The printer’s devil

Anyone who deals with the printed letter, either with its reproduction as an author or editor, or with its consumption as a reader, knows well the printer’s devil, at least from the scattered traces of his sacrificial and tireless activity. However, I met him in person yesterday in York.

The devil was sitting on top of the column of a Renaissance shop portal at the corner of Stonegate and Coffee Yard. He did not wear Prada on his red body, but only an elegant black iron chain around his waist. His spread legs showed the absence of his reproductive organs, as he sat up there before the soon-to-be-started witch trials denigrated him as the corruptor of the unfortunate women dragged into court. He wore a carefully trimmed humanist’s round beard, and he carefully scanned the passersby on the other side of the streets. They, however, did not look back at him, because in York even the child knows that whoever looks into the eyes of the red devil will be in trouble that day.

The shop at 33 Stonegate, when the devil sat upon its portal, was a print shop. Book printing took root in the important university and episcopal city of York in the 1500s, and most of the printing presses operated on Stonegate. And the presses had their own devils. Not only because book printing was considered somehow magical and in league with the devil, but also because the masters had young assistants to mix the printing ink, smear it on the lead letters, then took them apart and, if necessary, remelt them. These smudgy guys were called the devils of the printing press. And if there was a mistake in the typesetting, the master spread the blame on the printer’s devil. And since the assistants also swore that they did everything right, the printer’s devil gradually became a mysterious and elusive being, an invisible inhabitant of the printing house, who leaves his handprints even on the most carefully set and twice proofread text, precisely on the page where the reader first opens the book.

In that period there was no house numbering yet. The houses and shops were marked with colorful signs, as we still see today in the Old Town of Prague. Think about it, what self-irony and courage it took for the Stonegate master to choose the manufacturer of printing errors, considered as shameful anomalies, for the emblem of his craft. True, by doing so, he slipped aside from blame. Whoever orders a job from a workshop dedicated to the Printer’s Devil, should not be surprised at the result.

Arrival of the Hungarians

First I notice the scaled-down resin copies of the Orkhon steles with Old Turkic inscriptions in the puszta of Bugac, and only then do I pay attention to the nomadic warrior posing in front of them. “What flag is this?” I ask, pointing to the green wolf-headed flag in his hand, but he responds in German. I mistakenly considered him an ancient Hungarian warrior. He is actually German, he says with a Turkish accent, this is the first time he is in Hungary, otherwise he had attended similar traditional reenactment meetings in Turkey and Mongolia – the home of the Orkhon steles – with this portable apotheosis of Turkish writing. The green wolf is the imagined flag of the Göktürks ruling Orkhon in the 6th and 7th centuries. It was there that this runic script, adapted from the Aramaic script to the Turkic language, was first used to record the history of the empire. I say good-bye in Turkish, the silver head of his small symbolic animal nods in gratitude.

The nomadic Kazakh archer does a long photo session of a man demonstrating ancient Hungarian blacksmithing, pulling his Canon camera out from under his saddle. The master blacksmith, sitting on a bench covered with a rag rug, comments on the masterstrokes of his apprentice, spinning an empty drinking cup in his hand. “Is the drinking cup from the time of the Conquest?” asks one of the reverent spectators. “Actually, it’s a Tunisian tourist souvenir, but it would pass for the Late Iron Age.”

The highlight of the day is when, at noon, a cloud of dust rises in the Bugac steppe, from which the outlines of a cavalry column slowly unfold. They are the Hungarians who, after more than a thousand years, reenact how their ancestors arrived here, in the Carpathian Basin. Determined-looking men and women on horseback, behind them are heavy-footed infantrymen, between them carts for the old and the small folk. I can feel how this sight may have frozen the bowels of the Slavic onlookers of the time. Just as for the Hungarians when, a few centuries later, our nomadic brothers marched here in similary military columns. As they come closer, and I can clearly perceive that they are ours, I can better appreciate their enthusiastic participation and homage to the memory of our ancestors. Only one thing bothers me: I’ve been to many historical reenactment gatherings, and period clothing is essential everywhere. The participants subtly but clearly comment on possible anachronistic features of each other’s clothing. This parade, where everything goes from imagined Árpád dynasty costumes to csikós’ dress and 1848 military uniforms, is thus less a reenactment than rather a ritual procession, for which everyone has donned their best historical Sunday clothes. For the sake of the perfect experience, those who understand Hungarian should turn off the sound with the unctuous commentary of the celebrant:

In Iran, on the second day of Ashura, there is a procession in Nushabad, where representatives of all parts of the country march long from the desert through the clay city, dressed in 7th-century warrior’s clothing, exotic armor and on various war animals, to fight for Imam Hussain who fell on this day, against the disgraceful Sunnis. A great visual advantage of this parade is that it proceeds along a two-meter corridor left open between the spectators, so that everyone can take a look at the horse or camel’s jewelry, the weapons, and the little boys’ clothes, since most of the warriors also bring a nicely clothed little boy in his lap, in memory of Imam Hussain’s little son who was escaped from the massacre. In Bugac, the conquering Hungarians are kept far away from their late successors, but then those of them incompatible with a group image – the pedestrians, carts and camels – quietly slink away among the yurts after the march. There you can take a closer look at them, and the spectators happily take advantage of the opportunity. Just be careful not to get bitten by a camel – this danger is one of the central metaphors of the main speaker of the event, a founding member of the right-wing government party.

Representatives of twenty-seven peoples with nomadic roots participate in this year’s kurultay on horseback and in historical costumes. After the conquering Hungarians marched in, one horseman from each of them ran around the Hungarian camp with the modern flag of their people. This motif was perhaps taken from the photos of the show accompanying Árpád Feszty’s famous Arrival of the Hungarians (1894) in the Greater Britain Exhibition of 1899-1909. The Kyrgyz and the Mongol fall off of their horses: what a shame! They will probably be beheaded back home. Here we see the flag bearers of the Crimean Tatars and the Transylvanian Szeklers. The eternal and unbreakable Tatar-Transylvanian friendship dates back to the centuries of the Principality of Transylvania, when Tatars sometimes went on study trips to the rich cities of Transylvania, just as Transylvanians did to the tanneries of the Crimea, as Mór Jókai vividly describes in A Damokosok (on this, see our post). Their last joint venture was when, in 1717, Prince Rákóczi’s former Hungarian insurgents and the Crimean Tatars, on the Sultan's behalf, broke into and plundered Transylvania, already ruled by the Habsburgs. The city of Szék / Sic was also destroyed at that time, which the people of Szék still mourn each year on August 24. I was there a few years ago and suggested that the Crimean Tatars might also be invited to the upcoming 300th anniversary in 2017 as a symbol of reconciliation. The hard-necked Calvinist presbyters of Szék just shook their heads. “It’s not time yet.”