Review of The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe by Carolyn Jensen
Elizabeth Eisenstein’s, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, is a comprehensive overview of the second major communications shift: from manuscript culture to printed communication. This edition is abridged from Eisenstein’s two-volume academic work, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.
According to the author, in the early 1960s, she became curious about the “specific historical consequences of the fifteenth-century communications shift… What were some of the most important consequences of the shift from script to print (x)?” These are the questions Eisenstein seeks to answer. In doing so, the book focuses mainly on how printing changed written communication.
Interestingly, the author writes that when she began research on this topic, to her surprise she found that no one had yet attempted to survey the consequences of the 15th century communications shift. Therefore, her two-volume work, published in 1979, became the first full-scale work on this subject, and it is still considered to be the defining work on the effects of the development of printing. The edition I am reviewing is abridged for the general reader. The footnotes have been dropped from the abridged version which, at times, makes for difficulties in identifying the source of materials cited and for determining which statements are factual and which statements are the author’s interpretation.
The way the book is structured helps to create a better understanding of the historical consequences of the development of printing. The first section reviews the shift from script to print in Western Europe and summarizes the main characteristics of the introduction of printing. The second section relates the communication shift from script to print to three historical developments: the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of modern scientific thought.
In the first section, Eisenstein provides a brief overview of scribal culture and the difficulties it presented which printing, at least in part, overcame. It may have been helpful to include a more thorough overview of scribal culture, as this would have provided a background for a better understanding of the magnitude of the changes affected by the printing revolution.
Nonetheless, in the first section, Eisenstein presents numerous examples of historical developments that were brought about or impacted by the development of printing beginning in the 1460s. These include:
The increase in the quantity of books published and the reduction in the number of hours required to produce books.
The change in the method of producing books while retaining, for a time, the look of scribal manuscripts. Not only did early printers seek to copy the text of the manuscript as accurately as possible, they also sought to duplicate the look of the manuscripts right down to the typestyle and page layout. Yet while the books looked alike, the method of production was radically different.
The ability for identical words and images to be reproduced and then viewed simultaneously by scattered readers
The development and bringing together of new occupations and diverse skills
In the new print culture, the master printer handled machines, edited and translated texts, marketed products, and promoted writers and artists. The sheer volume of activities brought about by printing is significant.
The development of personal celebrity in the form of authors and printers and the development of literary rights.
The development of new printed products, including “how-to” books (printers may have been the first technical writers!), Bibles, indulgences, calendars, and maps.
The opportunity to review a variety of publications and do comparisons. These comparisons lead to the development of new knowledge and new ideas.
In the case of the Renaissance, which is often difficult to understand or pinpoint, Eisenstein suggests that the Renaissance can be better understood by looking at an event which really did happen, which had crucial importance, and which occurred in the 15th century and at no other time. Of course, she is speaking of the shift from manuscript to print culture. She then shows how printing was able to bring about “the most radical transformation in the conditions of intellectual life in the history of Western civilization (115).” In showing this radical transformation, Eisenstein develops some of the effects that we have already mentioned from the first section of the book.
She claims that certain achievements of the Renaissance could not have come about until after printing. I accept this as truth, but I venture this claim may subject Eisenstein to criticism from Renaissance historians who do not wish to have the intellectual revolution affected so dramatically by something as mundane as a mechanical process.
Regarding the Protestant Reformation, Eisenstein says it was a “movement that was shaped at the very outset (and in large part ushered in) by the new powers of the press (148).” In just three years, between 1517 and 1520, Martin Luther’s 30 publications probably sold more than 300,000 copies. This is significant even by modern standards.
Based on my career in Christian publishing and my Christian beliefs, I could comment at some length on Eisenstein’s analysis of the impact of printing on the Reformation and on the rise and use of religious publishing, but space does not allow. (I believe she is, for the most part, correct in her analysis. In her review of the Reformation, she has shed light on some trends in religious publishing that continue to this day.) However, one personal note may be of interest.
Eisenstein’s history of the Reformation, and specifically of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses on the church door, is quite different than the account of the Reformation I was taught as a child in my Protestant (non-Lutheran) Sunday school. My training would have said that it was God who enlightened Martin Luther to the importance of an individual having a personal relationship with God and to the importance of personal Bible reading. Furthermore, my teachers would have said that it was the blessing of God that made possible the Reformation and the ability for common men to read the Bible for themselves. The printing press was never mentioned. While this is an oversimplification, I do believe in God’s power at work to bring about the Reformation and make His Word available to the masses. From Eisenstein, however, we have learned of the tool — the printing press — which was the agent of change in the Reformation.
On the other hand, in some ways what I was taught about the Reformation in Sunday school is not far from the belief of the reformers. They believed printing was a means by which God conferred a special blessing. My Sunday school teachers believed God blessed the Reformation movement; they just forgot to mention (or more likely were not aware) that the reformers themselves believed God’s blessing in the Reformation was associated with printing. After all, Martin Luther said printing was “God’s highest and extremest act of grace.”
This is not the place to debate Martin Luther’s definition of grace. However, I must note that no matter how pivotal printing is to historical development or the spreading of God’s Word, to raise printing to the level of God’s grace is to ascribe to printing far greater attributes than any man-made invention deserves. Printing may have been influential in many ways, but it was not God’s grace!
The third historical development Eisenstein investigates is the rise of modern scientific thought. The effects of the printing press on scientific thought were quite different than the effects of the printing press on religious thought. In the Reformation, printing gave legitimacy to the message. In the development of scientific thought, printing created skepticism and drove thinking people to find the truth through study of the natural world and through comparisons of knowledge within printed books.
With the advent of printing, learning by memory and “slavish copying” became less necessary. At the same time, errors and inconsistencies in text became more obvious, because readers were able to access a variety of books and make comparisons. As a result, “all manner of curious men (194)” became distrustful of the old schools of thought and took a fresh look at the scientific evidence. This created new discoveries and ideas and the growth of scientific thought. Until data could be compared and recorded, science could not be studied effectively.
Eisenstein claims another way in which printing affected scientific thought was through the “process of feedback (200).” Before printing, there was no way to make observations public or universally accepted. After printing, observations were published and feedback was made to the author and within the scientific community. Thus, information was shared and developed to the betterment of all.
Because Eisenstein’s work centers on the shift from one literate culture — script — to another literate culture — print, this book is important within the context of literacy studies and it provides a comprehensive continuation in the saga of literacy development from oral to scribal and then to print cultures.
For many other literary studies, especially those regarding electronic literacy, Eisenstein’s book provides the starting point for consideration of this fourth communication culture. Without an understanding of oral culture and its effects (which we’ve studied in Ong, Schriber and Cole, Clanchy, and others), we cannot understand the significance of scribal culture. Without an understanding of scribal culture and its effects (which we’ve studied in Ong, Clanchy, Hoskin, Olson, Linell, and others), we cannot understand the significance of print culture. Without an understanding of print culture and its effects, which Eisenstein presents so comprehensively, we cannot understand the significance of the new electronic culture.
In Hypertext 2.0, George P. Landow demonstrates the importance of understanding other literary cultures, including print. He writes, “hypertext… promises to have an effect on cultural and intellectual disciplines as important as those produced by the earlier shifts in the technology of cultural memory that followed the invention of writing and printing (Landow 110)”. If one does not understand the significance of the earlier shifts, one cannot fully understand the significance of the current shift. Thus, Eisenstein’s work on print culture, both in its uniqueness and its completeness, is central to a fuller understanding of literacy in all its forms.
Eisenstein notes that her work is “primarily concerned with the effects of printing on written records (xii).” While this does not in any way detract from the importance of Eisenstein’s excellent work, I would have liked to also read of the effects of printing on thought or consciousness. Walter J. Ong mentions one of these effects when he writes, “Print suggests that words are things far more than writing ever did (Ong, 118).” In this regard, David Heckel does what Eisenstein does not do. In his essay, “Francis Bacon’s New Science: Print and the Transformation of Rhetoric,” he helps us to understand the effects of printing on rhetoric and thought. He writes, “shifts in consciousness (are) attributable in part to the growing interiorization of the printed text as a model for intellectual activity (Heckel, 66).” As a result, Heckel’s essay, along with the writings of Ong, neatly compliment Eisenstein’s book to provide an even more comprehensive understanding of the effects of printing.
The implications Eisenstein presents of the development of a print culture are fascinating, both as they fit into the framework of literacy, as I’ve mentioned, and also because of numerous parallels which can be drawn between the print culture of the 15th century and the electronic culture of the 20th century. This, too, could be a separate study, for which there is not space here to pursue.
Interestingly, Eisenstein’s book was written in 1983, long before the current communications shift to electronic culture, and thus without foreknowledge of the dramatic shift that is in progress. In some ways, this makes her observations even more valuable, as they can be a guide to the effects we can expect as the communication shift to electronic culture continues.
In the first section of the book, Eisenstein’s concludes that printing “brought about the most radical transformation in the conditions of intellectual life in the history of western civilization… its effects were sooner or later felt in every department of human life (107).”
This is just one of the broad claims Eisenstein makes for the effects of printing. As I read, I found myself questioning if these claims were exaggerated in the privilege they afford to the printing press. On the other hand, throughout the entire book, Eisenstein expertly backs her claims with historical accounts. Whether these historical accounts and the claims and interpretations Eisenstein bases upon them are accurate would require further study. hopefully with footnotes, to make an informed conclusion about their validity.
Were printing’s effects felt in every department of human life? Likely so. Would the changes (or some of the changes) she chronicles have occurred without the aid of the printing press? Perhaps. (Some of the changes she mentions could not have occurred without print because they are closely based on the existence of actual printed materials. However, other changes could potentially have occurred as a result of other developments because they did not rely so directly upon actual printed materials.)
On one hand it is easy to wonder if some of Eisenstein’s claims privilege the printing press too much, while on the other hand it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine modern thought and culture without the involvement of print. She says she regards printing as an agent of change, but not the only agent of change. I strongly agree with this philosophy. However, despite her protestations, its seems to me that, at times and on certain issues, by the privilege Eisenstein gives the printing press, she implies that printing was the agent of change.
After reading this book, I asked myself if Eisenstein is a great-divide theorist. She seems to privilege print culture over the scribal or oral cultures. While she acknowledges the merging of the scribal and the print cultures, I believe she sees relatively mutually exclusive categories between scribal and print cultures. Perhaps this makes her a partial great-divide theorist: she recognizes the merger of and the mutual dependence of scribal and print cultures while privileging print culture.
In her look at science, religion, and intellectual development, Eisenstein makes a strong and well-defined case for the revolution caused by printing. Is she practicing technological determinism? To a degree, yes, in that she continually shows that the effects of printing, while they could not be predicted, were determined by a sequence of causal events independent of the will of the people.
Nonetheless, by showing the dramatic and far-reaching effects of printing on written communication and historical development, Eisenstein has provided a framework for us to understand factors that brought us to the present state of written communication and the ability to look more intelligently at the current communications shift from print to electronic media. On a web site devoted to information for investors, I found the following statement about Eisenstein’s work: “This book is a ‘must read’ for anyone wondering how the World Wide Web will affect our civilization… You will understand our present Information Revolution far better for having read this book (General Investing).” I agree with this author that Eisenstein’s book will benefit anyone, not just scholars, who want to understand both past and present communications shifts.
For me, reading this book helped position more clearly the characteristics and effects of the shifts from scribal to print cultures and the effects of print culture on written communication and historical development. It also provided many interesting insights that could provide the basis for further personal or academic study.
Overall, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe is an important and pivotal work that provides compelling arguments of how and why the printing press forever changed Western civilization.
Works CitedEisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe,Cambridge, United Kingdom; Cambridge University Press, 1983.
“General Investing & Historical Perspective.” IPS Funds Virtual Bookstore.
12 Oct. 2001 <http://www.ipsfunds.com/bookstore.html#eisenstein>
Heckel, David. “Francis Bacon’s New Science: Print and the Transformation of Rhetoric.” Media, Consciousness and Culture: Explorations of Walter Ong’s Thought. Ed. Bruce Gronbeck et al.
Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1991.
Landow, George P. Hypertext 2.0. Baltimore, MD; The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy The Technologizing of the Word. London; Routledge, 1988.