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A 1,200-year-old scroll finds a home next to the Gutenberg Bible

Davis Dunavin
The Hyakumantō darani are Buddhist scrolls — likely made with woodblock printing.

The Gutenberg Bible is one of the treasures of Yale University’s Beinecke Library — the first book printed with movable type in Europe. Now it has a companion, a much older Japanese scroll made with an earlier form of printing, and one of the oldest known printed objects in the world.

WSHU's Davis Dunavin spoke with Yale history professor Daniel Botsman, who showed him a scroll covered in tiny Japanese letters.

DB: The printed piece of paper you can see in front of you is an example of one of the world's oldest surviving printed documents. So this is from around 760. And behind it, you can see a miniature pagoda … and originally, the printed pieces of paper that you see would have been rolled up and actually housed inside the top of that pagoda.

WSHU: What was the purpose of that? I mean, what would they do once they put it in the pagoda?

DB: It was the idea of the then-Empress of Japan, whose name was Shōtoku. And she ordered that a million of these be printed. Conservative estimates suggest that at least several hundred thousand were, in fact, printed. And each of the printed documents basically had one of six Buddhist spells that were supposedly spoken by the Buddha. They're kind of like relics, if you like, and they would have been housed inside the pagoda, which, basically, throughout East Asia is associated with a relic of the Buddha. So it's a marker of the presence of the Buddha.

It shares a display case with the Gutenberg Bible, one of the Beinecke’s most popular exhibits, which dates from the middle of the 15th century.

WSHU: So why specifically put it next to the Gutenberg Bible? Why draw that parallel?

DB: For a long time, in English-speaking countries, people thought printing began with the Gutenberg. And so this is a way of signaling that well, actually, certain kinds of printing started with the Gutenberg. And it's still an extremely important milestone in the history of printing. On the other hand, in East Asia, printing goes back much, much further. By putting these things together, you get this more global picture of how these technologies developed over time.

The Gutenberg Bible was made with movable type, a kind of printing that started in China hundreds of years after these scrolls were made. These scrolls were probably made with woodblocks.

WSHU: Most people think of printing being done the way the Gutenberg Bible is — movable type, right? What's the difference here? Because it seems like it must have been a more painstaking and slow process. And when you consider that up to a million of those are made, feels like a big effort.

DB: Each woodblock would have been carved out, and then pressed down. So it was like a big time stamp, a big, very elaborate stamp. Some people suggest that it was actually metal plates, which would, of course, require a fairly high degree of technical skill to make. But scholars say that by that point in Japan there were indeed metal workers who had the ability to do it. Even though the oldest surviving item is Japanese, the technology itself and the idea to do this is something that really starts in China in the Tang Dynasty. And then it makes its way from China to Korea, and then from Korea to Japan. So, in a way, even though this is a Japanese item, it's also representative of this Greater East Asian kind of history of printing.

Now sharing the spotlight with a representative from the Western European history of printing.

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Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.