fifth century was the century of Democritus, perhaps the greatest of the Greek scientists or physical “philosophers”. He, like Thales, was a rich man and a traveller, born in about the year 460 B.C., in Abdera, a Greek colony on the coast of Thrace. His thinking was more fundamental than that of Thales, with less immediate practical application: he established, or at least predicted, for few men of his age would believe him, that everything in the universe is composed of atoms, moving in a vacuum. This theory has been proved correct, even though the twentieth century has succeeded in subdividing the atom. (Democritus maintained it was indivisible, and the word, which he coined, means just that.)



He devoted his thinking to the study of these minute bodies (they jostle each other in every direction” he noted) and explained the sensations of heat and cold, sweetness, bitterness, even colour, by the different shapes, weight and speed of atoms. Correctly, he established that the earth is formed of the heaviest ones, that the lightest form the atmosphere about us. He made researches into body and soul, discarding, as Thales had done, all the mythology of gods entering into and leaving the bodies of men; he studied theology for, like Thales, he did not deny the existence of god or a god; he analysed the relationship between perception and knowledge; and he tried to establish a code of ethics.

Democritus needed courage for his work, for, by and large, he was hated and distrusted during his lifetime. Many of his ideas were two thousand years and more ahead of their time. But some of them were taken up, developed, by others after him; men like Euclid and Archimedes, and Greek science flourished and grew.

Yet, sadly, it did not endure. There came a time when the forces which had made, over hundreds of years, every effort to reject the findings and conclusions of men like Democritus and Thales, were successful. Suddenly, there were no more like them, and their ideas were buried and forgotten.

Science slumbered through the Middle Ages, before being awakened at the Renaissance, but here it was taken up from the point at which it had been rejected. Somehow the findings, the methods, of the ancient Greek philosophers, scientists as we would call them now, had survived: mankind was able to use them and push on to the frontiers of knowledge in our present day. Many of the writings of men like Democritus were lost or destroyed, but those that survive show us how advanced was their thinking and how much in their debt we are. Indeed, if we study ultimate theories of life and the universe around us, we find that little has changed, fundamentally, since these first great strides in man’s thinking were taken, over two thousand years ago. As a present-day student of Democritus has put it: “In the last analysis, the picture of the universe is the same for us as it was for Democritus: an inconceivable number of corpuscles disseminated in limitless space, and moving eternally.”

Man’s gods are there still, but Thales and Democritus, and the men who followed in their footsteps, removed them from man’s world of science and calculation. Gently, but firmly, they put them back, out of harm’s way, in the heavens.


Battle Of Hastings


The English Spirit is Born Out of Conquest

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

At Christmas, 1065, Edward the Confessor saw the consecration of the great Abbey Church at Westminster, he had moved his Court from Winchester to be near the building, and then died on 5 January, the eve of the Feast of Epiphany on which day he was buried. And, on the day of his burial, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recalls:

And Earl Harold was now consecrated King and he met little quiet in it as long as he ruled the realm.

The haste was certainly great. Edgar the Atheling, a direct descendant of Alfred the Great and a cousin of Edward the Con­fessor, was the legitimate heir to the throne by blood. But he was a minor and the Anglo-Saxon magnates considered that English sovereignty was too fragile a thing to have a young boy on the throne. Twenty-four years before, England had been a part of the Scandinavian empire and the house of Alfred had come into its own with Edward the Confessor only after the death of Hardicanute, the debauched son of the great ruler King Canute. So the English thegns decided that Harold Godwine, the most powerful noble of the south of England, the worthy son of a great father, who had married the Confessor’s sister Edith, should succeed at once and without debate. The Anglo-Saxon lords were not as a rule very united and during Edward’s reign there had been much strife. Harold, however, had played his hand with skill and, just before Edward’s death, had made allies of the great northern thegns, Edwin and Morcar, by support­ing them against his own brother Tosti in a quarrel about lands. Tosti had fled the country and indeed in 1066 was a minor danger to the peace of England, being about to return with a force of Flemish mercenaries and fight for his rights.

King Harald Hardraada

King Harald Hardraada

The great double danger came from Scandinavia and Normandy. The threat from King Harald Hardraada of Norway was not absolutely certain in the early days of 1066 and the more imminent danger was that from William Duke of Normandy. William’s claim to the English crown, but for the fact that he was himself a bastard, was better than Harold’s. Edward the Confessor had been the son of the sister of William’s father, Duke Robert. William was the more feared in that the weak Edward the Confessor, though accepting Harold as a sort of under-king in the last year of his life, had secretly promised the crown to William and favoured the entry into the kingdom of Normans. There had been a Norman Archbishop of Canterbury. There were many Norman monasteries and, on the Welsh marches, a Norman Baron, Earl Ralph, had even been given lands.

Fragment of the bayeux tapestry showing harold as he comes to normandy to inform william he is the sucesor of king eduard.

fragment of the bayeux tapestry showing harold as he comes to normandy to inform william he is the sucesor of king eduard.

To King Harold, often known as Harold of the Fair Hair, came, a few days after his accession, a messenger from Duke William to remind him of his promise to accept William as King of England. Harold, when at sea, had once been driven on to the French coast and delivered, according to the Bayeux Tapestry which tells the story of the Norman Conquest, by a small piratical baron to the Duke of Normandy. William had treated Harold with honour and kindness. Harold stayed in Normandy to take part in several military expeditions with Duke William, and was even made a knight at William’s hands.

William succeeded in persuading his guest to support his claims to the throne of England and, in a great public ceremony at Bayeux in the presence of many Barons and Bishops, made Harold swear a solemn oath to do so. According to English sources, Harold swore with his hand on a missal and, when the missal was removed, the chest on which it had been standing was seen to contain a collection of bones of saints and other sacred relics; according to the Bayeux Tapestry, there was no trickery and the relics had been there for all to see. The question of the oath was important in those days. Harold himself disregarded its binding quality but, before the Battle of Hastings, one of Harold’s brothers suggested that Harold himself, on account of this oath, should not fight in the battle.

Harold at once took steps to make himself popular in England. Always a good administrator, a chronicler, Florence of Worcester, recounts that:

“He began to abolish unjust laws to make good ones, to patronize Churches and Monasteries and to make himself pious, humble and affable to all good men.”

Early in the summer, he was forced to raise an army and equip ships to drive off Tosti from the south coast. Tosti sailed north and landed at Lindsey in Lincolnshire where he was driven off by the northern thegns Edwin and Morcar. After that he sailed for Scotland. Harold remained on the south coast for he knew already that hundreds of ships were being prepared in the ports of Normandy for invasion. However, in September Harold heard with surprise and dismay the news that King Harald Hardraada, joined by his own brother Tosti, had landed in Yorkshire with a fleet of two hundred warships and three hundred transports and, near York, had routed an English army led by Edwin and Morcar. Harold made a forced march northwards and, in a very bloody battle at Stamford Bridge, routed the Norwegians, both Harald and Tosti being slain.

When he was celebrating his victory at York, four days after Stamford Bridge, Harold learnt that the Normans had landed in force at Pevensey. His great chance of disputing the Norman landing was now gone. He hurried south, gathering what new forces he could, and set up his standard on a high ridge at Senlac, near Hastings, where are now the ruins of Battle Abbey. Like the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, he held a position with a forest behind it, where, if necessary, he could rally his men.

But Harold’s act was a rash one and he fell into Duke William’s trap in offering battle so quickly. William had purposefully waited on the Kent-Sussex coast, building two great wooden castles, and hoping the English would do just what they had done. What the Normans had to fear was a campaign of small battles fought as they advanced into England against numerically superior forces in which they would exhaust both their men and supplies without being able to replace them. For Harold’s ships, which had been scattered in various ports when William had landed, could at any moment cut communication with Normandy.

William Duke of Normandy, the fruit of an illegitimate union of his father Robert with a tanner’s daughter, was one of the outstanding geniuses of his time. He had had to fight for his succession and, all his life, had been constantly engaged in wars with neighbouring feudal lords, out of which he had emerged successfully.

Duke Robert

Duke Robert

The Normans were Scandinavians who had settled in Normandy during the ninth and tenth centuries and had adopted Christianity and the French tongue. They were a warlike and cunning race. Both Duke Robert and William were great patrons of the Church and attracted to their kingdom scholars from Italy, of whom such as Anselm and Lanfranc were among the greatest in all Christendom.

The Church gave the Normans their administrators and so the Norman dukedom was at once bellicose, well organized and pre-eminently Christian. For the invasion of England the Normans attracted knights and adventurers from other parts of France who were anxious for lands and gain; these men also believed that they were serving the cause of Christendom in sailing against a relatively barbarous country, ruled by a usurper king who had broken his oath. God, after contrary winds which had long held back their fleet, had at last given them a fair wind. When Duke William himself had stepped ashore in England, he had slipped and fallen forward on his hands. A cry of alarm had gone up throughout the host at this evil sign. But William cried in a loud voice: “See, my Lords, I have by the grace of God taken possession of England with both my hands.”

By 13 October, Harold’s army was drawn up in battle array on Senlac heights, each man close to the other, forming a dense phalanx of warriors armed with battle-axes, javelins, lances and pikes. The Anglo-Saxons always fought on foot, unlike the Norman knights who were mounted. And on that day Harold received another emissary from William whose army was now drawn up just below the ridge, proposing that he should give up the crown in return for lands north of the Humber and the hand of William’s sister Adela in marriage. After this was refused, it was plain that battle would begin the next day. William’s army passed the night in prayer, silence and repose; the Anglo-Saxons in jollity, drinking ale and wine from great horns around their camp fires.

Norman cavalry armed with lances attacks the Anglo-Saxon shield wall. Notice the dominance of the spearmen in the front line of the formation. In the back of the formation there is one warrior armed with a battle-axe, one archer and one javelinman. There are Javelins in mid-flight and slain soldiers pierced with javelins on the ground"

Norman cavalry armed with lances attacks the Anglo-Saxon shield wall. Notice the dominance of the spearmen in the front line of the formation. In the back of the formation there is one warrior armed with a battle-axe, one archer and one javelinman. There are Javelins in mid-flight and slain soldiers pierced with javelins on the ground

The great battle which was to decide the fate of England began with the terrible sound of trumpets from both sides as the Norman host advanced slowly up the hill. For a long while there was no sound but the clash of weapons and the shrieking of wounded men. The advantage of high ground told against the invaders at first and after a while some Bretons and French foot soldiers broke in flight. The rumour spread that Duke William had been killed and a part of the Norman army was seized with panic as the English left their stockade and poured down the hill. But William rallied his men and the English pursuers were cut down easily by the more heavily armoured Norman knights.

The lesson was plain: the English must remain in close formation rooted to the ground. The battle continued until the afternoon when William ordered all his army to carry out a feigned retreat. This time a far greater part of Harold’s troops left their hill, shouting that victory was theirs, and the lesson of slaughtering the more lightly armed English was repeated on a far greater scale. William returned to the assault of the diminished Anglo-Saxons still gathered round Harold, ordering his archers to fire from a distance into the air; it was with an arrow in his eye that King Harold was killed. Many other English leaders were now dead and by the evening the Normans had captured the King’s gold standard and were on top of Senlac ridge. It was the death of so many English nobles which prevented any rallying in the woods and made the victory decisive.

King of England and Duke of Normandy

King of England and Duke of Normandy

Indeed after this battle no other large Anglo-Saxon army was raised. William and his knights waited a few days in the neighbourhood of Dover and Hastings, largely to recover from dysentery which afflicted many of them. At Christmas, 1066, William was crowned King of England in London. Though he had to face some revolts in the North and in East Anglia, where Hereward the Wake defied him, King William I, after Hastings, had never cause to doubt his success. He had won all England by a single battle.

The Norman Conquest was extremely thorough. The Anglo-Saxon thegns were gradually deprived of their lands in favour of Normans and Frenchmen. There came a huge immigration of foreigners, principally Normans and Angevins, into England. Norman castles built at first of wood to hold down for a moment the surrounding country and then of stone arose throughout the country. William was not only a warrior but a far-sighted ruler; it was of the greatest importance for the future of England that he never gave his knights huge estates in one place so that, as happened in France, vassals could easily become more powerful than the king.

Anglo-Saxon England had been scarcely administered at all by the King; now each land had its Lord, each Lord his Overlord, the pyramid culminating in the monarch. The great Domes-day Book enumerated the wealth of the country and made possible a system of taxes. And now the Church, which was the guardian of civilization, came into its own and everywhere as in France priests and monks on a much greater scale than in Anglo-Saxon England began the task of educating men. William of Malmesbury, who finished around 1125 a work on the Norman Conquest, wrote of the English before the Conquest that religion was very much decayed in spite of the efforts of Edward the Confessor.

The English nobility, he said, were:

“Given up to luxury and wantonness did not go to Church in the early morning after the manner of Christians but merely in a casual manner. The common people left unprotected became a prey to the more powerful who amassed riches either by seizing the property of the poor or by selling their persons to foreigners. Nevertheless, it is the manner of those people to be more inclined to dissipation than to the accumulation of wealth. There was one custom repugnant to nature which they had adopted; namely to sell their female servants when pregnant by them after they had satisfied their lust, either to public prostitution or to foreign slavery. Drinking in parties was a universal custom, in which occupation they passed entire days and nights. They consumed their whole fortune in mean and despicable houses, unlike the Normans and the French who in noble splendid mansions lived with frugality. The vices attended upon drunkenness followed in due course, and these, as is well known, enervate the human mind.”

Of the Normans, William of Malmesbury writes that:

“They were at that time exceedingly particular in their dress and delicate in their food, but not to excess. They are a race inured to war and can hardly live without it, fierce in attacking their enemies, and when force fails, ready to use guile or to corrupt by bribery.”

As I have said they live with economy in large houses; they envy their equals; they wish to vie with their superiors; and they plunder their subjects though they protect them from others. They are faithful to their lords though slight offence gives them an excuse for treachery. They are the most polite of peoples; they consider strangers to merit the courtesy they extend to each other; and they intermarry with their subjects. After their coming to England, they revived the rule of religion which had grown lifeless.”

It was by civil organization and by the spread of education through the Church that the Norman Conquest proved itself the triumph of a higher civilization over a lower. For a while even Anglo-Saxon English went underground and became the language of underlings and serfs; Norman-French and Latin was the tongue of the ruling class and the educated. But this was only for a comparatively short period. Under the great Angevin kings, Henry I and Henry II, the conquerors gradually came to think of themselves as English and the English sense of liberty and justice became something which both Barons and peasants understood, as did the peoples of the towns which the Norman and Angevin order protected and encouraged to grow.

The language which was to be that of Chaucer and Shakespeare came back, enriched, into its own. When in 1215 King John was forced to sign the Great Charter, England was already born out of the realm of Alfred the Great and William the Conqueror. Indeed the Battle of Hastings in 1066, if it resulted in the falling of the Anglo-Saxons under foreign domination, was in fact the beginning of England, the painful birth of the English spirit.





Henry II Bestows on Englishmen the Boon of Impartial Justice

Matilda of England Empress consort of the Holy Roman Empire; Queen consort of the Romans; later Duchess consort of the Normans

Matilda of England Empress consort of the Holy Roman Empire; Queen consort of the Romans; later Duchess consort of the Normans

Since his only legitimate son had been drowned, Henry I, son of the Conqueror, had nominated as his successor his daughter Matilda, wife of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou. But when the old king died in 1135, the Great Council, deciding that a woman was unfitted to rule and calling out of abeyance the old English right of electing a king, offered the crown to Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, son of the Conqueror’s daughter.

Of Stephen a contemporary chronicler wrote: “A mild man, soft and good, and did not justice. He began many things, but never finished them.” He was certainly too easy-going to control the little-disciplined people who called him to be their king, and during the nineteen long years that he occupied the throne a period of anarchy existed in England never equalled in a thousand years of history.

Weakness in a monarch is quickly discerned, and there are always those ready to take advantage of it. In Stephen’s case it was the Welsh and the Scots who marched into England, massacring and raping and despoiling the country, while the king made no move to stop them. Had it not been for the aged Thurstan, Archbishop of York, who called out the Yorkshire nobles, himself leading them into battle at Northallerton, where he defeated the invaders, no one can say what might have happened to the country.

Nor was Matilda, of genuine Norman stock, prepared to surrender her rights without a fight. In 1139 she landed in England with an army, and already dismayed by the effects of Stephen’s weakness, many English barons flocked to her banner. For the next eight years England was racked by civil war.

During these eight years the anarchy and disorder increased. Many of the barons, seeing an opportunity for personal gain, sided first with Stephen and then with Matilda. Without the constraint of a strong hand, which for the past seventy years the kings of England had exercised through the royal council, many of the barons built themselves castles without licence, and from them sallied forth to wage private war upon their neighbours. Some even brought foreign mercenaries over from Europe to fight their battles for them, and these foreigners made things even worse.

“They put men in prison for their gold and silver; they hung them up with their feet and smoked them with foul smoke. They put knotted strings round their heads and writhed them till they went into the brain. They put them into dungeons crawling with adders and snakes,” wrote Richard of Hexham, an historian of the times.

And while men fought, the country went to ruin. No plough cut a single furrow; no crop was planted, no harvest gathered; and no man knew whether he still possessed his cattle or not.

Even those who were responsible for much of the crime that was committed eventually saw that if the state of affairs were allowed to continue little good would their ill-gotten gains do them, and by degrees a universal desire for a strong king’s rule emerged among Englishmen and Norman barons and knights alike and the famous English genius for compromise began to work.

An agreement was reached by which Stephen was to rule until he died, and then was to be succeeded by Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, Matilda’s son. In 1153, Henry crossed to England and rallied his mother’s supporters. Within six months he had completely transformed the scene, and when in the following year Stephen died and he was crowned at Westminster, every bell in England rang for joy.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Henry was just twenty-one. From his father he had inherited Anjou, Maine and Touraine, and in his mother’s name had seized Normandy. By marriage to a woman twelve years older than himself, and the greatest heiress in Europe, the divorced queen of Louis of France, Eleanor of Aquitaine, he gained control of half France and doubled the extent of his domains. When he assumed the crown of England his writ ran from the northern boundaries of Northumbria to the Pyrenees.

Henry was a scholar and a champion at arms. An eloquent speaker, he delighted in learned conversation; he was never happier than when exchanging rude jokes with his soldiers round the camp fire. In utter contrast to Stephen, he had a will of steel, a grim determination to achieve his ambitions, and a fund of energy which disturbed all who came into contact with him. He had one overriding passion, to restore order and justice to England, and maintain order within his other realms.

He was no sooner on the throne than he set himself to this task. He ordered all the mercenaries to leave England, he ordered the barons who had built unlicensed castles to pull them down, and he demanded the return of all Crown lands which had been filched during the troubled years.

When the earls whom his mother and Stephen had created thought to ignore him, he marched against them, and so frightened some of them that they obeyed at once as soon as he approached. This settled, he turned against the Welsh and Scots. The first he sent scuttling back to their marshes and mountains, the second he forced to return those parts of Northumbria they had seized and compelled them to come to Chester to do homage to him there.

In what seemed to be no time at all, the country was in good order once more. But Henry was not content to rest upon his laurels. He desired to leave the kingdom greater and stronger than it had ever been, and this meant reform, for he had no ambition to increase the extent of his domains.

To appreciate his achievements, it is necessary to consider briefly what the feudal system meant to England at this time.

Theoretically, the king owned all the land and was the fountain-head of all honour. He honoured those who were worthy of honour by granting them estates, which they held from him, again in theory, as tenants. In practice, however, once the king had made a grant of land to a man, whether he also bestowed a peerage or some lesser title or not, it was a grant in perpetuity, so that in fact the tenant really became the owner.

In the same way that the king granted land to his tenants-in-chief, as they were called, so they, in turn, made grants from their own estates. These lesser tenants were, however, considered to be tenants of the king as were the tenants-in-chief.

The king made a grant of land to a tenant-in-chief on the understanding that in return the tenant would swear him allegiance and fulfil certain conditions of service. According to the size of the grant, so were the services regulated. The first and most important of these conditions was to provide the king with men and money, if he needed the latter, with which to fight his enemies.

The lesser tenants held their estates on the same conditions and they made to their overlords the same promises of service. It was understood, however, that the first allegiance of every man was to the king. Should a dispute arise between the king and one of his tenants-in-chief, the lesser tenants’ loyalty was to the king.

In addition to the exchange of land for services, the overlord, whether king or tenant, owed his tenants protection. There was, therefore, a basis of mutual obligation in all the relationships between overlords and tenants, in whatever degree they might be; that is to say, whether they were king, earls, barons, knights or lords of an unennobled manor.

From this it will be seen that the ownership of land was a paramount, indeed the paramount, consideration. The more land a man owned, not only was he wealthier, he was more powerful. It was this that lay at the root of all struggles. There was a constant attempt by the majority to increase their holdings, for which they were prepared to fight, if not always oil the battlefield, then in the feudal courts; and in the latter, the only means of determining ownership was trial-by-combat, when the two contenders fought one another, and the one who won the contest won the possession.

To preserve the stability of his realm at all, a king in such conditions had to be able to control his tenants-in-chief. Previous kings had been content to do this by threats of waging war against them. Henry, however, preferred to do so by other means. Any baron who infringed the royal rights quickly found himself required to pay a fine, or increased rents.

To keep an eye on the doings of his sheriffs, whose duty it was in the first place to make the levies and collect the dues on his behalf, Henry sent out the high officials of the Exchequer, known as the Exchequer barons, on circuits. That is to say, each Exchequer baron was given a certain area, and he sat in the court of each sheriff in that area in turn.

At first the main function of these Exchequer barons was merely to keep watch to see that the king received his proper financial dues, but as time passed he empowered them also to hear certain pleas which would normally have been made direct to him.

For many centuries in England it had been regarded as the king’s duty to see that justice was done and every freeman in the land had the right to appeal to the king if he believed himself to be wronged. To begin with such pleas had to be presented to the king in person, but after a time matters of lesser importance could be taken to the sheriff, who was empowered to make a decision in the king’s name.

Under this system, the criminal jurisdiction of the Crown was limited to contempt of the king’s person, in other words, treason, and breaches of the king’s peace committed on the royal estates and the highways. For dealing with all other types of crime the sheriff was responsible.

Now Henry changed this still further, and by transferring the sheriff’s chief judicial powers to the Exchequer barons on circuit he extended the criminal jurisdiction of the Crown to all crimes, though he was not personally involved in reaching the verdict or pronouncing sentence.

Within a few years, further changes were made. Since the system was seen to work well, it was clear that it would be advantageous to have trained and experienced officials to dispense the criminal law in this way, and slowly there came into existence a body of trained impartial judges capable of meting out true justice.

Under the old system, where a man accused of a criminal act was tried by the local sheriff he could not always be sure of a fair and impartial hearing. Many sheriffs were open to bribery, and this meant that the man who could pay the most could be sure of the verdict, whether or not he was guilty. Henry’s new judges, by having no local interests, were less open to corruption, and as they were constantly travelling about the country they were unlikely to develop such interests.

It then occurred to Henry and his judges that if these procedures could work well in criminal cases, they might be extended to a class of case which, while not criminal in the sense that it was murder, rape, forgery, arson, robbery or larceny, was perhaps even more common than any of them.

During the late civil wars, one of the commonest acts had been the habit of an overlord to seize land from a neighbour not as powerful as himself on some trumped-up excuse. The war at an end, the victim of such a “theft” had two courses open to him: he could either rally his own tenants and supporters and try to get the seized land back by force, or he could appeal in the overlord’s court for the right to get it back by trial-by-combat. Since the overlord was in many cases the man who had seized the land, the victim could be sure that delays would be organized to prevent the trial-by-combat from ever being held, and such disputes might be carried over from one generation to the next.




The Inauguration of Modern European Civilization

From time to time there appears on the world’s stage a great ruler who far outshines the greatest of many ages. Alexander the Great was one of them, Genghis Elian another, Napoleon yet another. They are a small and select band; to them belongs Charlemagne the Great.

In the third century A.D. there was a group of tribes of Teutonic origin, called the Franks, living in what are now North-west Germany and the Netherlands. By the fourth century, or a little later, they were divided into two main branches: the Salian Franks who lived around the estuary of the Rhine, and the Riparian Franks higher up the river. They were first the enemies and then the vassals of Rome and the decay of the Roman Empire gave them their day.

Clovis roi des Francs by François-Louis Dejuinne (1786–1844)

Clovis roi des Francs by François-Louis Dejuinne (1786–1844)

The man who made use of that day was Clovis, the descendant of a certain Clodio, who had led the Salian Franks into what is now France and established his capital in Tournai. Thirty years before he became king his tribe had sent warriors to join the vast horde that defeated the Huns.

Clovis united many of the Salian Franks under his rule, and conquered much of Gaul. He brought the Riparian Franks, who had spread up the Rhine as far as Alsace, under his authority, and when their king was murdered they recognized him as their king.

Clovis was baptized a Christian, and nominally the Franks ceased to be pagans. His sons continued his career of conquest, and soon Frankland was an extensive area lying on both sides of the Rhine. Like Anglo-Saxon England, it was divided into more or less in­dependent kingdoms, but in spite of civil wars there was a certain brotherhood between them.

The union of these Frankish tribes under Clovis and his successors formed the great Frankish realm which soon was to influence so greatly the history of Europe. It was nearing the peak of its greatness when on the death of his father, Pepin the Short, in 768, Charlemagne shared the rule with his brother Carloman, and when Carloman died three years later, became sole ruler.

This division which Pepin instituted was aimed at allotting the two brothers separate spheres of influence. This, however, did not prevent the personal rivalry between them, which their father had foreseen, from coming into play, and only the conciliatory efforts of their mother, Queen Bertrada, warded off an outbreak of hostilities.

This state of affairs was unfortunate, for it threatened to undo all that the great work of Pepin had achieved for the Franks, no less than the secular headship of the Christian West, the spiritual headship of which was vested in the Pope.

Lombard domination at its greatest extent under Aistulf and Desiderius, ca. 750–785.

Lombard domination at its greatest extent under Aistulf and Desiderius, ca. 750–785.

At this point in time, Italian politics were in a greater state of embroilment than they had ever been before. The death of King Aistulf of Italy in 756 had been followed by a disputed succession, which was finally settled when Desiderius, Duke of Tuscany, was elected king. Desiderius’s policy was to avoid attracting the intervention of Pepin in the affairs of the Italian kingdom and its relations with the Papacy, at the same time that he cut the Papacy off from Frankish protection. He achieved a fair measure of success by the time that Carloman died and Charlemagne had become sole ruler of the Franks.

On the death of her husband, Carloman’s widow had fled with her disinherited children to Lombardy, and this event caused Desiderius to attempt an open act of opposition to Charlemagne. He brought considerable pressure on the Pope to crown Carlo-man’s children, which, in effect, was tantamount to proclaiming that Charlemagne was the usurper of Carloman’s crown.

Successive Popes had tried to resist the “protection” which Desiderius had energetically attempted to force upon them. They had been too weak to resist him altogether, but the Pope who had recently ascended the throne of St Peter was made of a very different mettle. Adrian I threatened to excommunicate Desiderius if he did not desist, and called upon Charlemagne to come with an army to his assistance.

It is quite clear that Desiderius had miscalculated Charlemagne’s strength and his own weakness, and when the Frankish armies arrived in his territories and besieged him in Pavia, after only a few months he surrendered and was deported to Francia.

Charlemagne (left) and Pippin the Hunchback. Tenth-century copy of a lost original from about 830.

Charlemagne (left) and Pippin the Hunchback. Tenth-century copy of a lost original from about 830.

In the meantime Charlemagne had journeyed to Rome, and there he made an arrangement with the Pope by which the latter received the territories of Tuscany, Spoleto and Benevento, while he declared himself to be “King of the Franks and Lombards and Patrician of the Romans”. This meant that Italy was to be a part of the Frankish realm, but a special part, for in his capacity of Patrician of the Romans, Charlemagne issued orders to the Pope and supervised the administration of all the Italian territories as far south as Rome. Thus the link which had formerly existed between Italy and the Byzantine Empire was broken.

Adrian and Charlemagne were in full accord in all this, and in spite of periodical contradictions and recriminations, the arrangement worked well.

It had been Charlemagne’s aim to rule all Italy, but this he never achieved. The Empire of the East maintained its hold over southern Italy and Sicily.

Though the conquest of Italy had been an important part of Charlemagne’s aims, it did not represent his most cherished wish. This was the conquest of the Saxons, the last pagan and independent tribe of inner Germany. Out of a reign of forty years he devoted thirty-two to achieving the subjugation of the Saxons, and while he was striving always to this end he was engaged in a series of campaigns and conquests elsewhere.

Motivated by a strange mixture of political insight, insatiable ambition and a sincere desire to protect and extend Christendom and civilization, he brought the whole of what is now France under his rule, made the Danes respect his arms, and forced the Bavarians and the Avars, farther to the east, to recognize him as their overlord. He also crossed the Pyrenees into Spain and pushed back the Moors behind the Ebro.

The measure of his energy can be taken when it is learned that while he was conducting these warlike activities, he personally administered his vast realm which stretched from the Elbe to beyond the Pyrenees and from the North Sea to the borders of Benevento, south of Rome. The Pope, even in ecclesiastical matters, as well as secular, bowed to his commands when their views in these matters conflicted.

But in his role as the most powerful ruler in Europe, Charlemagne was bound to find himself in conflict with the Empire of the East, and the Empire in the East still had a tremendous influence on men’s minds, even if its physical power was of little or no account.

The tradition of the old Roman Empire was still strong in the memory of the people and particularly among the educated classes. The law and daily customs all recalled it; men read Virgil as well as St Augustine, and since the coming of Christianity, Rome, now represented in Constantinople, had always been the accepted protector of Christendom. In the eyes of the Emperor in the East, the Franks and their ruler were upstarts, claiming, but nothing more, the status of supreme authority in the West. The time was fast approaching, however, when the Old Rome, the see of St Peter, was to put the seal on the upstart’s claims and make the claims reality.



On Christmas Day, 795, Pope Adrian I died. The new Pope was Leo III, a Roman, and much disliked by the former Pope’s family, though they were Roman also. Unlike Adrian, Leo was a weak man, and he showed his weakness at once by sending to Charlemagne the banner of Rome, promising fidelity, and requesting Frankish envoys to come to Rome to receive the homage of the Romans.

This infuriated his enemies, and on 25 April, 799, Leo was seized and tortured so brutally that he almost lost sight and speech, and was saved from death only by the arrival of Charlemagne’s envoys. He took refuge with Charlemagne, and was escorted back to Rome under the Frankish king’s protection. There his enemies were brought to trial and exiled to Francia, while Charlemagne, hoping to arrange a peaceful settlement between the papist and anti-papist factions, himself travelled to Rome.

There Leo performed an act which took Charlemagne entirely by surprise, and at the same time installed him as the protector of Christendom in form at least.

While Charlemagne was attending mass in St Peter’s on Christmas Day, 800, and while he was kneeling in his place of honour near the altar, Leo suddenly placed a golden crown on his head, and the Roman nobles chanted the traditional recognition: “To Charlemagne, Augustus, crowned by God, the great peace-bringing Emperor of the Romans, life and victory.” The Pope then performed the customary adoration due to the Emperors, and later crowned Charles the Younger, the eldest of Charlemagne’s sons, king.

The Patrician of the Romans had become the Emperor; a new Roman Empire had been founded in the West.

Whatever Charlemagne felt in his secret heart, he expressed displeasure at what Leo had done, and he was indeed assailed by a number of genuine misgivings about his position. He was a traditionalist, and tradition had formulated several necessary stages in the making of an Emperor. He had to be elected by the Senate and acclaimed by the people, and if there was an Emperor in the East, the Emperor in the West had to be recognized by the Eastern Emperor as a co-ruler. The first two could be said to have been fulfilled by the acclamations in St Peter’s, but the third, which was imperative, would probably never be accorded, and without it his legal position as Emperor could be challenged. The legal authorities, however, argued that as a woman had usurped the Eastern throne, that throne was vacant.

This may have satisfied form, but it was not entirely satisfactory as a solution to a man who believed that authority must be based on the indisputable legality of processes and positions. It was to determine his right to the imperial throne in the West that for the rest of his life he sought an arrangement with the East. When, at the beginning, the successor of the Empress Irene refused his recognition, Charlemagne did not hesitate to attack Venice, the only dependency of Constantinople in North Italy. Following upon its submission to him in 805, he laid claim to Dalmatia, which also recognized the authority of the East. But within a short time a Greek fleet won back both Venice and Dalmatia for the East.

Charlemagne in reply sent his son Pepin to re-conquer Venice. Its towns were sacked, its rulers, the Doges, were seized. Though the Byzantine fleet commanded the Adriatic, the East decided to negotiate, and Charlemagne offered to renounce his claims to Venice, Dalmatia and Istria in return for recognition. In 812, the Emperor Michael saluted him as co-ruler of the Empires of the East and West.

The construction of Aachen, illumination by Jean Fouquet, in the Grandes Chroniques de France, 15th century. Charlemagne is at the foreground.

Unfortunately, Charlemagne was now seventy and approaching the end of his life. He died on 28 January, 814, in his palace at Aachen, and was buried in the great church nearby.

Possessing more creative genius than his father Pepin, he believed that his role as King and Emperor was not only to give his realms peace and good government, but to bring to new life the civilization which, together with religion and culture, had disappeared during the Dark Ages.

In every department of administration and war, in law and judgment he personally maintained control. He gathered round him a circle of learned men, the elite of scholars from every part of Europe. From Northumbria came Alcuin, an eminent teacher, from Orleans came Theodulf, the best writer of Latin verse of the day, from the Maingau came Einhard, the best prose writer, from Friuli, in northern Italy, came the grammarian Paul the Deacon, who wrote an outstanding historyof his own people.

In the field of education, his first concern was to produce literate and, if possible, learned priests and monks. This, to the highest degree which his resources allowed, he succeeded in doing.

But the greatest effect of his efforts on the future came through his conquests and their very limits. In his Empire, the unity of the Western church became an established and effective fact. His concept of the State ruled by God, which he took direct from St Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, which he put into practice in Rome, provided the model for later papacies. Mediterranean Italy and Italy beyond the Alps were linked together. The union of all the Frankish tribes made possible the later withdrawal of the German-speaking Franks to form united Germany.

His reign, with all that he performed during it, with the laws he gave and the civilization which he brought to it set the stage of Europe for all the great changes which the future was to bring.


Johannes Gutenberg's Movable Type

Learning, Previously the Prerogative of the Few, Sweeps the World

Without readily available books, newspapers, magazines, few people would bother, or be able, to read. Education as we know it would be unthinkable; the world would revert in a few years to a condition much as it was in the fourteenth century: there would be privileged, educated elite able to buy or borrow the few works available in manuscript; for the rest, education would be information, picked up by ear. The hundreds of copies of plans, blueprints, for building an aeroplane, a motor-car, an office block, a scooter, these would not be available.

Only poets, whose language is memorable, spoken prose, only poets would flourish.

But of course this is nonsense. If printing were forgotten, if every man and woman connected with the art, every girl behind a type­writer, were to be struck blank by loss of memory, someone would invent it all over again, and quickly. A world like ours cannot exist without print.

One of the few firm facts we have concerning the origins of printing is the name of the man who didn’t invent it. His name, an important one, as we shall see, was Johannes Gutenberg: he lived in the fifteenth century, in Germany.

Printing, the transferring of an image by impression, is one of the most ancient of man’s skills. The earliest printed book in our possession was produced in China eleven hundred years ago. It was found in a cave in Tunhuang at the start of this century, it takes the form of a scroll sixteen feet long and a foot wide and it bears the Chinese equivalent of our date, 16 May, 868. But even this is not the first example: Buddhist charms were printed in Japan and Korea a hundred years before.

Chinese manuscript on silk

Chinese manuscript on silk

So advanced was Oriental printing that in A.D. 932 the Chinese began printing an edition of the classics, and completed it one hundred and thirty volumes and twenty-one years later. Their process of “block printing” is one we use for reproducing pictures; the whole page is carved (nowadays by acid, in those days with a knife) out of one piece of wood or metal. The Chinese language being non-alphabetic, comprising thousands of individual characters representing separate ideas is poorly suited to modern movable type, with its individual letters assembled into a block; and yet even this revolutionary development took place in the eleventh century. The philosopher Pi-Cheng introduced movable type, urged its general acceptance, and his invention died with him.

A revolving table typecase with individual movable type characters arranged primarily by rhyming scheme, from Wang Zhen's book of agriculture published in 1313


Marco Polo

Marco Polo

It was not until Marco Polo and other travellers had returned from exploring the East that the art of printing became known in Europe, and it was not until the fifteenth century, and Gutenberg, that books were produced by the method. There was a sudden revival of interest, and three methods were tried: the Chinese one, with hand-carved wooden blocks, one per page; a system of movable type, redeveloped from Pi-Cheng’s discarded method by Lawrens Coster of Haarlem; and a third, also using movable type, but far more efficiently, developed by Johannes Gutenberg.

Block printing came first, and various seals and documents were made by the process. The printer took his flat piece of wood, a piece slightly bigger than the area he intended to cover with print, and inked each letter carefully on it, in reverse; then he cut away the wood from every un-inked part of the wooden surface and was left with his printing block. The process took time but a practically infinite number of books could be printed from the same blocks. Indeed, one of the disadvantages of the method was that the expensively carved block lasted longer than the demand for the book. Few people could read, and the edition was limited to a few copies; after these had been run off, the block could only be used for lighting the fire.

The answer was movable type. “With only a score or so of letters in a European alphabet, it would be simple to cut a number of copies of each from separate blocks. They could then be assembled into the words and sentences of a page, clamped together and printed. When the required number of pages had been printed, the little blocks could be taken apart and used again. The idea appealed to Lawrens Coster, and he cut his separate letters; whether he then went on to make a mould of each and cast a large number of replicas we do not know. Gutenberg did, and as he produced a better product, more aesthetically pleasing, more legible, than Coster, his name has gone into history as the first European to use movable type. With Gutenberg’s work, printing as we know it began.

(c. 1398–1468), inventor of the European technology of printing with movable type.

(c. 1398–1468), inventor of the European technology of printing with movable type.

He was born in Mainz, Germany, about 1398, but for some reason was banished from the town at the age of thirty. He moved to Strasbourg where he developed his first printing press, a practical application of an idea he had been working on since childhood. The press allowed him to stamp out page after page with great speed and he printed with an unprecedented beauty and clarity. We do not know whether the blurred, unattractive work claimed for Coster was in fact done by him, whether he was really a printer or just a man who made type, but we have many examples of the beautiful work done by Gutenberg.

At the end of 1444 he returned to Mainz; presumably the cause of his banishment had been forgotten, though he had seized the opportunity during a visit of the town clerk of Mainz to Strasbourg to have the unfortunate man flung into gaol ‘for debt”. The Mayor of Strasbourg, profoundly shocked at this discourtesy to a visiting dignitary, had him released, threatened to have Gutenberg incarcerated in his place. Quite possibly this high-handed action set off events which made him only too anxious to leave Strasbourg.

In Mainz, he entered into partnership with a rich goldsmith called Fust, a trusting man who spent a great deal of money over the years on Gutenberg’s ideas, for no return. The partnership finally dissolved and Fust brought an action to recover his money.

Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg was now working on his famous “42-line Bible”, but just as he was completing the blocks his press was handed over as reparation to Fust. The latter promptly went into partnership with Gutenberg’s assistant, Peter Schoeffer, and published the great Bible in 1456. Gutenberg has rightly gone into history as the printer of this masterpiece, but he received nothing for his labours.

He disappeared for a year and probably made another Bible in Bamberg before reappearing in Mainz in 1460 with another beautifully produced work, Catholicon. Those books, quite apart from their immense historical value, are works of art: in 1954 a copy of the first Bible changed hands for £71,400, while a year later one page, all that survived of another copy, was sold for £130. Gutenberg, however, ended his days in comparative poverty with a small pension granted by the Archbishop of Mainz. He watched in disgust as Fust and Schoeffer carried his invention from success to success. By the time he died in 1468, printing, based on his developments, had been established in Italy and Switzerland and would spread in the next twenty years to most of Europe.

Like Gutenberg, the early printers cast their own type, but printing houses soon decided to specialize in the business of printing, leaving others to make type for them in separate foundries. The trade of type-founder was an honoured one from the end of the sixteenth century to the start of the twentieth, when developments in printing and metallurgy made it often more convenient to cast type mechanically by means of a type-casting machine. After use the type was melted down again.

For three hundred years after Gutenberg the main progress in the art of printing was the development of new type designs. Presses began to be made of iron, not wood; to be used in batteries; but the most laborious aspect of the craft, the picking up of each letter singly and assembling, “composing”, it with others in a composing stick which was then clamped with its fellows to form a page; this was still done by hand. Attempts were made to develop machines which would compose, but they all suffered from two major disabilities: they could assemble the type in the right order, group the letters into words, but they were unable to ‘justify” the lines to fill the width of the page; and they were unable either to return the matrices from which the type was made to the containers from which they had come. Little effort was saved.

The Linotype matrix

The Linotype matrix

It was not until 1886 and the appearance of the first commercial “Linotype” that these problems were solved. The machine, as its name implies, cast a whole line of type in one piece, “justified” it automatically, and then returned the matrices to the magazine for further use. It was worked by a keyboard, like a typewriter. It had several disadvantages of its own: the size and design of letters were restricted by that of the machine, and a solid line of type was felt by purists to be less clear in impression than one made up of separate characters. The “Monotype” machine solved the second of these problems by casting each letter separately, but it, too, was restricted in type design. It was followed by other machines like the “Intertype” and the “Typograph”. Nowadays the Linotype and Monotype machines are used extensively, the former for magazines and newspapers, the latter for books, though in the United States the improved Linotype has pride of place for almost everything.

The hand compositor, though much of his work has been taken from him, is a man of importance. He may not be able to compete when a large quantity of letterpress is to be set in one size of type, but he has the advantage over a machine when several sizes are being used. Nowadays, with the advertising industry using an ever-increasing amount of “display printing”, there is far more of this work being done. The hand compositor is also responsible for title-pages, chapter-headings, arranging the machine-set type into columns and pages.

In England, printing arrived with William Caxton in 1476, twenty years after Gutenberg’s Bible. Caxton was born in about 1422, in Kent, and was apprenticed to a silk merchant: the man died when he was nineteen and he was sent to Bruges to finish his term.

When this was over he decided that there would be better opportunities of getting rich on the Continent than in England, and he settled there. Within a few years he had risen to the comparatively dizzy height of Commercial Adviser to a Duchess, and it was in 1472, during a business trip on her behalf to Cologne, that he began to study the art of printing. Two years later he resigned his post and set up as a printer in Bruges. After another two years he had printed his first book, his own translation of a French romance into English, which he followed by The Game and Playe of Chesse. His fame having travelled back to his native land, he decided to follow it.

The first book Caxton published in England was Lord Rivers’s The Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophers, in 1477. Between this and the end of his life he published over eighty books, many of them being his own translations from the French. By 1481 he had produced a beautifully illustrated Myrrour of the World with his own woodcuts. His chief claim to fame rests on the fact that he brought literary masterpieces to all who could read and thereby preserved them for us. He printed Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales twice, and a number of other works which have survived and it was not until he had done so that the English language began to settle down to a uniform spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Printing, one of mankind’s greatest discoveries, has progressed a long way since the time of Gutenberg and Caxton. A certain amount of it is now done by photographic methods, printing a whole page from the equivalent of a photographic negative, and the next step forward is likely to be the abandonment of type altogether and the composition and printing of books entirely by photograph. But whatever developments take place, we can be sure that they will not have the sweeping significance of Gutenberg’s work in the fifteenth century.


Historical Events


  • Code Of Hammurabi
  • Belief Of Akhenaten
  • Founding Of Rome
  • Dawn Of The Scientific Method
  • Teachings Of Buddha
  • Lao-tze Founds Taoism
  • Battles Of Salamis And Plataea
  • Hippocratic Method
  • Thought of Plato and Aristotle
  • Conscience Of King Asoka
  • Battle Of Zama
  • Julius Caesar Gains Power in Rome
  • Battle of Actium
  • Teaching Of Jesus
  • Vision of St Paul
  • Constantine The Great Adopts Christianity
  • Destruction Of The Roman Empire
  • Founding Of Islam
  • Coronation Of Charlemagne The Great
  • Otto the Great Refounds the Holy Roman Empire
  • Battle Of Hastings
  • Council Of Clermont
  • Introduction Of The Jury System
  • Magna Carta
  • Model Parliament
  • Invention Of Gunpowder
  • Black Death
  • Joan Of Arc’s Victories And Martyrdom
  • Johannes Gutenberg's Movable Type
  • Sacking Of Constantinople
  • Columbus Discovers The New World
  • Sea-Route To India
  • Cortes Conquers Mexico
  • Copernicus’s Theory
  • Martin Luther Inaugurates The Reformation
  • Founding Of The East India Company
  • Voyage of the Pilgrim Fathers
  • Discovery Of The Blood's Circulation
  • Science Of Newton
  • Peace Of Westphalia
  • Execution Of Charles I
  • Louis XIV Rules As Absolute Monarch
  • Habeas Corpus Act
  • William III becomes King
  • Battle Of Blenheim
  • George I, The King Who Spoke No English
  • Jethro Tull's "Horse-Hoeing Husbandry"
  • Fall Of Quebec
  • Spinning Jenny
  • Captain Cook Rediscovers Australia And New Zealand
  • James Watt’s Steam Engine
  • "The Wealth of Nations"
  • War of Independence
  • Manifesto of Miss Wollstonecraft
  • French Revolution
  • Austerlitz
  • Battle Of Waterloo
  • Vision of Robert Owen
  • Stockton And Darlington Railway
  • Faraday Discovers Electricity
  • Reform Bill Of 1832
  • Refrigeration
  • Durham Report
  • Invention Of The Camera
  • Discovery Of Anaesthesia
  • Ten-Hours' Day
  • Year of the Revolutions
  • Commodore Perry Opens Up Japan
  • Bessemer Converter
  • Charles Darwin's Bombshell
  • "Das Kapital"
  • Unification of Germany
  • Voice in the Wire
  • Invention Of The Internal Combustion Engine
  • Match Girls' Strike
  • Discovery of X-Rays
  • Marconi Sends The First Wireless Message
  • Discovery Of Radium
  • Freud And The Unconscious Mind
  • Man's First Powered Flights
  • Japan Defeats Russia
  • Assassination Of The Archduke Franz Ferdinand
  • Battle Of The Marne
  • October Revolution
  • Treaty Of Versailles
  • Einstein's Theory Of Relativity
  • Baird Transmits A Picture Of An Office-Boy's Face
  • Rutherford's Discovery
  • Penicillin
  • Statute Of Westminster
  • New Deal
  • Hitler Enters The Rhineland
  • Battle Of Britain
  • Attack On Pearl Harbour
  • Battle Of Stalingrad
  • Hiroshima
  • Emergence Of Chinese Communism
  • First Flights Into Space
  • New Agrarian Revolution
  • De Gaulle Returns to Power