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  Economies of Writing I

Im-pressing the Realm: The Imprint of Royal Authority in Henrician England

Douglas A. Brooks
Texas A&M University


If the law of God suffer it, then let his grace put forth a little treatise in print, and even in the English tongue, that all men may see it, for his excuse and the defense of his deed, and say, 'Lo, by the authority of God's word do I this.'
-- William Tyndale, The Practice of Prelates: Whether the King's Grace may be Separated from his Queen because she was his Brother's Wife. (Antwerp 1530.)
It is quite possible that on December 1, the date when this paper is scheduled to be posted on the Society for Critical Exchange's website, the current political dispute over who has been elected as the next President of the United States will still be unresolved. As I write this in mid-November, the central question that has emerged from the controversy over which candidate won Florida -- and the presidency -- is a technological one: the Bush campaign maintains that machine counting is the most accurrate and fair method of assessing voters' intentions; in the Gore camp, only manual recounts can adequately determine voters' intentions.
More than three decades after Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault wrote their notorious elegies for authorship, intentionality is back with a vengeance. For the time being, however, as both sides prepare to make their respective cases in various state and federal courts on behalf of intentionality, it is the technological question that looms ever larger on the epistemological horizon of the conflict. There is indeed something rather new, yet simultaneously old about the repeatedly televised images of weary canvassing officials peering through magnifying glasses at punch-card ballots that not only were designed to be read by machines, but in their very form recall the material origins of the computer revolution in the first half of the twentieth century.
No doubt, some astute, historicist-minded commentator will attempt to locate our current election crisis within the incunabula phase of the digital age; but, in fact, technology of one kind or another has been at stake in the transfer and consolidation of power since the moment, some five thousand years ago, that two emergent conceptions of authority -- epistemic and executive -- began to converge in the invention of cuneiform.
Consisting of wedged-shaped lines the first known writing system was impressed with a reed tool in moist clay tablets subsequently baked or dried. "Thus clay," Stephen L. Sass observes, "so critical for storing food, came to play an equally important role in storing information."<1> Indeed, writing in clay rapidly became the originary royal and beaurocratic technology of choice, with cuneiform script remaining in use for nearly three thousand years and being employed for the transcription of some fifteen different languages.<2> In a sense, then, there is a kind of back-to-the-futurism about voters expressing their intentions by using a metal stylus to leave an impression in a paper card, a method that might have been easily understood by a Mesopotamian scribe.
But clay served another important contemporary function as well. Preserved as a badly fragmented cuneiform text from the third millennium BCE, the oldest known story of human creation records the following exhortation from Enki, the Sumerian water god, to his mother, Nammu, the primeval sea:

mix the heart of the clay that is over the abyss,
The good and princely fashioners will thicken the clay,
Thou, do thou bring the limbs into existence;
Ninmah (the earth-mother goddess) will work above thee,
.... (goddesses of birth) will stand by thee at thy fashioning'
O my mother, decree thou its (the new-born's) fate,
Ninmah will bind upon it the ... of the gods, .... as man ... <3>

As such, clay constituted the essence of human life in a narrative that was used to authorize and legitimate Sumerian royal genealogies and dynastic successions, and clay also served as the main component of an administrative technology relied upon by a given king during his reign.
Subsequent traditions would more clearly articulate the links between writing technology and authority. For example, coffin texts dating back to Fifth Dynasty Egypt (ca. 2500 BCE) under Pharaoh Asosi prominently display the following saying: "their officials (magistrates) rise for you and their scribes who are on their mats before you tremble for you."<4> The close relation between officials and scribes glimpsed here points to an important historical truth about the nature of power in ancient Egyptian society: hieroglyphic technology was an obscure and complex field of knowledge, and the relatively few who had mastered it played a fundamental role in governing.
When the alphabet, a new epistemic technology, was introduced in ancient Greece, the mythic account of its origins further emphasized its ties to executive authority. As Marshall McLuhan observes,

The Greek myth about the alphabet was that Cadmus, reputedly the king who introduced the phonetic letters into Greece, sowed the dragon's teeth, and they sprang up armed men. Like any other myth, this one capsulates a prolonged process into a flashing insight. The alphabet meant power and authority and control of military structures at a distance.... That the power of letters as agents of aggressive order and precision should be expressed as extensions of the dragon's teeth is natural and fitting.<5>

The particular convergence of technology and power that interests me here, that of print and royal authority in early sixteenth-century England, also generated a myth or two. In this essay I briefly examine these myths in light of the more complex historical reality of the King's Printer, Richard Pynson, who was employed by Henry VIII in the early years of his reign.

Notes (click note number to return to text):
1. The Substance of Civilization: Materials and Human History from the Stone Age to the Age of Silicon (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998), p. 33.
2. C.B.F. Walker, Reading the Past: Cuneiform (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 40.
3. Quoted in Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium BC (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 19772), p. 70.
4. Allesandro Roccati, "Scribes," in The Egyptians, ed. Sirgio Donadoni (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 61-86; p. 66.
5. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1964), pp. 85-6.

For the full text of this paper, click here.

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