“Black Art” – 550 years of printing in Poland
It was a popular copy of an astronomical-astrological type of wall calendar at the time, facilitating not only the location in time of the movable holidays, but also describing such ‘practical’ matters as… the best times for bloodletting. The print was created in 1473 in the Kraków workshop of Kasper Straube, an itinerant printer who came to Wawel from Bavaria, with the year 1474 in mind. Many years later, in the 20th century, Karol Estreicher gave it the name Almanach Cracoviense ad annum 1474, under which it is known to this day.
This will be an entry about how inconspicuous events, taken from the mundane of life, create the history of cities, countries and continents. It is also a small addition to the programme of this year’s celebrations marking the 550th anniversary of printing in Poland, in which Kraków, the cradle of Polish printing, plays a special role.
THE MOVEMENT OF KNOWLEDGE
As Dr Alicja Bielak from the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences explained interestingly in an interview with Polish Radio Programme One (a link to the interview in Polish can be found here), the invention of movable type is central to the story of printing. After all, printing was known many centuries before Gutenberg by the Chinese, followed by Islamic civilisation in later centuries. However, it is one thing to prepare a large block with a ‘sheet’ of text the size of an entire sheet of paper, and another to create tiny cubes with successive letters of the alphabet that can be juxtaposed in any arrangement to form different texts on the same machine – the printing press.
In the same way that the military’s ARPANET communication system gave rise to the most efficient communication system ever created by mankind – the internet, the mobile typeface, trivial in its conception, created an opportunity for the distribution of knowledge that was unprecedented in history.
The first printers were wanderers, looking for new markets in the successive cities of Europe. Less than 20 years after Johannes Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention, one of them, the Bavarian Kasper Straube, made his way to Jagiellonian Krakow, at the time the leading university centre of Central Europe. We don’t know much about this man – it is said that he got into an argument with one of Kraków’s barber surgeons and was one of the rather impulsive people. His workshop, which does not exist today, was located on Bernardyńska Street.
He started with something that sold best in the cities of late medieval Europe, namely calendars. The Kraków Almanac is the only surviving copy of a calendar that could be worth the approximate equivalent of a jug of beer in those days. The text of the calendar was most likely not the work of Straube himself, but of Piotr Gaszowiec (Petro Gassoviecz, c. 1425 – 1474). He is an enigmatic figure – astrologer, doctor of medicine, professor at the Krakow Academy. He left behind works that were used by successive generations of ‘scholars of the stars’ – including Nicolaus Copernicus himself.
It is important to remember that at the time the division between science and paranormal science was not a bit as clear as it is today. Gaszowiec probably had a hand in bringing to Krakow and transcribing here the Picatrix, an Arabic magic book, one of the oldest known studies of its kind in the world, a work that had a great influence on New Age movements and esoteric thought in the broadest sense.
Let us quote excerpts from the calendar itself, as translated by Professor Marian Plezia:
The following are the seasons of letting blood, chosen according to the true course of the moon along the circle of the signs of the zodiac and adapted to the very apparent positions of the planets according to the age and complexion of the people and members fit to let blood:
January. Monday after Epiphany good for manly and senile age, for melancholics, except for the buttocks, before noon.
Friday after the octave of Epiphany good for senile age, for phlegmatics, except loins, the following day medium for the same before noon.
Thursday on the day of St Fabian and St Sebastian medium for the aged, for the cholerics, except for the ankles.
And so on and so forth….
WHEN BOOKS SPOKE IN TONGUES
Such printing marked the beginning of Krakow’s and the whole of the then Polish Crown’s extraordinary adventure with movable type. While the Almanac was still written in Latin, in later years the proto-Renaissance breath of fresh air brought the first printings in Polish. For a long time, the prayer book Paradise of the Soul by Biernat of Lublin (1513), produced in the Kraków printing house of Florian Ungler, was regarded as the first of its kind, but later research proved that Polish first appeared in print in History of the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1508).
And this was only the beginning of an incredible cultural ferment under Wawel Hill. Did you know that Krakow was home to the world’s first printer to use Cyrillic fonts (the liturgical books Triod’ Postnaja, Triod cvetnaja, Oktoich and Časoslov were produced in Old Church Slavonic in the workshop of Szwajpolt Fiol in 1490-1491)? Or the pioneering prints in Hebrew alphabet (the printing house of Isaac of Prostějov operating from 1568 in Kazimierz)?
The fascinating history of the “black art” – as printing was called in former Poland – is in fact the story of cosmopolitan Krakow during the Renaissance. An open city attracting the most talented minds of the time to study. Suffice it to say that in the same year that Kasper Straube imprinted on his press a copy of the Almanach Cracoviense, preserved to this day, in Toruń, Nicolaus Copernicus was born.
550 YEARS LATER
The history of Krakow’s old printing houses is described in the beautifully produced brochure “Black Art”, published by KBF – the operator of the Krakow City of Literature UNESCO programme in cooperation with the Faculty of Polish Studies at the Jagiellonian University. Scans of print signets and title pages of various books available in the Polona digital library are accompanied there by descriptions by Justyna Kiliańczyk-Zięba (PhD) from the Jagiellonian University. Tadeusz Grajpel, an extraordinary animator-passionate from Końskie in the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship, creator of the Research and Historical Education Workshop there and of a faithful reconstruction of the original Gutenberg press, has these stories in his “fingertips”. Mr Tadeusz can be met at various events and popularisation picnics.
Events connected with the 550th anniversary of printing in Poland will take place mainly in autumn. A conference at the Jagiellonian University and a number of exhibitions in museum departments are planned for then. On the occasion of the Cracovia Sacra Night (August), some Krakow monasteries will open the doors of their amazing libraries.
It remains to encourage the reader/reader of this text to follow further announcements. And also to read carefully the stories about the city that gave so much to Renaissance Europe. And with a little imagination, it could draw on these traditions even more effectively.