An Unexpected Encounter in London, or Gutenberg in Korea

Korean_book-Jikji-Selected_Teachings_of_Buddhist_Sages_and_Seon_Masters-1377The universe works in mysterious ways. It boggles the mind at times. Last Wednesday I was in London for a very brief visit to the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea to talk about the pros and cons of cultural diplomacy with North Korea. About the possibility of anything slightly resembling cultural diplomacy with North Korea. Timing was excellent. Not my timing, but that of the universe, for the previous evening the proposal for a resolution on the human rights situation in North Korea had just been accepted by a clear majority of 111 countries at the UN. The day before I was at a KINU-organized event in the capital of the Empire of Europe which also had a NK human rights theme. So great timing all around on the part of the universe. And it would even get better. Walking from my hotel in Bloomsbury to the Groodge Street Station (a name that must have made Charles Dickens smile), I passed a WH Smith bookstore. I am not too fond of bookstore chains, but I make an exception for WH Smith, purely on account of the aptly titled pamphlet Was Lord Bacon The Author of Shakespeare’s Plays? from 1856. In one of the windows I saw this book: The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphaël Jerusalmy. 9781609452308Being attracted to books, the older and smellier the better, on a genetic level, I had no other choice than to go in, buy the book and start reading it on my way to St James’ Park. And lo and behold, this is what I found on page 29:

Without hesitation, he placed his finter on the name stamped on the cover: Kyonghan.
“The author, I presume?”
François guessed that his interlocutor knew the answer. He nodded briefly.
Fust made an effort to keep calm. He turned the pages with a detached air. Tiny beads of sweat formed on his wrinkled forehead. He had feared at first that this edition of the Jikji Simkyong had been printed with the help of terracotta or porcelain characters. But no, this was indeed the 1377 edition, composed in Korea using movable metal fonts. He already had a copy, brought fifteen years earlier to Mayence by a Jew from the Holy Land. Fust had been surprised by the quality of the ink, the clarity of the touch, and above all the fineness of the letters. The Jew had wanted to know if Fust, being a silversmith, would be capable of reproducing that alloy of Korean fonts, and if his son-in-law, Pierre Schoeffer, and their associate Johannes Gensfleisch, known as Gutenberg, could make a machine that would allow the use of charatercs thus obtained. The original press would have been too fragile to print on rag paper, which was more resistant to ink than delicate China papers.

The Jikji Simkyong, the world’s earliest extant text printed with movabe metal type in my beloved Koryõ dynasty, in a French novel written in the vein of Umberto Eco (“We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!”)? Gutenberg inspired by Korean printing? Knowledge on Korean books available among 15th century European printers? Holy shit. This is heady stuff and it did go straight to my head.

The Jikji Simkyong, or what’s left of it, is in France at the moment, at the National Library. It wasn’t returned in 2011 with the books the French looted when they invaded Kanghwa-do in 1866 (rich, rich pickings, finally back where they belong), because the book was legitimately bought by French diplomat Victor Emile Marie Joseph Collin de Plancy (I’d become a French diplomat just to get such a name) towards the end of the 19th century. Korea (South Korea) wants it back, because of its unique significance. France says ironically that its unique significance transcends national interests and the UNESCO seems to agree. So do I. The volume was legitimately acquired (and not taken at gunpoint like the books that have now finally been returned) and France takes good care of it. The French put up resistance of a more sordid kind when faced with the return of the books the French army had stolen from the Royal Library – one of four back-up locations – at Kanghwa-do, by claiming Korean institutions were not capable of taken proper care of historical documents. Right. Only someone who has never browsed Korean digital libraries would have the balls so say something like that. It would have been good to have the Jikji in Korea, but there you are. There should be a limit to national interests that can be legitimately invoked in these matters, I think.

Anyway, the Jikji Simkyong or as its original title tells us the 白雲和尙抄錄佛祖直指心體要節 is of unparalleled importance in the history of printing. In The Brotherhood Of Book Hunters it is suggested by its author Raphaël Jerusalmy, who btw is an antiquarian book seller in Jerusalem, that the Mongols caused East Asian knowledge to spread in 15th-century Europe. I agree (as anyone who has ever the misfortune of hearing me talk on the Mongols knows). Whether this included influencing Gutenberg to inventing his press, I do not know (and for that matter, as anyone in Holland – and only there I’m afraid) – and in particular in Haarlem knows, it was Laurens Janszoon Coster who invented the whole process anyway, even before Gutenberg). I have long been interested in the history of printing and in knowledge exchange in Eurasia, so one day I will write a monograph on it. Until then I’ll keep my ideas for myself, but suffice it to say that I was very much intrigued by Jerusalmy’s representation of the position of Korean printing culture in 15th-century Europe. And yes, I know it’s a bloody novel. But still. And it does say something about how much Korea (and I mean the word Korea in all of its many, many senses) has permeated ‘our’ consciousness. Or at least that of the French. Who have a bit of a headway re: Korean affairs compared to the rest of Europe. More than a bit really. Anyway, I should really finish The Brotherhood Of Book Hunters and see whether there is another surprise visit from the Korean peninsula in its pages (Louis XI drinking from a celadon cup?). I’ll let you know if there is.

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