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At the request of my publisher, I have written a review essay to serve as an “afterword” to this edition. It discusses some of the questions posed and issues raised since the publication of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change twenty-five years ago and provides references to recent studies in order to supplement the selected reading list, which has been retained from the first abridged edition.
The frontispiece of Prosper Marchand, Histoire de l'origine et des premiers progrés de l'imprimerie (The Hague: Pierre Paupie, 1740). The spirit of printing is shown descending from the heavens under the aegis of Minerva and Mercury. It is given first to Germany, who then presents it to Holland, England, Italy, and France (reading from left to right). Note the diverse letters from the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets decorating the draped garments of the spirit of printing. Note also the medallion portraits of master printers. Germany holds Gutenberg and Fust (Peter Schoeffer's medallion is blank); Laurens Koster represents Holland; William Caxton, England; Aldus Manutius, Italy; and Robert Estienne, France. The choice of the last, who fled Paris for Geneva after being censured by the Sorbonne, probably reflected Marchand's experience of leaving Paris for The Hague in 1707 after his conversion to Protestantism. The composition, like the book it illustrates, suggests how publishers and printers glorified their precursors while advertising themselves.
The writing of history, it is said, entails a dialogue between past and present. Such a dialogue helps to account for the prolonged interest in the topic of this book. The introduction of new communications technologies in recent years has stimulated curiosity about possible historical precedents and has given The Printing Revolution an unexpectedly long lease on life.
But the coming of a new “information age” was still in the future during the decade (the mid-1960s to 70s) that saw publication of my preliminary articles. When I added “some final remarks” to my book, the chief innovation I had in mind was the photocopier. My final version was duplicated not as “hard” copy but on carbon paper. It reflected years of study under the guidance of historians who were influenced by a different set of “present-day” concerns.
Although elementary school teachers had pointed to the introduction of printing as a significant event, the history courses I attended during my years of college and graduate study left the topic out. Advanced courses in medieval and early modern French history provided large bibliographies on a variety of subjects; few of the works on the long lists even mentioned the advent of printing. We were assigned several volumes of a multivolume, collaborative, French series devoted to the “evolution of humanity.” Henri Berr, its original editor, had planned separate books on the development of language, the invention of printing, and the advent of the newspaper.
In the late fifteenth century, the reproduction of written materials began to move from the copyist's desk to the printer's workshop. This shift, which revolutionized all forms of learning, was particularly important for historical scholarship. Ever since then historians have been indebted to Gutenberg's invention; print enters their work from start to finish, from consulting card files to reading page proofs. Because historians are usually eager to investigate major changes and this change transformed the conditions of their own craft, one would expect the shift to attract some attention from the profession as a whole. Yet any historiographical survey will show the contrary to be true. It is symbolic that Clio has retained her handwritten scroll. So little has been made of the move into the new workshops that after five hundred years, the muse of history still remains outside. “History bears witness,” writes a sociologist, “to the cataclysmic effect on society of inventions of new media for the transmission of information among persons. The development of writing, and later the development of printing, are examples.” Insofar as flesh-and-blood historians who turn out articles and books actually bear witness to what happened in the past, the effect on society of the development of printing, far from appearing cataclysmic, is remarkably inconspicuous. Many studies of developments during the last five centuries say nothing about it at all.
There is, to be sure, a large, ever-growing literature on the history of printing and related topics. Several works that synthesize and summarize parts of this large literature have appeared.
Given the religious, linguistic, and socioeconomic diversity of European readers, it is difficult to imagine just what figure Marshall McLuhan had in mind when he wrote about the “making of typographical man.” By making us more alert to the possibility that the advent of printing had social and psychological consequences, McLuhan performed, in my view at least, a valuable service. But he also glossed over multiple interactions that occurred under widely varying circumstances. Granted that the replacement of discourse by silent scanning, of face-to-face contacts by more impersonal interactions, probably did have important consequences; it follows that we need to think less metaphorically and abstractly, more historically and concretely, about the sorts of effects that were entailed and how different groups were affected. Even at first glance both issues appear to be very complex.
We will not pause for long over one complication that has recently attracted attention: namely, Paul Saenger's demonstration that habits of silent reading developed during the Middle Ages. It is now clear that McLuhan and the scholars upon whom he relied overstated the oral character of medieval interchanges and mistakenly assigned to printing responsibility for introducing habits of silent scanning which had already developed among some literate groups in the age of scribes. But although printing did not introduce silent reading, it did encourage an increasing recourse to “silent instructors, which nowadays carry farther than do public lectures” (in the words of a sixteenth-century professor of medicine).
Granted that some sort of communications revolution did occur during the late fifteenth century, how did this affect other historical developments? Most conventional surveys stop short after a few remarks about the wider dissemination of humanist tomes or Protestant tracts. Several helpful suggestions – about the effects of standardization on scholarship and science, for example – are offered in works devoted to the era of the Renaissance or to the history of science. By and large, the effects of the new process are vaguely implied rather than explicitly defined and are also drastically minimized. One example may illustrate this point. During the first centuries of printing, old texts were duplicated more rapidly than new ones. On this basis most authorities conclude that “printing did not speed up the adoption of new theories.” But where did these new theories come from? Must we invoke some spirit of the times? Or is it possible that an increase in the output of old texts contributed to the formulation of new theories? Maybe other features that distinguished the new mode of book production from the old one also contributed to such theories. We need to take stock of these features before we can relate the advent of printing to other historical developments.
Without attempting to draw up a complete inventory, I have singled out some of the features which appear in the special literature on early printing and held them in mind while passing in review selected historical developments.
We all know … that down to the fifteenth century all European books were pen written and that ever since that time most of them have been printed. We know likewise that in that same fifteenth century Western culture laid off its medieval characteristics and became distinctively modern. But we are quite unable to conceive realistically any connection between these technological and cultural changes except that they happened in the same period.
This statement, which was made by Pierce Butler in 1940, describes a situation which seems current even now. Although the relationship between technology and culture in general has been the subject of a growing literature, the more specific relationship between the advent of printing and fifteenth-century cultural change has not yet been explored. This is partly because the very act of drawing connections is not as easy a task as one might think. Butler goes on to refer to an “intimate connection” which becomes apparent “the moment our thought penetrates through bare facts,” but I must confess I cannot imagine just what connection he had in mind. Although the shift from pen-written book to printed one may be taken as a known fact, it is not the kind of fact that can be said to “speak for itself.” As previous chapters suggest, a complex ensemble of many interrelated changes was involved.
When one turns to the other side of the equation, matters are no less complicated and even more obscure.
We should note the force, effect, and consequences of inventions which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, namely, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world.
Francis Bacon, Novum organum, Aphorism 129
To dwell on why Bacon's advice ought to be followed by others is probably less helpful than trying to follow it oneself. This task clearly outstrips the competence of any single individual. It calls for the pooling of many talents and the writing of many books. Collaboration is difficult to obtain as long as the relevance of the topic to different fields of study remains obscure. Before aid can be enlisted, it seems necessary to develop some tentative hypotheses relating the shift from script to print to significant historical developments.
This task, in turn, seems to call for a somewhat unconventional point of departure and for a reformulation of Bacon's advice. Instead of trying to deal with “the force, effect, and consequences” of a single postclassical invention that is coupled with others, I will be concerned with a major transformation that constituted a large cluster of changes in itself. Indecision about what is meant by the advent of printing has, I think, helped to muffle concern about its possible consequences and made them more difficult to track down. It is difficult to find what happened in a particular Mainz workshop in the 1450s.
The elements which go into the making of “modernity” may be seen … first … in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some historians attributed the change to the liberation of men's minds during the Renaissance and the Reformation. Today many historians would be more likely to stress the conservatism of these two movements … Their emphasis tends instead to fall on … “the Scientific Revolution.”
By this is meant above all the imaginative achievements associated with the names of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton … Within the space of a century and a half a revolution had occurred in the way in which men regarded the universe. Most of this was made possible by the application of mathematics to the problems of the natural world …
All this is by now well known … though many of the details are still to be worked out … What is not clear is how it all came about.
This book has been aimed at developing a new strategy for handling the issues posed by the opening citation. It seems futile to argue over “the elements which go into the making of modernity,” for “modernity” itself is always in flux, always subject to definitions which have to be changed in order to keep up with changing times.
In 1979 Elizabeth Eisenstein provided the first full-scale treatment of the fifteenth-century printing revolution in the West in her monumental two-volume work, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. This abridged edition, after summarising the initial changes introduced by the establishment of printing shops, goes on to discuss how printing challenged traditional institutions and affected three major cultural movements: the Renaissance, the Reformation and the rise of modern science. Also included is a later essay which aims to demonstrate that the cumulative processes created by printing are likely to persist despite the recent development of new communications technologies.