In Blog

Reading :: The Printing Press as an Agent of Change

Posted by: on Jan 17, 2011 | 2 Comments

The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Volumes 1 and 2 in One)
By Elizabeth L. Eisenstein

I’ve been putting off writing this review for a while because I knew it would take time to write. Eisenstein’s book is a classic, and is widely cited, particularly among scholars who want to draw a parallel between the printing revolution and our current explosion of digital texts and genres. It’s also a very large book: 708pp, excluding bibliography and back matter. The size is daunting, but the material is interesting and often gripping. And although I’m not a historian, Eisenstein seems to be careful about the claims she makes, taking time to answer critics of her earlier publications.

At least one critic wasn’t convinced: the anonymous critic who wrote notes in the margins of this library book. According to this critic, “she spends too much time proving that all of her predecessors are wrong, & too little time saying anything.” But without impugning the anonymous critic, I found much that was worthwhile in this book.
Eisenstein is specifically concerned with the printing revolution in early-modern Europe, beginning in the late 15th century. She argues that this revolution is an “unacknowledged revolution,” that is, that printing had a far broader paradigmatic impact than has previously been acknowledged. “Far from being integrated into other works,” she complains, “studies dealing with the history of printing are isolated and artificially sealed off from the rest of historical literature” (pp.5-6). Yet “neither political, constitutional, ecclesiastical, and economic events nor sociological, philosophical, and literary movements can be fully understood without taking into account the influence the printing press has exerted upon them” (p.7). Printed materials are so common now that we take for granted how much they have impacted and changed our lives:
Indeed the more abundant [quotidian printed materials] have become, the more frequently they are used, the more profound and widespread their impact. Typography is thus still indispensable to the transmission of the most sophisticated technological skills. It underlies the present knowledge explosion and much of modern art. In my view, at least, it accounts for much that is singled out as peculiarly characteristic of mid-twentieth century culture. But, I repeat, the more printed materials accumulate, the more we are inclined to overlook them in favor of more recent, less familiar media. (p.17).

If you’re familiar with my work, you can imagine how compelling this thesis would be to me. You may also see a parallel to Denise Schmandt-Besserat’s argument on how writing came about, which attributes similarly sweeping changes to that earlier revolution.
Eisenstein argues that beyond printing itself, the printing press led a new coordination of intellectual labor, in which the printer became a boundary-crosser who wore many hats (p.56). Printing also allowed easier comparisons and cross-references (p.72). Suddenly, for instance, Montaigne “could see more books [in] a few months … than earlier scholars had seen after a lifetime of travel,” and consequently conflict, diversity, and contradictions became more visible to him than to his predecessors (p.74). But the printing press didn’t just enable new enlightenment, it also enabled new mystification: one working thesis was that various ancient philosophical and mystical texts were fragments of an ancient ur-text penned by Adam, encapsulating secrets revealed to him before the Fall (pp.77-78). Similarly, another initial effect was to widely disseminate “seemingly authoritative, actually fraudulent esoteric writings” (p.78). Tools that were useful in one domain, such as astronomical tables, were applied in other domains, resulting in “the fixing of precise dates for the Creation or for the Second Coming” (p.79).
Print culture also generated new genres and components. For instance, there was no equivalent in scribal culture for the new how-to books (p.88). Print leveraged the power of identical copies, so indexes became practical and desirable (p.91). Indexes and cross-references, though based on previous forms, were newly systematized (p.93).
At the same time, the more accessible ancient texts became, the less mystical and less relevant they became: in the case of the Corpus Juris, for example, printing led to access, which led to demystification (pp.103-104). New forms of classification became possible, and publishers established the lasting, seemingly fundamental division between sciences and humanities in order to divide their catalogs more easily (p.107).
The sciences developed under print culture. In particular, data (tables, charts, indexes) had often been garbled by scribes, and ignorant printers tended to garble them more quickly; but strong printers corrected them more quickly, and through sometimes innovative methods: “They created vast networks of correspondents, solicited criticism in each edition, sometimes publicly promising to mention the names of readers who sent in new information or who spotted the errors which would be weeded out” (p.109). Related, print culture resulted in a new ethos for guarding data: Thomas Jefferson exemplifies this new ethos, arguing that valuable data were best preserved by making them public – and printing them frequently (p.116).
Printing affected law in similarly fundamental ways. “Much as M. Jourdain learned that he was speaking prose, monarchs learned from political theorists that they were ‘making’ laws. But members of parliaments and assemblies also learned from jurists and printers about ancient rights wrongfully usurped. Struggles over the right to establish precedents became more intense, as each precedent became more permanent and hence more difficult to break” (p.119).
Printing also affected public life, particularly through journals, gazettes, and newsletters. By the 18th century, “Increasingly the well-informed man of affairs had to spend part of each day in temporary isolation from his fellow men”; by the 19th, “gossiping churchgoers could often learn about local affairs by scanning columns of newsprint in silence as well.” Eisenstein forwards print as an explanation for the weakening of community ties during that time (p.131). “To read a printed report encourages individuals to draw apart,” she argues, and “the shift in communications may have changed the sense of what it meant to participate in public affairs. The wide distribution of identical bits of information provided an impersonal link between people who were unknown to each other” (p.132). Communal solidarity was diminished, but “vicarious participation in more distant events was also enhanced” and “new forms of group identity began to compete with an older, more localized nexus of loyalties” (p.132). Similarly, private life began to change, with progressively differentiated groups of readers (men, women, children); age-grades in schools; peer groups; and an emerging youth culture (p.134; cf. Hernandez). Eisenstein also hints at the impact of printing on the emergence of the modern State (pp.134-135; cf. Bobbitt).
The above summary, I’m afraid, is only of Part I of the book. In subsequent chapters, Eisenstein examines a number of topics in greater detail. First, she examines the Renaissance and the Reformation. In particular, she argues that in Italy, the advent of printing helps to explain “a shift in human consciousness and a concurrent revolution in communications” (p.226). Print enabled greater border-crossing (p.249). It enabled a classical revival, initially involving a flood of mysticism, but giving way to less mysterious, more systematic study (p.279).
During the Reformation, Eisenstein argues, Protestantism was the first movement to exploit print’s potential as mass medium and for propaganda (p.304). Luther believed that printing was “‘God’s highest and extremist act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward'” – and also as “‘the last flame before the extinction of the world'” (p.304). (It’s worth noting that last semester, as I was reading this book, someone at the edge of campus handed me a tract that made a similar claim based on the penetration of digital media.) Luther was nevertheless take aback when his 95 Theses, which he had expected to circulate locally among academics, were reprinted and disseminated widely (p.306). “If we stay at the Wittenberg church with Luther we will miss seeing the historical significance of the event,” Eisenstein states, sounding like Latour (p.310). Part of that significance was that Bible printing had changed the church. Eisenstein quotes Eugene Rice as arguing that the medieval church was more ecumenical and compromising, with more room for doctrinal disagreements; during the Reformation, doctrinal disagreements polarized into Protestantism and Catholicism (p.325). Eisenstein suggests that print precipitated this change (p.325). Indeed, when the Catholic church began to ban books, it created what publishers considered to be an irresistable untapped niche with built-in appeal (p.416).
Print also allowed people to compare religious texts, to examine them in different languages, and to study them independently. Calvin, for instance, represented “a new kind of theologian, one who had taken no degree in theology and had never been ordained priest” (p.402). “On the desirability of lay literacy, doctrinaire Calvinists and more tolerant Erasmians, ambitious men of letters, and profit-seeking printers were all in accord” while Anglicans “objected, in 1543, to Bible-reading among ‘women, apprentices, husbandmen'” (p.421). For Puritans, Bible-reading was “the most vital principle of [their] creed” (p.421). Protestantism, Eisenstein argues, was a “book religion,” and she outlines the cycle that encouraged and established this culture (p.422). This print culture resulted in books of coded behavior, “internalized by silent and solitary readers” and manifesting in a “voice of individual conscience”; but it also created a collective morality – including “a ‘middle class’ morality which harked back to Xenophon and the Bible [and] was fixed in a seemingly permanent mold” (p.429).
Print’s effects on religion were sometimes much darker: Eisenstein attributes the witch craze as a byproduct of printing – as well as literal fundamentalism, which became more widely possible as more people became conversant with the literal Bible (p.439). “The many changes introduced by the new technology, far from synchronizing smoothly or pointing in one direction, contributed to disjunctions, worked at cross-purposes and operated out of phase with each other” (p.440).
In science, “the shift from script to print preceded a transformation of world views” (p.459). Before print, knowledge degraded with copies. For instance, Ptolemaic world maps were copied by hand, degrading rather than evolving, with no established process of feedback (p.479). Printing, on the other hand, expanded the number of possible contributors, contributors who were not “educated”and so could make original contributions rather than recapitulating the contributions of the past (p.486).
Science was also directly impacted by religion. For instance, Christians had a challenge in locating Easter both on a repeating calendar and in proximity with the season. This complex problem spurred developments in calendars, astronomy, and chronology (p.610); “By a seeming paradox, their most sacred festival kept Christians bent toward puzzle-solving of a purely scientific kind” (p.611). Similarly, “The Koran did not provide the same incentive that the Vulgate did to master strange tongues or dig up ancient scrolls” (p.612). Print enabled the expansion of techniques that resulted from these religiously grounded complex puzzles.
In her conclusion, Eisenstein links the print revolution to the emergent digital texts she saw (in 1979, when the book was published). She points out that “the process that began in the mid-fifteenth century has not ceased to gather momentum in the age of the computer print-out and the television guide. Indeed the later phases of an on-going communications revolution seem altogether relevant to what is happening within our homes, universities, or cities at present. In particular, they are relevant to apocalyptic pronouncements about contemporary Western culture delivered by modern intellectuals and literati” (p.704).
Overall, this book was fascinating, and it provides a good starting point for examining and theorizing the enormous changes that the print revolution abetted. I particularly appreciated the focus on more quotidian texts in addition to great texts such as the Bible, law, and scientific treatises: it’s often in the quotidian texts that fundamental changes develop and spread. The book also provides a model for examining contemporary changes in digital texts – changes that surely won’t be parallel, but may result in similarly fundamental cultural and paradigmatic changes. If you’re interested in writing, and you have a solid chunk of time to devote to reading a book, try this one out.


  1. David Ronfeldt
    January 17, 2011

    Informative review. Many thanks from here.

    I took an interest in reading her writings back when I was cooking up my paper on cyberocracy. I don't recall going through this tome, but I did appreciate a precursor paper she wrote in 1968.

    Here's a point I especially liked from that paper: According to Eisenstein, the printing press “created conditions that favored, first, new combinations of old ideas and, then, the creation of entirely new systems of thought.”

    This relates to a point Drucker once made that a radical technology may not displace established technologies unless the new one proves itself ten times more cost-effective. Afterwards, the structural changes implied by the new technology are much more likely to occur.

  2. Clay Spinuzzi
    January 17, 2011

    Yes, absolutely. I hadn't seen the Drucker quote, but it sounds like something he would say.

    Along these lines, take a look at the review I just published of Schmandt-Besserat's book Before Writing. She ties developments in writing to developments in human organization, reminding me strongly of your TIMN thesis (something I mention in the review).

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.