In October 1347, a fleet of trading ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. People gathered on the docks were in for a nasty surprise when they went on board. Most of the sailors aboard the ships were dead. Those still alive were mysteriously ill and covered in black boils that oozed blood and pus. Aghast, Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the “death ships” out of the harbour and back to their origins in the Black Sea, but it was too late.

Over the next five years, the Black Death (more mundanely known as the “bubonic plague”) would dart across Europe, leaving a trail of death in its wake and wiping out almost one-third of the continent’s population. It didn’t entirely disappear until the beginning of the seventeenth century. And yet, despite its murderous effect, the Black Death was the making of modern Europe.

It played a central role in the advent of new population controls, in the establishment of universities, the spread of Christianity, the dissemination of vernacular culture, and even the rise of nationalism. In Italy alone, the Black Death marked the end of an era and the emergence of the Renaissance: that golden period of art, architecture and literature in human history.

Pulling this new narrative in politics, religion and socio-economic change together was a common thread, spun by the hand of a German goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg. The story of Gutenberg and his printing press, and the veritable revolution of ideas it caused in the 1400s, not just across Europe, but across the world is one that most of us know. Within decades, the world’s nascent publishing industry had accommodated itself to the new world and to a new class of readers.

Initial books were copied in long-form, manuscript style, to initiate the new reader slowly. Paper went from being manufactured from sheepskin (parchment) or calfskin (vellum) to being made out of leftover rags, slashing its costs in half. In the 1480s, a savvy Venetian printer by the name of Andre Manutius decided to compress the size of an average book – giving birth to the 15th century’s version of the modern e-book, the “pocket book”. By 1604, to cope with the increasing complexities of social, economic and political upheaval, the first weekly newspapers (then quaintly called “news-books”) came into being in Europe.

The aftermath of the Black Death

The Black Death was not the first pandemic in the world, nor would it be the last. Regular outbreaks of disease across the globe have felled people in their scores, but they have not – surprisingly – slowed or extinguished the publishing industry. In his excellent account of the Black Death, the historian Philip Ziegler writes, “Painful readjustment, demoralisation, lawlessness: such are the familiar symptoms of a society recovering from the shock of the plague.”

While this is undeniably true, a glance across the pages of history informs the curious that despite death, loss and unspeakable fear, the human mind has never lost its quest to learn. Publishing houses across the ages have stood as testament to this fact. In 1534, King Henry VIII established Cambridge University Press, giving it carte blanche to print “any manner of books”.

The Press still stands today, with the distinction of being the world’s oldest publishing house. It has weathered technological changes, two global wars, repeated pandemics – from recurrences of the plague to the Spanish flu, from the Asian flu to Ebola and H1N1 – and social and economic turmoil to continue producing not just religious texts, but also academic tracts spanning a wide range of subjects.

Theirs is just one example of the hundreds of publishing houses that sprang up in the wake of Gutenberg’s press. By 1482, there were 100 printing presses in Europe alone. By 1500, about 40,000 different editions were circulating in the European market, which came up to a total of 6,000,000 copies in print. It wasn’t long before the press had found its way to other continents, revolutionising the way people thought.

In 1556, a Portuguese ship docked in Goa, India. Aboard were 14 Jesuit priests bound for Abyssinia (Ethiopia on today’s map), and a printing press. The press made landfall in India after the awed clergy in Goa made the impassioned plea that they needed it more than the Abyssinians. It didn’t catch on, however, until 1706 when the Dutch reached India. A missionary with the awe-inspiring name of Bartholomew Zeigenbalg insisted that for his work, he needed the printing press. And so it was that the first printing press began functioning in Tharangambadi (Tranquebar) in Madras.

Today’s testament to this historic moment is the Tranquebar imprint, owned by Westland Books in India. Now, it wasn’t to be expected that this delightful new medium of disseminating information – and making some money – would function in a void. The next step, quite obviously, were bookshops. The explosion of printing presses and the resultant flood of books and information into an eager market was fertile soil for anyone wanting to trade in books.

What Allen Lane did

In 1887, Elkin Mathews and John Lane set up The Bodley Head, to trade in antiquarian books in London. The bookshop survived the Great War and in 1919, it was taken over by Lane’s nephew, Allen. Lane’s ideas were dynamic enough to terrify the staid board of directors at The Bodley Head. Against the backdrop of the Great War, and another pandemic – this time, the deadly Spanish flu – Allen Lane pushed for the expansion of The Bodley Head into newer, more dynamic realms of publishing – fiction, for instance. Part of his enthusiasm came from the remarkable momentum in publishing across the Channel, and part from the United States of America.

The United States had been hit badly by the Spanish flu. Nearly 50 million people had died across the country by the time the pandemic petered out, but as people grappled with questions of life and death, and larger, more political ideas such as fascism and imperialism, literature became a chosen outlet. In 1914, as the world went to war, Margaret Anderson began The Little Review.

It was supposed to be a literary journal, carrying poetry and prose themed around feminism and anarchism. But in the fifteen years that it ran (it finally ended its print run in 1929), The Little Review stood as an example to prove that events of catastrophic import – a war, say, or a pandemic – were hard drivers for both increased learning and the kind of change that a society sought at that moment in time.

Anderson’s key aides were Jane Heap, her business partner, publisher and lover, and the critic and poet Ezra Pound. Between the three of them, they built The Little Review into one of modern literature’s most controversial and elite platforms. Everyone from Ernest Hemingway to TS Eliot and WB Yeats was published in The Little Review, which once daringly brought out an entirely blank issue, to condemn the lack of exciting new literature to review and critique. Yet another example of how publishing has, in its own way, been a beacon for the kind of revolution that society has sought from time to time.

Between 1918 and 1920, The Little Review serialised James Joyce’s Ulysses, with the final episode ending on Joyce’s 40th birthday. The world may have been reeling with a virus nobody could understand, but it still appreciated good story-telling. So much so that it caught the eye of a young woman in Paris.

Sylvia Beach – her real name was Nancy Woodbridge Beach – was a young student of French contemporary literature in Paris, when she met the woman who would become her lover and the inspiration for the iconic Shakespeare and Company. The bookshop was set up in November 1919, and soon became the celebrated haunt of writers like F Scott Fitzgerald, Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein. In 1922, Beach scandalised and tantalised Parisian society by publishing Ulysses.

Her avant-garde attitude to life and literature charmed Allen Lane. By the end of the Great War, the Spanish flu had appeared in Britain as well. Lane insisted that The Bodley Head step away from its specialty trade of antiquarian books into newer waters. Penguin Books would become Lane’s new imprint, and under its emblem, James Joyce’s saga found a home in England. There was no looking back for Lane and his newborn publishing house after that, which became a monolith in the publishing industry in the twentieth century.

Expanding to India

Allen Lane wasn’t the only one who foresaw a future in publishing. There were those who looked beyond the borders of England to its teeming colonies in the East. India and China, in particular, were popular with the burgeoning publishing industry, from the end of the 19th and well into the 20th century. The choice of India was made to nurture a growing market, developed earlier by the introduction of English education by Lord Macaulay in 1835.

Longman Green set up shop in 1895, while MacMillan and Oxford University Press (OUP) opened offices in Bombay in 1912. For OUP, at least, its arrival in India was equivalent to its rebirth. In the early years of the twentieth century, OUP, the world’s second oldest publishing house, was tottering on the verge of collapse. It had become a press that had increasingly come to embody carelessness (glaring errors and typos were a stock in trade for OUP), bureaucratic decay and corruption. It was largely alive due to its leasing of its printed Bibles and prayer-books.

Its managers at the time, of whom Rieu was one, were uncomfortably aware that in order to survive at all, OUP would have to diversify. Directors at OUP had earlier entered into a joint venture with Hodder and Stoughton to expand into education, science, medicine and fiction. Now, they looked eastwards.

In 1911, then, the British poet, classicist, publisher and translator, Emile Victor Rieu boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway. He was bound first for Shanghai, where OUP wanted its agent sacked for poor service. His next, more, permanent port of call was Bombay. From its first office on Hornby Road, Rieu focused on the advantage that Macaulay’s Minutes had given OUP, by working to expand business in the area of school textbooks. Indeed, one of the first academic books OUP published at this point was The Essentials of Psychology, written by a young unknown, by the name of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Then, the world went to war.

In India, the first effects that OUP felt were delays and disruptions in shipping. Paper shortages were next, followed by a disastrous non-delivery of important electrotype and stereotype plates that were required for printing. This was topped by a dire lack of hands as the staff were called up to serve on battlefronts across the world. Still, OUP persevered and in 1915, it secured a crucial contract to print textbooks for schools in the Central Provinces.

The contract kept OUP afloat for the duration of the war, and just as well, because by 1917, Rieu couldn’t put off his enlistment any longer. He went to war, leaving OUP in the hands of his wife, Nellie, herself the editor of the British literary journal, Athenaeum. She managed by taking orders to print political propaganda for the Government of India. At one point, OUP’s non-governmental printing in India was down to a meagre thirty pages. But it held on.

In the aftermath of the war, the Spanish flu visited India, killing millions. Rieu himself returned, having been struck by illness in the midst of action. His most pressing problem (aside, of course, from his recovery) was to relocate OUP’s offices immediately. Even despite the war, and the flu, OUP had outgrown its space on Hornby Road. A new space was found on Elphinstone Circle (Horniman Circle, in modern Mumbai): big enough to hold new stocks of books, and an indolent cow that refused to move.

Over the years, OUP has continued to survive, adapting itself to the changing political climate and social needs of the continent with remarkable ease. By the late 1920s, OUP’s stock inventories in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay were sizeable and trade was flourishing. It also began putting forth feelers across East and Southeast Asia, in North America and in South America. Today, of course, Oxford University Press is synonymous with more serious works of non-fiction, of education, medicine, history and science: yet another testament to the human ingenuity that is at the heart of the publishing world.

There are innumerable examples from the world of publishing – both in terms of big houses and smaller initiatives – that stand out against the backdrop of unspeakable strife. Wars, pandemics, global depressions: each a defining crossroads in human history; each with the ability to change life as we know it forever. And yet, the power of the written word transcends disaster of any kind, in its ability to adapt, to survive, to question and to persist.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.