\nIt's hardly an exaggeration: The Black Death \u2013 the bubonic plague that killed from 25 to 40 million people in the 14th century \u2013 had a big hand in triggering the cultural revolution that would come to be known as the Renaissance.<br rn\/><br rn\/>I came across this curious information in <i>A History of Knowledge<\/i>, a well-written book by Charles Van Doren.<br rn\/><br rn\/>The name should ring a bell if you've seen <i>Quiz Show<\/i>, a movie directed by Robert Redford about the rigging of the 1950s quiz show <i>Twenty One<\/i>.<br rn\/><br rn\/>Van Doren, played by Ralph Fiennes, was the contestant who unseated the show's reigning champ Herbie Stempel, played by John Turturro. Stempel blew the whistle on the show's producers, saying that they had asked him to throw the game in favor of Van Doren.<br rn\/><br rn\/>If you're more of an egghead, you'd also know that Charles Van Doren's father was the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Van Doren, played in the movie by Paul Scofield.<br rn\/><br rn\/>But enough of that other curiosity.<br rn\/><br rn\/>Let's get back to Van Doren's account of how the Black Death gave rise to the Renaissance.<br rn\/><br rn\/>Of course, the key tool in this revolution was the printing press, which Johann Gutenberg had perfected, along with an oil-based ink, by 1450, when he started printing his first books.<br rn\/><br rn\/>But for printing to become a mass industry there would have to be enough people with a demand for books, and of course, they would also need to have the money to actually buy those books.<br rn\/><br rn\/>On the other hand, printers would have to make sure that the supply of books could keep up with the demand.<br rn\/><br rn\/>The Black Death gave rise to those conditions that would speed up the growth of publishing.<br rn\/><br rn\/>Since around 1355, the plague had been forcing people to flee to Western Europe from Byzantium, one of the cities where the rat-borne disease started. That's in Istanbul in Constantinople, as the song goes.<br rn\/><br rn\/>It so happened that Byzantium was the seat of power, and naturally also of culture, of the Holy Roman Empire. So among the refugees were a lot of people educated through Greek and Roman works. They also brought along manuscripts of those works.<br rn\/><br rn\/>By 1450, these refugees had stirred a desire for learning among the people in their adopted lands.<br rn\/><br rn\/>So that took care of the demand.<br rn\/><br rn\/>Now, with so many people dead \u2013 more than in any other epidemic, or even war, past or present \u2013 so many worldly possessions were left without owners. These included land, houses, furniture, jewelry, and clothes.<br rn\/><br rn\/>Of course, those who survived the plague got hold of these things, presumably through means fair or foul.<br rn\/><br rn\/>But I'd say mostly fair, because there was so much to go around for everyone. In fact, so many people became suddenly richer that they had a surplus of items, especially clothes.<br rn\/><br rn\/>You're probably thinking: Why didn't they just start a garage sale or <i>ukay-ukay<\/i>? Well, if everyone could be sellers, who would be the buyers?<br rn\/><br rn\/>Anyway, that took care of the disposable income of the potential market, as an economist would put it.<br rn\/><br rn\/>As it happened, that also took care of the supply.<br rn\/><br rn\/>For the sources of works to print, there were the manuscripts brought by refugees.<br rn\/><br rn\/>For paper, there were the surplus clothes, from which were made rag paper, a cheaper and better alternative than vellum or parchment, both of which would have to be made from animal skins.<br rn\/><br rn\/>So thousands of works that only the rich could buy in the form of expensive manuscripts became available to a lot more people in the form of cheaper books.<br rn\/><br rn\/>As Van Doren himself summed it up: "It was a remarkable conjunction of events \u2013 the new availability of rag paper, the invention of printing with movable type, and sudden appearance of excellent manuscripts crying out for publication \u2013 that propagated the Renaissance."<br rn\/><br rn\/>Nowadays, with Internet access getting cheaper, the text of those old works, along with newer ones, are available for free in several sites, like www.gutenberg.org, which of course got its name from the inventor the printing press.<br rn\/><br rn\/>By the way, Gutenberg himself lost all his materials and machines in a lawsuit filed by a creditor. When he died, at around 1468, he was as poor as the rat that started the plague.