With twenty-five soldiers of lead he has conquered the world.
This phrase or some variation upon it used to stick in the minds of English writers on printing like a maddening half-remembered tune. It was often attributed, confidently but without ever giving a reference, to prolific and sententious writers like Benjamin Franklin. From time to time the trade press tried to get to the bottom of the matter. It never succeeded.
To disprove the attribution to Franklin (or Marx, or any of the even less likely candidates) would be a wearisome business, but we can be sure that if there had ever been a genuine reference to quote we should have heard all about it by now, many times over. In fact the earliest known instance of the phrase for which there is a certain date is in a small booklet, Une Visite à l’Imprimerie nationale, written by the dramatist Jules Claretie, and issued in 1904. The same text was repeated in the following year as the preface to an odd book, half type specimen, half promotional brochure, entitled Débuts de l’imprimerie en France. It was written by Arthur Christian, the Director of the Imprimerie Nationale. At the time of its publication the national printing office was preparing to move from the district known as the Marais to a new site in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. After the move, suggested Claretie, it would be possible to create a garden in the Marais and to preserve there the statue made for the Imprimerie Nationale, a copy of the original by David d’Angers in Strasbourg, representing Gutenberg,
celui dont on a dit lors de son cinquième centenaire: Avec vingt-cinq soldats de plomb il a conquis le monde!
(He of whom it was said at the time of his fifth centenary, ‘with twenty-five soldiers of lead he has conquered the world’.)
In the event the statue was moved to a garden in front of the new building. It is shown at the head of this post as it appeared after the building was sold by the Imprimerie Nationale when it left Paris in 2oo5.
The fifth centenary of the birth of Gutenberg was celebrated in 1900 in both Germany and France, and the event generated a great deal of printing. Who made the remark cited by Claretie, and on what occasion? So far the search has been unsuccessful.
It may have been Christian’s book that launched the phrase in the anglophone world, for there its first observed appearance is in 1920, in French, accurately rendering the phrase cited by Claretie, ‘Avec vingt-cinq soldats de plomb il a conquis le monde’. It appears without attribution, or indeed any explanation at all, beneath the heading to a brief essay, ‘Printing as an art’, by Frederic Goudy, in his journal Ars typographica (vol. 1, no. 3, 1920). Goudy later wrote a piece headed ‘The Type Speaks’: ‘I am type! ... I bring into the light of day the precious stores of knowledge and wisdom long hidden in the grave of ignorance. ... In books, I present to you a portion of the Eternal Mind caught in its progress through the world, stamped in an instant, and preserved for eternity. ... I am the leaden army that conquers the world: I am type!’ This turgid slab of prose, which has occasionally been claimed as the origin of the ‘soldiers of lead’, was first published as a broadside by Goudy’s Village Press at Marlborough, New York, in 1931. The last words are evidently derived from the simple phrase cited by Claretie.
By 1923 the original words had gained enough currency for R. A. Austen-Leigh, giving the inaugural lecture in the series of Stationers’ Company Craft Lectures in London to say (changing the 25 soldiers to 26):
‘If I were standing in a pulpit instead of on a platform I should feel inclined to take as my text, though without being able to give chapter and verse for it, that arresting phrase concerning the earliest printer “with twenty-six soldiers of lead he conquered the world.”’
The notion persists to this day that, although one cannot quite pin it down, it should be easy enough to locate the origin of the phrase if only one took the trouble to look in the right place. This idea appears in an essay by Francis Meynell which probably did more to ensure its currency than any previous use, but it did so in a slightly perverted form. Meynell’s version is ‘With twenty-five soldiers of lead I have conquered the world’. This phrase appears as the heading to an essay in the first of a series of leaflets with the title A Printer’s Miscellany that were issued by the Pelican Press in about November 1921. Meynell repeated it in Typography, a decorative octavo volume promoting the Pelican Press, issued in 1923. The essay in Typography begins:
‘That dramatic statement is French in origin, and (as they say) of a certain age – which means, here as always, of an uncertain age. Who said it, and when? Was it a village-bound boaster with a sudden and wonderful revelation of the dramatic spirit? Or was it in very truth a conqueror of men’s minds?’
‘Let those who know forbear to tell us,’ says Meynell, adding that ‘doubtless, the thing is indexed, dated, annotated, ascribed, analysed, historified, and stripped naked’ in the dictionary of phrases. He must have discovered that the matter was not so simple, for ‘French in origin’ becomes ‘obscure in origin’ in the second edition of Typography, published in 1926. Meynell claims that the reference in the phrase to twenty-five letters is evidence for its date: ‘In the mid-17th century the W was added to the 25; and the 25 itself was promoted from 24 only a decade or two earlier by the establishment of J.’ This reasoning is not very soundly based. Capital J and U seem to have been introduced by typefounders at more less the same time, in the first quarter of the 17th century, and the first volume of Fournier’s Manuel typographique (1764) shows that in France W was a ‘double letter’ that was still not regarded as strictly part of the alphabet in the second half of the 18th century. But then Meynell’s essay is essentially an exercise in facetiously elegant writing. (In his autobiography, My lives (1971), he had the grace to comment, ‘the style of my prose was as mannered and florid as the style of the setting, a typical effusion of a young man now grown a stranger to me.’)
It will be noticed that Meynell’s version of the phrase bluntens its point by removing any perceptible link with Gutenberg: the printer, any printer, now speaks in the first person. In 1928, an anonymous writer in the Monotype recorder (Beatrice Warde, no doubt), while paying tribute to Francis Meynell’s ‘brilliant introduction’ as its source, altered the wording again, adding yet another and a rather sinister twist to it. As a contribution to the Lord Mayor’s Show the Monotype Corporation had produced a float carrying
‘two ancient type frames, lent specially for the occasion by the Oxford University Press, where they had been in use since Jacobean times. At these stood compositors in the costume of London Printers before the fire, picking type by hand into old-fashioned composing sticks. At the back of the lorry was a modern “Monotype” equipment in actual operation... Following the coaches and banner of the Worshipful Company of Stationers, and marching as a guard of honour to the float, came twenty-six brightly dressed lead soliders. They were boys from the 4th and 21st Southwark Troop of Scouts, in amazingly realistic costumes. But instead of a gun, each lad carried on his shoulder an enormous scale enlargement of that far more potent weapon, a printer’s type. The device on the float explained the allegory: “With Twenty-Six Soldiers of Lead I will Conquer the World.”’
(Monotype recorder, no. 227, Nov–Dec 1928, p. 5).
(Monotype recorder, no. 227, Nov–Dec 1928, p. 5).
Why should such a trite phrase still haunt us? One reason for its apparent familiarity may simply be that it embodies a commonplace idea that has been expressed many times before. Its essential paradox is to suggest that a small force can affect a large mass, or in other words, in the phrase attributed to Archimedes, ‘Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth’.
The idea that the alphabet is like a small but nevertheless effective band of soldiers is embodied in the following puzzle:
‘Je suis le capitaine de vingt-quatre soldats, et sans moi Paris serait pris.’ (I am the captain of twenty-four soldiers, and without me Paris would be taken.) H. Rowley, Puniana, or thoughts wise and other-wise, London, 1867, quoted by Peter Mayer in Visible language, vol. 9 (1975), p. 91. The answer is the letter A.
Although the immediate source for this riddle is a 19th-century collection, one would not be surprised to find that it dated from a couple of centuries or more earlier, and it is therefore just possible that the allusion to an alphabet of ‘twenty four’ letters may in fact give some clue to its age.
In this particular case we are concerned with the alphabet, not with type, and it is possible that in tying the phrase so narrowly to Gutenberg and to printing we are overlooking the fact that the tradition of an alphabet of twenty-five letters antedates the Latin script: ‘The number of alphabetical signs found among the inscriptions on Egyptian monuments has been reckoned at forty-five. Some of these, however, are used only in special cases; others are only alternative forms for signs more commonly employed. The total number of signs ordinarily in use may thus be reduced to twenty-five – a number which agrees with the tradition handed down by Plutarch, that the Egyptians possessed an alphabet of five-and-twenty letters.’ (E. M. Thompson, Handbook of Greek and Latin palaeography, London, 1893, p. 3.)
However, the conceit that pages of type are like an army of soldiers drawn up in orderly files is found in a Latin poem written in seventeenth-century Germany, which is discussed by Friedrich Seck in an essay on Kepler and his concern with printing. The poem, by J. B. Hebenstreit, is dealt with in a section which has the, from our point of view, promising title of ‘Kriegerische Buchstaben’ or warlike letters. (Friedrich Seck, ‘Kepleriana’, Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 1971, pp. 235-41.) He also cites a Latin comedy by Frischlin, Julius redivivus (1584), in which an analogy is drawn between the lines into which compositors make up their types and ranks of soldiers – veluti milites in aciem collocant. (Claus Gerhardt directed me to this essay.)
Hebenstreit, likening type to the ‘progeny of Cadmus’, is evidently referring to the polemical political and religious pamphleteering which accompanied the Thirty Years War. Cadmus, the mythical founder of Thebes, was not only the traditional inventor of writing, but he also sowed the dragon’s teeth from which there grew an army of warriors who fought among themselves. The impossibly neat blocks that represent opposing armies in contemporary maps and diagrams do indeed look rather like type made up into pages. The disruptive power of printing that lies behind the image gives it force in another German text of the seventeenth century. ‘O father,’ says the young unlettered Simplicissimus, puzzled by observing the hermit absorbed in the mysterious lines of his printed Bible, ‘here be more soldiers that will drive off sheep: they do take them from that poor man with whom thou didst talk: and here is his house a-burning.’ (Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus, 1667, chapter 10).
In connection with the neat representations of armies mentioned just above, perhaps there should be a reference here, though more of a footnote than a whole paragraph, to a work printed in France during the Thirty Years’ War, which is striking enough in its appearance: Colbert de Lostelnau, Le Mareschal de Bataille, contenant le maniment des armes, printed by Estienne Migon in Paris in 1647 and privately distributed. It has a set of copper plate engravings showing the handling of arms, but also some 400 diagrammatic illustrations showing military formations. These are printed with types that Migon is said to have ‘cut’, though whether that means cut as punches or simply by adapting types already cast is unclear: they are squares, dots and rectangles, printed in colours, cavalry in yellow, musket infantry in red, and bayoneteers in black. Here is an example.
And so we come to the idea that the pen, at least when aided by the press, may be mightier than the sword. ‘Lead, when moulded into Bullets, is not so mortal as when founded into Letters’, wrote Andrew Marvell (The rehearsal transpros’d: or animadversions upon a late book, intituled, A preface shewing what grounds there are of fears and jealousies of popery, London, 1672). A variant of Marvell’s phrase is the ponderous aphorism of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–99): ‘More than gold, lead has changed the world. And more than the lead in the musket, the lead in the printer’s type case’. (Mehr als das Gold hat das Blei die Welt verändert, und mehr als das Blei in der Flinte jenes im Setzkasten der Drucker.) As Carlyle resoundingly put it (in Sartor resartus, London, 1834):
‘He who first shortened the labour of copyists by the device of moveable types was disbanding hired armies, and cashiering most kings and senates, and creating a whole new democratic world.’
A new variation on the original paradox is introduced with the idea that the printer’s army of type is made up of ‘soldiers of lead’, or toy soldiers. Toy soldiers cast in tin or lead, both of which are also constituents of typemetal, appear to have been introduced in Germany in the seventeenth century, but they did not become widespread as playthings before the nineteenth. The locus classicus for English readers, and French and German ones too, is a work which must surely be the chief reason for the nagging familiarity of the phrase. (Without being sure why, Meynell was convinced that he knew it.) It introduces the most famous of literary toy soldiers. In the first English translation of Hans Andersen’s ‘Constant tin soldier’ (‘Den standhaftige Tinsoldat’, 1838), the tale begins:
‘There were, once upon a time, five and twenty tin soldiers...’
(Wonderful stories for children, London: Chapman and Hall, 1846, p. 111.)
In the French version the metal is not tin, as Andersen had written, but lead: Il y avait une fois vingt-cinq soldats de plomb..., and in German too, although the usual title of the tale is ‘the constant tin soldier’ (Der standhafte Zinnsoldat) he is sometimes a lead soldier (Bleisoldat).
(Why five and twenty? There was some military justification for the number. Consider the ‘Quadrille’, as defined by Cotgrave in his dictionary of 1611, and cited by OED: ‘a Squadron containing 25 (or fewer) Souldiers’.)
It would be pleasant to think that the persistence of our phrase might partly be accounted for by its echo of the adventure of one of the least aggressive of literary soldiers. But the disturbing military image is there nonetheless, if only in the sense that it hints at the Western ‘cultural hegemony’ that sought to replace all other systems of writing with the Latin script. Even in the decades following the Second World War, as long as metal type remained the only practical means of composing texts for printing, it seemed possible that the ‘romanizing’ of Chinese, Japanese and perhaps the other non-Latin scripts was only a matter of time, and that Gutenberg’s invention would then indeed have conquered the world:
‘Unhappily, there is little to encourage the hope that China will make its full contribution to the common life of mankind till it can take its place on equal terms among nations which regard literacy as a prerequisite to good citizenship; and it is not likely that China will implement a programme of universal literacy until it adopts a different technique of writing.’ (Lancelot Hogben, From cave painting to comic strip, London, 1949, p. 77.)
In his note on the ‘kriegerische Buchstaben’ Friedrich Seck cites the handbook of library science published in 1931 by Fritz Milkau, Generaldirektor der ehemaligen Preußischen Staatsbibliothek, who develops the theme of conquest with enthusiasm, writing in his introduction of ‘the wonder of the alphabet and the invention of type, of the drilling and impetuous advance in victory over the Earth of the 25 lead soldiers of Gutenberg’, a style of rhetoric which is frankly militaristic. (‘...von dem Wunder des Alphabets und der Erfindung der Schrift, von der Ausbildung und dem stürmischen Siegeslauf der fünfundzwanzig Bleisoldaten Gutenbergs über die Erde’. Handbuch der Bibliothekswissenschaft, Leipzig, 1931, p. viii.)
The bizarre apotheosis of this theme must surely be a typefounder’s advertisement for one of the singularly brutal textura types that greeted the rise to power of the Nazi party in Germany. Their names speak powerfully in the newly rediscovered language of national self-assertiveness: ‘Tannenberg’, ‘Potsdam’, ‘Hermann’, ‘Deutschland’.
In an advertisement for this last type in the printing trade journal Deutscher Drucker for September 1934, the Berlin typefoundry H. Berthold AG proclaims,
‘Germany is on the march! Thousands of ‘soldiers’ of the ‘Deutschland’ type leave our casting machines daily in rank and file! All Germany will advertise with ‘Deutschland!’ (‘Deutschland marschiert! Tausende von Soldaten der Deutschland-Schrift verlassen täglich in Reih und Glied unsere Schriftgießmaschinen... Ganz Deutschland wird mit ‘Deutschland’ werben!’)
Since werben, the term used here for ‘to advertise’ commercially, can also mean ‘to make propaganda’ and ‘to recruit for the army’, we have here a hint at an apocalyptic vision of the typefounder as sorcerer’s apprentice; or perhaps we should say that this is a nice example of the dangers into which Gutenberg’s Faustian compact would lead his descendents.
This essay was first published in a Festschrift for Ellic Howe, Wege und Abwege: Beiträge zur europäischen Geistesgeschichte der Neuzeit (Freiburg im Breisgau: Hochschul Verlag, 1990). Those who know something of Howe and his work in black propaganda, which he described in his book The Black Game: British subversive operations against the Germans during the Second World War (London: Michael Joseph, 1982), will understand my attention to German militarism. The text was reprinted in James Mosley: a checklist of the published writings 1958–95, compiled by Steven Tuohy (Over, Cambridgeshire: Rampant Lions Press, 1995).
I had thought that the phrase it deals with had been largely forgotten, for which I was thankful, recalling the ponderous sententiousness with which it used to be trotted out. Apart from a few helpful attributions to Franklin and Marx it is almost undocumented on the Web. I had not intended to clutter up my blog with this piece, but since Meynell’s facetious nonsense is sometimes still taken seriously perhaps it is worth placing here. I have made a few cuts and amendments and have absorbed footnotes into the text.
As for the Andersen connection, John Lane has recently reminded me that in another work of his, the A-B-C Book (first published in 1858 and translated into English in the same year in New Fairy Tales and Stories) there are other familiar echoes. Andersen refers to: ‘the alphabet, that wonderful army of signs which rules the world; ... Everything depends on the order in which they are commanded to stand; ... marshaled and ranked in word formations, what can they not accomplish!.’ John Lane tells me his quotation is from the 1948 translation by Jean Hersholt. No lead soldiers here, or even tin ones – but it seems not unlikely that someone conflated the two passages. One ought in due course to see how the passage is rendered in the first English translation, and in the original Danish.
Peter Bain and Paul Shaw also came across the militaristic advertisement from the Berthold foundry for its typeface ‘Deutschland’ which I quote from and show above. They reproduced it on page 35 of the catalogue of their exhibition Blackletter: type and national identity (New York: Cooper Union, 1998). During the Second World War the phrase ‘Deutschland marschiert!’ appears in the words of the ‘Rußland-Lied’, a song of the Waffen-SS during the campaign against Russia:
Im Osten nun marschieren wir,
Für Adolf Hitler kämpfen wir.
Die rote Front, brecht sie enzwei!
Deutschland marschiert, Achtung! Die Straße frei!
Für Adolf Hitler kämpfen wir.
Die rote Front, brecht sie enzwei!
Deutschland marschiert, Achtung! Die Straße frei!
The confident use of the phrase in the Berthold advertisement suggests that it had a currency long before WW2, a topic that I shall be glad to leave it to others to investigate.
Appendix: Jaugeon’s soldiers of lead
Having recently come across the following passage, I wondered whether to make a special posting for it, but it seems best simply to add it to the ‘soldiers of lead’, where it reinforces other examples illustrating the 17th-century idea that ordered type possessed the power of a troop of disciplined soldiers. It comes in the passage relating to the justifying of matrices in the manuscript account of punchcutting and typefounding by Jacques Jaugeon, dated 1704, which was intended for the ‘Description of Arts and Trades’ that was prepared with the authority of the Académie des Sciences. This text has never been published (I am currently working on it). One malicious 18th-century critic who had seen it said this was on account of Jaugeon’s style: ‘Le stile effrayant dans le quel cet ouvrage est écrit est peut être ce qui l’a empesché de voir le jour.’ Jaugeon’s writing about techniques can be clear and precise, but in handling ideas he is sometimes diffuse and vague. In the present case the concept would certainly have had more power if it had been expressed in fewer words.
This is roughly the sense:
Letters [meaning type, in this instance], which are almost nothing on their own, have almost limitless power when they are joined together. They need to be arranged in a way that will develop their merits, make their beauty perceptible, and enable them to work together so that nothing is left to be desired in all their different situations, rather in the manner of the order that is given to troops that are prepared for battle, which in all the ways in which they are assembled, and in commands for them to advance, following the ideas of an individual, makes them always evenly spaced, in a manner that neither crowds them nor scatters them, and with an expression that is not only pleasing to see, but which confirms all the more the idea one has of their merit, the more they are examined, since the orders that they receive place them exactly where they should be in order to produce every aspect of their power and its potential.
Here is the original passage:
Les lettres qui ne sont quasy rien separement et qui meslées ensemble, ont une puissance a quoy on ne peut assigner de bornes, demandent un arrangement qui les mette dans un jour qui developpe leurs vertus, qui releve leurs graces et qui leur fasse s’entredonner une aisance qui ne leur puisse rien faire desirer dans toutes leurs differentes scituations, semblable a peu pres a celuy qu’on donne a des troupes qu’on veut disposer a une action, qui dans tous les estats qu’on les pose, dans toutes les marches qu’on leur ordonne, et avec qui que ce soit qu’on associe chaque particulier, se trouvent tousjours dans des distances qui ne pressent ny n’esloignent personne et dans des contenances qui plaisent non seulement a les voir, mais qui augmentent encore l’idée qu’on a conceu de leur merite a proportion qu’on s’occupe a les examiner, parceque l’ordonnance met tout ou il doit estre et un estat de produire jusqu’au moindre effect de sa puissance et de sa vertu.
Last edited 24 January 2011