Some Conjectures about the Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought: A
Preliminary ReportAuthor(s): Elizabeth L. EisensteinSource: The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Mar., 1968), pp. 1-56Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL: .Accessed: 11/09/2013 14:46Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact .The University of Chicago Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to TheJournal of Modern History.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
Some Conjectures about the Impact of Printing on
Western Society and Thought: A Preliminary Report
Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
American University
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
This paper presents portions of a work that is still in progress. It deals
with “the force, effect, and consequences” of the first invention singled
out by Bacon. Much has been written about how the way was paved
for Gutenberg’s invention and about the problem of defining just what
he did invent. There are few studies, however, of the consequences that
ensued once the new process had been launched.’ Explicit theories as to
what these consequences were have not yet been framed, let alone tested
or contested. To develop such theories is much easier said than done.
Still, I think the effort should be made. Consequences entailed by a
major transformation have to be reckoned with whether we pay attention
to them or not. In one guise or another they will enter into our
accounts and can best be dealt with when they do not slip in unobserved.
To dwell on the reasons why Bacon’s advice ought to be followed by
others is probably less helpful than trying to follow it oneself. This
1 The scarcity of historical treatments of this topic came to my attention when
reading Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographical
Man (Toronto, 1962). The author has deliberately jumbled his data and is
unconcerned about historical context. Despite the vast literature on printing, an
adequate context has not yet been supplied. A good recent selective bibliography
is in W. T. Berry and H. E. Poole, Annals of Printing A Chronological Encyclopedia
from Earliest Times to 1950 (London, 1966), pp. 287-94. More recent
works include two particularly pertinent titles, i.e., J. Carter and P. Muir (eds.),
Printing and the Mind of Man: The Impact of Print on the Evolution of Western
Civilization during Five Centuries (Cambridge, 1967)-an enlarged descriptive
catalogue offering four hundred-odd entries on “great books” displayed at a 1963
London exhibition-and Rudolph Hirsch, Printing, Selling, Reading 1450-1550
(Wiesbaden, 1967)-an uneven study whose defects and merits are summarized in
the Times Literary Supplement (Sept. 21, 1967), p. 848. There is a large monographic
literature on early printers, the book trade, censorship, journalism, and
other special aspects. Different portions of it have been synthesized by Lucien
Febvre and H. J. Martin, L’Apparition du livre (L’tvolution de l’humanite, Vol.
XLIX [Paris, 1958]), and by S. H. Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing
(rev. ed.; Bristol, 1961). It has not been assimilated into other historical treatments.
When sections are devoted to printing in general works, the topic is
segregated from related developments.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
2 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
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 and to suggest how they
relate to particular historical problems. This is the purpose of my work
in progress, some samples of which I am offering here. Speculations that
are possibly unfounded and certainly still shaky will be presented to
stimulate thought and encourage further study.
As you may have noted, I have already reformulated Bacon’s advice
by taking it to pertain, not to a single invention that is coupled with
others, but rather to the launching of a new process and to a major
transformation. 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 out
what happened in a particular Mainz workshop in the 1450’s. When
pursuing other inquiries, it seems almost prudent to bypass so problematic
an event. This does not apply to the appearance of new occupational
groups, workshops, techniques, trade networks, and products unknown
anywhere in Europe, before the mid-fifteenth century and found
in every regional center by the early sixteenth century. To pass by all
that when dealing with other problems would seem to be incautious.
For this reason, among others, I am skipping over the perfection of a
new process for printing with movable types and will take as my point
of departure, instead, the large-scale utilization of this process.
By the advent of printing, then, I mean the establishment of presses
in major urban centers throughout Europe, during an interval that coincides,
roughly, with the era of incunabula.2 So few studies have been devoted
to this point of departure that no conventional label has yet been
attached to it. One might talk about a basic change in a mode of production,
or a communications revolution, or (most explicitly) a shift
from scribal to typographical culture. Whatever label is used, it should
be understood to cover a large cluster of relatively simultaneous, closely
interrelated changes, each of which needs closer study and more explicit
treatment-as the following quick sketch may suggest.
2That the era of incunabula should be extended to encompass the first few
decades of the sixteenth century is persuasively argued by Steinberg. By subdividing
the first century of printing into successive phases, Steinberg brings out
the initial transformation more clearly than do the other authorities cited above.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 3
First of all, the marked increase in the output of books and the
more drastic reduction in the number of man-hours required to turn
them out deserve stronger emphasis. At present there is a tendency to
think of a steady increase in book production during the last century
of scribal culture followed by a steady increase during the first century
of printing. An evolutionary model of change is applied to a situation
that seems to call for a revolutionary one. A hard-working copyist turned
out two books in little less than a year. An average edition of an early
printed book ranged from two hundred to one thousand copies.
Chaucer’s clerk longed for twenty books to fill his shelf; ten copyists
had to be recruited to serve each such clerk down to the 1450’s, whereas
one printer was serving twenty before 1500.3 The point is that references
to “enormous numbers” of scribal books are deceptive.4 With regard to
quantitative output, an abrupt change, not a gradual one, probably
Similarly, qualitative changes affecting the nature of the book itselfits
format, arrangement of contents, page layouts, and illustrationsneed
to be underlined. That late manuscripts resembled early incunabula,
that scribes and printers copied each others’ products for several
decades,5 should not distract attention from changes that occurred when
the single text was replaced by a first edition and the manuscript became
“copy” that was edited and processed before duplication. Even before
1500 such changes were being registered. Title pages and running heads
s I have simplified figures offered by D. McMurtrie, The Book (Oxford, 1943),
p. 214, as to 268 printers in Venice who turned out two million volumes between
1481-1501 and those given by M. Plant, The English Book Trade (London, 1939),
p. 22, concerning the ten thousand copyists at work in regions near Paris and
Orleans during the fifteenth century in order to contrast very roughtly the probable
output of a major center of scribal book production with that of a main early
printing center.
4 See, e.g., remarks by P. 0. Kristeller, Renaissance Thought, Vol. I: The
Classic, Scholastic and Humanist Strains (New York, 1961), pp. 14-15. The
establishment of paper mills probably did not produce an effect “similar” to
that of the printing press. Paper could quicken the pace of private, official, and
commercial correspondence and enable more men-of-letters to be their own
scribes. But, since it still took almost a year for a professional scribe to turn
out two books, a relatively sluggish increase in the output of books probably
5 Curt F. Biihler, The Fifteenth Century Book The Scribes The Printers The
Decorators (Philadelphia, 1960), describes the late fifteenth century as a “noman’s-
land” between written and printed books (p. 16) and proves that most
late manuscripts are copies of printed books. This temporary physical resemblance
makes it more difficult to see how incunabula differed from late manuscripts
and more important to emphasize that two fundamentally disparate
products were involved. A detailed, vivid account of this disparity is given by
E. P. Goldschmidt, Medieval Texts and Their First Appearance in Print (Bibliographical
Society Publication [London, 1943]), pp. 89 ff.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
4 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
were becoming common, and texts were being illustrated by “exactly
repeatable pictorial statements” designed by woodcarvers and engravers.”
Not only were products from artisan workshops introduced into
scholarly texts, but the new mode of book production itself brought
metalworkers and merchants into contact with schoolmen. A most
interesting study might be devoted to a comparison of the talents and
skills mobilized within printers’ workshops with those previously employed
in scriptoria.
Other changes associated with the shift from a retail trade to a
wholesale industry also need to be explored. Early crises of overproduction
and drives to tap new markets could be contrasted with the incapacity
of manuscript dealers and copyists to supply existing demands.
The movement of centers of book production from university towns and
patrician villas to commercial centers, the organization of new trade
networks and fairs, competition over lucrative privileges and monopolies,
and restraints imposed by new official controls have all been covered
in special accounts.7 But the implications of such changes need to be
spelled out. If it is true that the main bulk of book production was taken
out of the hands of churchmen, who ran most large scriptoria, and
was lodged in those of early capitalists, who established printing plants,
this is surely worth spelling out. If such a statement will not hold up
or merely needs to be qualified, then this too is something we need to
be told.
We also need to hear more about the job printing that accompanied
book-printing.8 It lent itself to commercial advertising, official propaganda,
seditious agitation, and bureaucratic red tape as no scribal
procedure ever had. A new form of silent publicity enabled printers
not only to advertise their own wares but also to contribute to, and profit
from, the expansion of other commercial enterprises. What effects did
the appearance of new advertising techniques have on commerce and
industry? Possibly some answers to this question are known. Probably
others can still be found. Many other aspects of job printing and the
changes it entailed clearly need further study. The calendars and indulgences
issued from the Mainz workshops of Gutenberg and Fust, for
example, warrant at least as much attention as the more celebrated
Bibles. Indeed the mass produceion of indulgences9 illustrates very
6 See William Ivins, Prints and Visual Communication (Cambridge, Mass.,
1953). Ivins persuasively describes the revolutionary effects produced by woodcuts
and engravings but underestimates (in my view) those produced by typography.
His study is nonetheless invaluable.
7 Much of this is covered in detail by Febvre and Martin. See chap. vi.
8 Although Steinberg, p. 22, stresses this aspect of Gutenberg’s invention as
the most far reaching, it is underplayed in most accounts.
9 Ibid., p. 139. On an interesting connection between the fall of Constantinople
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 5
neatly the sort of change that often goes overlooked so that its consequences
are more difficult to reckon with than perhaps they need be.
In contrast to the changes sketched above, those that were associated
with the consumption of new printed products are more intangible, indirect,
and difficult to handle. A large margin for uncertainty must be
left when dealing with such changes. Many of them-those associated
with the spread of literacy, for example-also have to be left for later
discussion,s ince prolongedt ransformationws ere entailed.Y et relatively
abrupt changes belonging to my original cluster were experienced by
already literate sectors. More thought might be given to the social composition
of these sectors. Although rigorous analysis is impossible on the
basis of scribal records, useful guesses could be made. Did printing at
first serve an urban patriciate as a “divine art” or more humble folk as
a “poor man’s friend”? Since it was described in both ways by contemporaries,
p ossibly it served in both ways. If we think about Roman
slaves or later parish priests, lay clerks, and notaries, it seems that literacy
was by no means congruent with elite social status. The new presses,
therefore, probably did not gradually make available to low-born men
what had previously been restricted to the high born. Instead, changes in
mental habits and attitudes entailed by access to printed materials affected
a wide social spectrumf rom the outset. In fifteenth-centuryE ngland,
for example,m ercersa nd scrivenerse ngagedi n a manuscriptb ook
trade were already catering to the needs of lowly bakers and merchants
as well as to those of lawyers, aldermen,a nd knights.10T he new mode
of book production also left many unlettered nobles and squires untouched
for some time.
While postponing until later conjectures about social and psychological
transformationsc, ertain points should be noted here. One must
distinguish, as Altick suggests, between literacy and habitual bookreading.
Even down to the present, by no means all who master the
written word become members of a book-reading public.” Learning
to read is different, moreover, from learning by reading. Reliance on
apprenticeship training, oral communication, and special mnemonic
and Gutenberg’s indulgences (the first dated printed products), see McMurtrie,
p. 149. The first known piece of printing in England was also an indulgence,
issued by Caxton for an abbot in 1476.
10 E. F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century 1399-1485 (Oxford History of England
[Oxford, 1961]), pp. 663-67. See also J. W. Adamson, “The Extent of Literacy
in England in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries: Notes and Conjectures,”
Library, X (Sept. 1929), 163-93; H. S. Bennett, English Books and Readers
1475-1557 (Cambridge, 1952), p. 20. Continental developments are noted by
Hirsch, pp. 147-53.
11 R. Altick, The English Common Reader. A Social History of the Mass
Reading Public, 1800-1900 (Chicago, 1963), p. 31.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
6 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
devices had gone together with mastering letters in the age of scribes.
After the advent of printing, however, learning by doing became more
sharply distinguished from learning by reading, while the role played by
hearsay and memory arts diminished. Since they affected the transmission
of all forms of knowledge, such changes seem relevant to historical
inquiries of every kind. Issues pertaining to shifts in book-reading habits
go far beyond the special concerns of literary historians. They have a
direct bearing on economic, legal, technological, and political developments
as well. Last but not least, the most important members of the
new book-reading public in the age of incunabula are most often overlooked.
They belonged to the new occupational groups created by the
new mode of production. Those who processed texts or presided over the
new presses were the first to read the products that came off them. In
particular, early scholar-printers themselves registered most forcefully
the consequences of access to printed materials. It is possibly because of
this kind of “feedback” that the infant industry was so rapidly modernized.
As early as the 1480’s, “modern” workshops had already
displaced “medieval” ones, and several “large capitalist firms” had already
been launched.12
Granted that some sort of revolution did occur during the late fifteenth
century. How did this affect other historical developments? Since the
consequences of printing have not been thoroughly explored, guidance
is hard to come by. 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 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 we are told that “printing
did not speed up the adoption of new theories.”13 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.
12 Febvre and Martin, p. 193.
13 Ibid., pp. 420-21.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 7
I have found it useful, in any case, to start taking stock by following
up clues contained in special studies on printing. After singling out certain
features that seemed peculiar to typography, I held them in mind
while passing in review various historical developments. Relationships
emerged that had not occurred to me before, and some possible solutions
to old puzzles were suggested. Conjectures based on this approach may
be sampled below under headings that indicate my main lines of inquiry.
A. A Closer Look at Wide Dissemination: Various Effects
Produced by Increased Output
Most references to wide dissemination are too fleeting to make clear
the specific effects of an increased supply of texts directed at different
markets. In particular they fail to make clear how patterns of consumption
were affected by increased production. Here the term “dissemination”
is sufficiently inappropriate to be distracting. Some mention of
cross-fertilization or cross-cultural interchange should be included in
surveys or summaries. More copies of one given text, for instance, were
“spread, dispersed, or scattered” by the issue of a printed edition.”4
For the individual book-reader, however, different texts, which were
previously dispersed and scattered, were also brought closer together.
In some regions, printers produced more scholarly texts than they could
sell and flooded local markets.’5 In all regions, a given purchaser could
buy more books at lower cost and bring them into his study or library.
In this way, the printer provided the clerk with a richer, more varied
literary diet than had been provided by the scribe. To consult different
books it was no longer so essential to be a wandering scholar. Successive
generations of sedentary scholars were less apt to be engrossed by a
single text and to expend their energies in elaborating on it. The era
of the glossator and commentator came to an end, and a new “era of
intense cross referencing between one book and another”16 began. More
abundantly stocked bookshelves increased opportunities to consult and
compare different texts and, thus, also made more probable the formation
of new intellectual combinations and permutations. Viewed in this
14Since this enabled scattered readers to consult the same book, it may be
regarded as an aspect of standardization which is discussed in the next section.
15 Early crises of overproduction of humanist works are noted by Denys Hay,
“Literature, the Printed Book,” in G. R. Elton (ed.), The New Cambridge Modern
History (Cambridge, 1958), II, 365. The failure of printers to assess their
markets shrewdly, which accounts for some of these crises, is noted by Biihler,
pp. 59-61. Inadequate distribution networks at first were largely responsible.
Zainer’s firm, e.g., turned out 36,000 books when the population of Augsburg
was half that number (Buhler, p. 56).
16Hay, p. 366. By the mid-sixteenth century, “even obscure scholars could
possess a relatively large collection of books on a single topic,” according to
A. R. Hall, “Science,” in Elton (ed.), II, 389.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
8 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
light, cross-cultural interchanges fostered by printing seem relevant to
Sarton’s observation: “The Renaissance was a transmutation of values,
a ‘new deal,’ a reshuffling of cards, but most of the cards were old; the
scientific Renaissance was a ‘new deal,’ but many of the cards were
new.”’17 Combinatory intellectual activity, as Koestler has recently suggested,
inspires many creative acts. Once old texts came together within
the same study, diverse systems of ideas and special disciplines could be
combined. Increased output directed at relatively stable markets, in
short, created conditions that favored, first, new combinations of old
ideas and, then, the creation of entirely new systems of thought.
Merely by making more scrambled data available, by increasing the
output of second-century Ptolemaic maps and twelfth-century mappae
mundi, for instance, printers encouraged efforts to unscramble these data.
Hand-drafted portolans had long been more accurate, but few eyes had
seen them.18 Much as maps from different regions and epochs were
brought into contact, so too were diverse textual traditions previously
preserved by specially trained groups of schoolmen and scribes. It should
be noted that cross-cultural interchange was not solely a consequence of
augmented output. For example, texts were provided with new illustrations
drawn from artisan workshops instead of scriptoria. Here again,
different traditions were brought into contact. In this case, words drawn
from one milieu and pictures from another were placed beside each
other within the same books.19 When considering new views of the “book
of nature” or the linking of bookish theories with observations and craft
skills, it may be useful to look at the ateliers of Renaissance artists. But
one must also go on to visit early printers’ workshops, for it is there
above all that we “can observe the formation of groups . . . conducive
to cross-fertilization”20 of all kinds.
17 George Sarton, “The Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress during the
Renaissance,” in W. K. Ferguson et al., The Renaissance: Six Essays (Metropolitan
Museum of Art Symposium, 1953 [New York, 19621), p. 57.
18 These maps are compared and the superiority of manuscript charts to early
printed maps is noted by Boies Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance
1420-1620 (New York, 1962), chap. xvi. The logical conclusion-that
intelligent, literate sixteenth-century printers did not know what cartographers
and mariners in coastal regions did-is, however, not drawn.
19 See R. J. Forbes and E. J. Dijksterhuis, A History of Science and Technology
(London, 1963), Vol. II, chap. xvi, on how “technology went to press”
in the sixteenth century. A. R. Hall, The Scientific Revolution 1500-1800: The
Formation of the Modern Scientific Attitude (Boston, 1957), p. 43, states:
“Vesalius’ cuts are sometimes less traditional and more accurate than his text.”
The cuts were made, however, by a wood-carver, Stephan of Calcar. (See n. 20
20 Erwin Panofsky, “Artist, Scientist, Genius: Notes on the Renaissance-
Dammerung,” in Ferguson et al., p. 160. This whole essay (which passes over
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 9
Cross-cultural interchange stimulated mental activities in contradictory
ways. The first century of printing was marked above all by
intellectual ferment and by a “somewhat wide-angled, unfocused scholarship.”‘
21 Certain confusing cross-currents may be explained by noting
that new links between disciplines were being forged before old ones had
been severed. In the age of scribes, for instance, magical arts were
closely associated with mechanical crafts. Trade skills were passed down
by closed circles of initiates. Unwritten recipes used by the alchemist
were not clearly distinguished from those used by the apothecary or
surgeon, the goldsmith or engraver. When “technology went to press,”
so too did a vast backlog of occult lore, and few readers could discriminate
between the two.
The divine art or “mystery” of printing unleashed a “churning turbid
flood of Hermetic, cabbalistic, Gnostic, theurgic, Sabaean, Pythagorean,
and generally mystic notions.”22 Historians are still puzzled by certain
strange deposits left by this flood. They might find it helpful to consider
how records derived from ancient Near Eastern cultures had been transmitted
in the age of scribes. Some of these records had dwindled into
tantalizing fragments pertaining to systems of reckoning, medicine, agriculture,
mythic cults, and so forth. Others had evaporated into unfathomable
glyphs. All were thought to come from one body of pure
knowledge originally set down by an Egyptian scribal god and carefully
preserved by ancient sages and seers before becoming corrupted and
confused. A collection of writings containing ancient lore was received
from Macedonia by Cosimo de’ Medici, translated by Ficino in 1463,
and printed in fifteen editions before 1500. It seemed to come from this
body of knowledge-and was accordingly attributed to “Hermes Trismegistus.”
The hermetic corpus ran through many more editions during
the next century before it was shown to have been compiled in the third
century A.D. On this basis we are told that Renaissance scholars had
made a radical error in dating.23 But to assign definite dates to scribal
compilations, which were probably derived from earlier sources, may
be an error as well.
The transformation of occult and esoteric scribal lore after the advent
the role of printing) is relevant to the above discussion. Stephan of Calcar’s role
in Vesalius’ work is noted on p. 162, n. 36.
21 E. Harris Harbison, The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation
(New York, 1956), p. 54.
22G. de Santillana, review of F. Yates’s Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic
Traditionz, American Historical Review, LXX (Jan. 1965), 455.
23 See Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (London,
1964), passim. That ancient Egyptian ingredients were present in the third-century
compilation is suggested on pp. 2-3, n. 4, and p. 431.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
10 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
of printing also needs more study. Some arcane writings, in Greek, Hebrew
or Syriac, for example, became less mysterious. Others became
more so. Thus hieroglyphs were set in type more than three centuries
before their decipherment. These sacred carved letters were loaded with
significant meaning by readers who could not read them.24 They were
also used simply as ornamental motifs by architects and engravers.
Given baroque decoration on one hand and complicated interpretations
by scholars, Rosicrucians, and Freemasons on the other, the duplication
of Egyptian picture writing throughout the Age of Reason presents
modern scholars with puzzles that can never be solved. In brief, when
considering the effects produced by printing on scholarship, it is a mistake
to think only about new forms of enlightenment. New forms of
mystification were entailed as well.
It is also a mistake to think only about scholarly markets when
considering the effects of increased output. Dissemination as defined in
the dictionary does seem appropriate to the duplication of primers and
ABC books, almanacs, and picture Bibles. An increased output of devotional
literature was not necessarily conducive to cross-cultural interchange.
Catechisms, religious tracts, and Bibles would fill some bookshelves
to the exclusion of all other reading matter. A new wide-angled,
unfocused scholarship had to compete with a new single-minded, narrowly
focused piety. At the same time, guidebooks and manuals also
became more abundant, making it easier to lay plans for getting ahead
in this world-possibly diverting attention from uncertain futures in the
next one. It is doubtful whether “the effect of the new invention on
scholarship” was more important than these other effects “at the beginning
of the sixteenth century.”25 What does need emphasis is that many
dissimilar effects, all of great consequence, came relatively simultaneously.
If this could be spelled out more clearly, seemingly contradictory
developments might be confronted with more equanimity. The intensifi-
24On the “Hieroglyphics of Horapollo” (first printed by Aldus in Greek,
1505, in Latin, 1515) and later developments, see Erik Iversen, Thle Myth of
Egypt and Its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition (Copenhagen, 1961), passim.
Additional data is given by E. P. Goldschmidt, The Printed Book of the Renaissance:
Three Lectures on Type, Illustration, Ornament (Cambridge, 1950), pp.
84-85, and Mario Praz, Studies in Seventeenth Century Imagery (Rome, 1964),
chap. i. Yates implies that baroque argumentation about hermetica ended with
Isaac Casaubon’s early seventeenth-century proof that Ficino had translated
works dating from the third century A.D. But Greek scholarship alone could not
unlock the secrets of the pyramids. Interest in arcana associated with Thoth and
“Horapollo” continued until Champollion. By then the cluster of mysteries that
had thickened with each successive “unveiling of Isis” was so opaque that even
the decipherment of the Rosetta stone could not dispel them.
25 Myron Gilmore, The World of Humanism 1453-1517 (Rise of Modern
Europe [New York, 1952]), p. 189.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 11
cation of both religiosity and secularism could be better understood.
Some debates about periodization also could be bypassed. Medieval
world pictures, for example, were duplicated more rapidly during the
first century of printing than they had been during the so-called Middle
Ages. They did not merely survive among the Elizabethans. They became
more available to poets and playwrights of the sixteenth century
than they had been to minstrels and mummers of the thirteenth century.
In view of such considerations, I cannot agree with Sarton’s comment:
“It is hardly necessary to indicate what the art of printing meant
for the diffusion of culture but one should not lay too much stress on
diffusion and should speak more of standardization.”26 How printing
changed patterns of cultural diffusion deserves much more study than
it has yet received. Moreover, individual access to diverse texts is a
different matter than bringing many minds to bear on a single text. The
former issue is apt to be neglected by too exclusive an emphasis on
B. Considering Some Effects Produced by Standardization
Although it has to be considered in conjunction with many other issues,
standardization certainly does deserve closer study. One specialist has
argued that it is currently overplayed.27 Yet it may well be still understressed.
Perhaps early printing methods made it impossible to issue the
kind of “standard” editions with which modern scholars are familiar.
Certainly press variants did multiply, and countless errata were issued.
The fact remains that Erasmus or Bellarmine could issue errata;
Jerome or Alcuin could not. The very act of publishing errata demonstrated
a new capacity to locate textual errors with precision and to
transmit this information simultaneously to scattered readers. It thus
illustrates, rather neatly, some of the effects of standardization. However
fourteenth-century copyists were supervised, scribes were incapable
of committing the sort of “standardized” error that led printers to be
fined for the “wicked Bible” of 163 1.28 If a single compositor’s error
could be circulated in a great many copies, so too could a single scholar’s
emendation.29 However, when I suggest that we may still underestimate
the implications of standardization, I am not thinking primarily about
26Sarton, p. 66.
27On what follows, see remarks by M. H. Black, “The Printed Bible,” in
S. L. Greenslade (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Bible (Cambridge, 1963),
pp. 408-14.
28 The word “not” had been omitted from the seventh commandment (ibid.,
p. 412).
29 How important this was is stressed both by Gilmore, p. 189, and Sarton,
p. 66.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
12 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
textual emendations or errors. I am thinking instead about the new
output of exactly repeatable pictorial statements, such as maps, charts,
diagrams, and other visual aids;30 of more uniform reference guides,
such as calendars, thesauruses, dictionaries; of increasingly regular systems
of notation, whether musical, mathematical, or grammatical. How
different fields of study and aesthetic styles were affected by such developments
remains to be explored. It does seem worth suggesting that
both our so-called two cultures were affected. Humanist scholarship,
belles lettres, and fine arts must be considered along with celestial mechanics,
anatomy, and cartography.31
Too many important variations were, indeed, played on the theme of
standardization for all of them to be listed here. This theme entered into
every operation associated with typography, from the replica casting of
precisely measured pieces of type32 to the subliminal impact upon scattered
readers of repeated encounters with identical type styles, printers’
devices, and title-page ornamentation.33 Calligraphy itself was affected.
Sixteenth-century specimen books stripped diverse scribal “hands” of
personal idiosyncracies. They did for handwriting what style books did
for typography itself; what pattern books did for dressmaking, furniture,
architectural motifs, and ground plans. In short the setting of standards
-used for innumerable purposes, from cutting cloth to city-planningaccompanied
the output of more standardized products.
Here, as elsewhere, we need to recall that early printers were responsible
not only for issuing new standard reference guides but also for
compiling many of them.34 A subsequent division of labor tends to
30 The historical importance of new standardized images is spelled out most
clearly by Ivins. K. Boulding, The Image (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1961), pp. 64-68,
incorrectly assigns to the invention of writing the capacity to produce uniform
spatiotemporal images. His remarks about the “disassociated transcript” do not
seem applicable to scribal culture.
31 Ernst Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. W.
Trask (New York, 1963; 1st ed., 1948), exemplifies erudite humanistic scholarship
at its best. Yet his remarks on scribal book production are remarkably
fanciful, on changes wrought by printing entirely vacuous (p. 238). His failure
to consider how all the issues he deals with were affected by the new technology is
shared by most literary scholars and historians of ideas.
32 See Steinberg, p. 25.
33 The probable effect of title-page ornamentation on sixteenth-century fine
arts and the necessity of taking printing into account when dealing with new
aesthetic styles is noted by Andre Chastel, “What is Mannerism?” Art News,
LXIV (Dec. 1965), 53.
34This applies particularly to the publisher-printer (or printer-bookseller) as
described, e.g., by Elizabeth Armstrong, Robert Estienne Royal Printer: An
Historical Study of the Elder Stephanus (Cambridge, 1954), pp. 18, 68. It is
also applicable to many independent master printers, to some merchant-publishers
(who, literally defined, were not printers at all and yet closely supervised the
processing of texts-even editing and compiling some themselves), and finally to
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 13
divert attention from the large repertoire of roles performed by those
who presided over the new presses. A scholar-printerh imself might
serve as indexer-abridger-lexicographer-chronicWlerh. atever roles he
performed, decisions about standards to be adopted when processing
texts for publication could not be avoided. A suitable type style had to be
selected or designed and house conventions determined. Textual variants
and the desirability of illustration and translation also had to be confronted.
Accordingly, the printer’s workshop became the most advanced
laboratoryo f eruditiono f the sixteenthc entury.
Many early capitalist industries required efficient planning, methodical
attention to detail, and rational calculation. The decisions made by
early printers, however, directly affected both toolmaking and symbolmaking.
Their products reshaped powers to manipulate objects, to perceive
and think about varied phenomena. Scholars concerned with “modernization”
o r “rationalization”m ight profitablyt hink more about the
new kind of brainwork fostered by the silent scanning of maps, tables,
charts, diagrams, dictionaries, and grammars. They also need to look
more closely at the daily routines pursued by those who compiled and
produced such reference guides. These routines were conducive to a
new esprit de systeme. “It’s much easier to find things when they are
each disposed in place and not scattered haphazardly,” remarked a
sixteenth-centuryp ublisher.3H5 e was justifyingt he way he had reorganized
a text he had edited. He might equally well have been complaining
to a clerk who had mislaid some account papers pertaining to the large
commercial enterprise he ran.
C. Some Eftects Produced by Editing and Reorganizing Texts:
Codifying, Clarifying, and Cataloguing Data
Editorial decisions made by early printers with regard to layout and presentation
probably helped to reorganize the thinking of readers. Mc-
Luhan’s suggestion that scanning lines of print affected thought processes
is at first glance somewhat mystifying. But further reflection suggests that
some skilled journeymen (who served as correctors or were charged with throwing
together, from antiquated stock, cheap reprints for mass markets). The
divergent social and economic positions occupied by these groups are discussed
by Natalie Z. Davis in “Strikes and Salvation at Lyons,” Archiv fuir Reformationsgeschichte,
LXV (1965), 48, and in “Publisher Guillaume Rouille, Businessman
and Humanist,” in R. J. Schoeck (ed.), Editing Sixteenth Century Texts
(Toronto, 1966), pp. 73-76. Within workshops down through the eighteenth
century, divisions of labor varied so widely and were blurred so frequently that
they must be left out of account for the purpose of developing my conjectures.
Accordingly I use the term “printer” very loosely to cover all these groups
throughout this paper.
35 Cited by Davis, “Guillaume Rouille,” p. 100.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
14 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
the thoughts of readers are guided by the way the contents of books are
arranged and presented. Basic changes in book format might well lead
to changes in thought patterns. Such changes began to appear in the
era of incunabula. They made texts more lucid and intelligible. They
involved the use “of graduated types, running heads . . . footnotes …
tables of contents . . . superior figures, cross references . . . and other
devices available to the compositor”-all registering “the victory of the
punch cuttero ver the scribe.”36C oncernw ith surfacea ppearancen ecessarily
governed the handwork of the scribe. He was fully preoccupied
trying to shape evenly spaced uniform letters in a pleasing symmetrical
design. An altogether different procedure was required to give directions
to compositors. To do this, one had to mark up a manuscript while
scrutinizing its contents. Every scribal text that came into the printer’s
hands, thus, had to be reviewed in a new way. Within a generation
the results of this review were being aimed in a new direction-away
from fidelity to scribal conventions and toward serving the convenience
of the reader. The competitive and commercial character of the new
mode of book production encouraged the relatively rapid adoption of any
innovationt hat commendeda given edition to purchasers.I n short,p roviding
built-in aids to the reader became for the first time both feasible
and desirable.
The introductiona nd adoptiono f such built-ina ids, from the 1480’s
on, has been traced and discussed in special works on printing but has
been insufficientlyn oted in other accounts.W e are repeatedlyt old about
“dissemination,”o ccasionallya bout standardizationa, lmost never at all
about the codification and clarification that were entailed in editing
copy.37 Yet changes affecting book format probably contributed much
to the so-called rationalization of diverse institutions. After all, they
36 Steinberg, p. 28. A detailed account of the effects of printing on punctuation
is given by Hirsch, pp. 136-37.
37The “diagrammatic tidiness” imparted by print to “the world of ideas” is
discussed by Walter J. Ong, S.J., Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue
from the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Cambridge, Mass., 1958), p.
311. See also his “System, Space and Intellect in Renaissance Symbolism,” Bibliotheque
d’humanisme et Renaissance-travaux et documents, XVIII, No. 2
(1956), 222-40; and his “From Allegory to Diagram in the Renaissance Mind,”
Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XVII (June 1959), 4. Father Ong’s
somewhat abstruse discussion has recently been substantiated and supplemented
by a straightforward study of changes registered on repeated editions of a popular
sixteenth-century reference work, which provides detailed confirmation of
the above discussion. See Gerald Straus, “A Sixteenth Century Encyclopedia:
Sebastian Munster’s Cosmography and Its Editions,” in C. H. Carter (ed.), From
the Renaissance to the Counter Reformation: Essays in Honor of Garret Mattingly
(New York, 1965), pp. 145-63. See also the discussion of Robert Estienne’s
pioneering work in lexicography (in Armstrong, chap. iv), and Davis, “Guillaume
Rouille,” pp. 100-101.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 15
affected texts used for the study and practice of law-and consequently
had an impact on most organs of the body politic as well.8 This has
been demonstratedb y a pioneerings tudy of the “englishinga nd printing”
of the “Great Boke of Statutes 1530-1533.”39 I cannot pause here
over the many repercussionsr, angingf rom statecraftt o literature,t hat
came in the wake of Tudorl aw-printinga ccordingt o this study.T o suggest
why we need to look at new built-in aids, I will simply point to the
introductory “Tabula” to the “Great Boke”; “a chronological register
by chapters of the statutes 1327-1523.” Here was a table of contents
that also served as a “conspectuso f parliamentaryh istory”40-the first
many readers had seen.
This sort of spectacular innovation, while deserving close study,
should not divert attention from much less conspicuous but more
ubiquitous changes. Increasing familiarity with regularly numbered
pages,p unctuationm arks,s ectionb reaks,r unningh eads,i ndexes, and so
forth helped to reorder the thought of all readers, whatever their profession
or craft. Hence countless activities were subjected to a new
esprit de systeme. The use of arabic numbers for pagination suggests
how the most inconspicuousin novationc ould have weightyc onsequences
-in this case, more accuratei ndexing,a nnotation,a nd cross-referencing
resulted.41M ost studies of printingh ave quite rightly singled out the
provision of title pages as the most important of all ubiquitous printmade
innovations.42H ow the title page contributedt o the cataloguing
of books and the bibliographer’cs raft scarcelyn eeds to be spelled out.
How it contributedt o a new habit of placinga nd datingi n generald oes,
I think, call for further thought.
On the whole, as I have tried to suggest throughout this discussion,
topics now allocated to bibliophiles and specialists on printing are of
general concern to historians at large-or, at least, to specialists in
88 The interplay between the printing of existing laws and laws pertaining to
(or necessitated by) printing is an instance of complex interaction that deserves
special study.
89 H. J. Graham, “‘Our Tongue Maternall Marvellously Amendyd and Augmentyd’:
The First Englishing and Printing of the Medieval Statutes at Large,
1530-1533,” U.C.L.A. Law Bulletin, XIII (Nov. 1965), 58-98.
40ibid., p. 66.
41G. Sarton, “Incunabula Wrongly Dated,” in D. Stimson (ed.), Sarton on
the History of Science (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), pp. 322-23. Arabic numerals
appear for the first time on each page of the Scriptures in Froben’s first edition
of Erasmus’ New Testament of 1516, which also “set the style” for the welldifferentiated
book and chapter headings employed by other Bible-printers (Black,
p. 419). See also Francis J. Witty, “Early Indexing Techniques: A Study of
Several Book Indexes of the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Early Sixteenth Centuries,”
Library Quarterly, XXXV (July 1965), 141-48.
42 Steinberg, pp. 145-53.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
16 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
many different fields. The way these fields are laid out could be better
understood, indeed, if we opened up the one assigned to printing. “Until
half a century after Copernicus’ death, no potentially revolutionary
changes occurred in the data available to astronomers.”43 But Copernicus’
life (1473-1543) spanned the very decades when a great many
changes, now barely visible to modern eyes, were transforming “the data
available” to all book-readers. A closer study of these changes could help
to explain why systems of charting the planets, mapping the earth, synchronizing
chronologies, and compiling bibliographies were all revolutionized
before the end of the sixteenth century.44 In each instance, one
notes, ancient Alexandrian achievements were first reduplicated and
then, in a remarkably short time, surpassed. In each instance also, the
new schemes once published remained available for correction, development,
and refinement. Successive generations of scholars could build on
the work of their sixteenth-century predecessors instead of trying to retrieve
scattered fragments of it.
The varied intellectual revoltions of early modem times owed much
to the features that have already been outlined.45 But the great tomes,
charts, and maps that are now seen as “milestones” might have proved
43Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), p.
44 Ortelius’ “epoch-making” Theatrum orbis terrarum was published in Antwerp
in 1570. (Although Mercator’s “milestone” was published in 1569, his new projection
remained little known until 1599, when Edmund Wright published a set
of rules for its construction.) See Penrose, pp. 324-27. Febvre and Martin, p. 418,
point to the fact that Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium caelestium (1543)
was not republished in a second edition until 1566 to support the view that
printing did not speed up the acceptance of new ideas. In 1551, however, Erasmus
Reinhold issued a “complete new set of astronomical tables,” based on the
De revolutionibus. These so-called Prutenic Tables were widely used. See Kuhn,
pp. 125, 187-88. The duplication of Napier’s logarithms and their use by Kepler
in constructing his Rudolphine Tables also seem to me to argue against Febvre
and Martin’s thesis. See Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers (London, 1959), pp.
410-11. J. J. Scaliger’s De emendatione temporum, which “revolutionized all
received ideas of chronology,” was published in 1583; R. C. Christie and J. E.
Sandys, “Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609),” Encyclopadia Britannica (11th ed.;
New York, 1911), XXIV, 284. Theodore Besterman, The Beginnings of Systematic
Bibliography (Oxford, 1936), pp. 7-8, 15-21, 33, argues that Conrad
Gesner’s Bibliothleca universalis (1545), a 1,300-page tome listing 12,000 Latin,
Greek, and Hebrew works, does not warrant calling Gesner the “father of
bibliography,” since Johannes Tritheim’s much smaller and restricted Liber de
scriptoribus ecclesiasticus (1494) preceded it. The “foundations of systematic
bibliography were well and truly laid” at any rate before 1600.
45 The issues dealt with by studies such as F. Smith Fussner’s The Historical
Revolution: English Historical Writing and Thought 1580-1640 (London, 1962)
and Wylie Sypher’s “Similarities between the Scientific and Historical Revolutions
at the End of the Renaissance,” Journal of the History of Ideas, XXV (July-
Sept. 1965), 353-68, need particularly to be reviewed in the light of the above
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impacto f Printingo n WesternS ocietya nd Thought 17
insubstantialh ad not the preservativep owers of print also been called
into play. Typographicafl ixity is a basic prerequisitef or the rapid advancement
of learning. It helps to explain much else that seems to distinguish
the history of the past five centuries from that of all prior erasas
I hope the following remarks will suggest.
D. Considering the Preservative Powers of Print: How Fixity and AccumulationA
lteredP atternso f Culturala nd InstitutionalC hange46
Of all the new features introduced by the duplicative powers of print,
preservation is possibly the most important. To appreciate its importance,
we need to recall the conditions that prevailed before texts
could be set in type. No manuscripth, oweveru seful as a referenceg uide,
could be preservedf or long withoutu ndergoingc orruptionb y copyists,
and even this sort of “preservation”re sted precariouslyo n the shifting
demands of local elites and a fluctuating incidence of trained scribal
labor. Insofar as records were seen and used, they were vulnerable to
wear and tear. Stored documents were vulnerable to moisture and vermin,
theft and fire. However they might be collected or guarded within
some great message center, their ultimate dispersal and loss was inevitable.
T o be transmittedb y writingf rom one generationt o the next,
information had to be conveyed by drifting texts and vanishing manuscripts.
When considering developments in astronomy (or geography or
chronology) during the age of scribes, it is not the slow rate of cognitive
advance that calls for explanation. Rather, one might wonder about
how the customary process of erosion, corruption, and loss was temporarilya
rrested.W hen viewed in this light, the “1,800 years”t hat elapsed
between Hipparchusa nd Copernicus47se em less remarkablet han the
advances that were made in planetary astronomy during the 600 years
that elapsed between Aristotle and Ptolemy. With regard to all computations
based on large-scale data collection, whatever had once been
clearly seen and carefully articulated grew dimmed and blurred with
the passage of time. More than a millennium also elapsed between
Eratosthenes and Scaliger, Ptolemy and Mercator. The progress made
over the course of centuries within the confines of the Alexandrian
46For the most part I have omitted from this section issues relating to
historical consciousness and historiography, since I have discussed them elsewhere;
Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, “Clio and Chronos: An Essay on the Making
and Breaking of History-Book Time,” History and the Concept of Time (History
and Theory, Suppl. 6 [1966]), pp. 42-64. Certain portions of this essay seemed
too pertinent to be excluded, however. They have, therefore, been repeated in a
slightly altered form and reworked along with fresh material into a different
context here.
47 Kuhn, p. 73, remarks on this “incredibly long time.”
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
18 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
Museum seems, in short, to have been most exceptional.48T o be sure,
there were intermittent localized “revivals of learning” thereafter, as
well as a prolonged accumulation of records within certain message
centers. Ground lost by corruption could never be regained, but migrating
manuscriptsc ould lead to abruptr ecoverya s well as to suddenl oss.
Yet a marked increase in the output of certain kinds of texts resulted
generallyi n a decreasedo utput of other kinds. Similarly,a “revival”i n
one region often signified a dearth of texts in another.
The incapacityo f scribalc ulturet o sustaina simultaneousa dvanceo n
many fronts in different regions may be relevant to the “problem of the
Renaissance.”I talianh umanistb ook-huntersp, atrons,a nd dealerst ried
to replenish a diminished supply of those ancient texts that were being
neglected by scribes serving medieval university faculties. Their efforts
have been heraldeda s bringinga bout a “permanenrt ecovery”o f ancient
learninga nd letters.49I f one acceptst he criteriao f “totalitya nd permanence”
to distinguish prior “revivals” from the Renaissance,5 then
probablyt he advent of the scholar-printersh ould be heraldedi nstead.
He arrivedt o cast his Greek types and turn out grammarst, ranslations,
and standard editions in the nick of time-almost on the eve of the
Valois invasions.51
48 The strategic position occupied by this unique ancient message center
(which apparently swallowed up the contents of its only rival in Pergamum in the
first century B.C. to make up for losses suffered in the famous fire) has only
recently become apparent to me. Possibly it is well known to specialists in ancient
history, but it still needs to be spelled out in more general accounts. According
to Edward A. Parsons, The Alexandrian Library (Amsterdam, 1952), p. xi, the
actual use of the museum by scholars over the course of seven (maybe nine)
centuries “is still a virgin field of inquiry.”
49Like almost all other Renaissance scholars, Ktisteller, p. 17, while noting
that a selection of the “classics” circulated in medieval times, singles out as the
special contribution of Renaissance humanism that “it extended its knowledge
almost to the entire range of . . . extant remains.” This boils down to the fact
that most of what was recovered in the trecento and early quattrocento was not
again lost. But it came very close to being lost. The manuscript of De rerum
natura found by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417 has disappeared. The future of the
copy that was made remained uncertain until 1473, when a printed edition was
issued. Thirty more followed before 1600. A school of pagan philosophy intermittently
revived and repeatedly snuffed out was thus permanently secured. See
Danton B. Sailor, “Moses and Atomism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, XXV
(Jan.-Mar. 1964), 3-16. Other findings from palimpsests and papyri would
come later, as Kristeller notes. They came too late to be inserted into a curriculum
of classical studies that was “fixed” (by typography) in the sixteenth century.
Hence they are regarded as being somewhat peripheral to the central corpus of
classical works.
50These same criteria, employed implicitly by Kristeller, are more explicitly
and forcefully set forth by Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in
Western Art (Stockholm, 1960), pp. 108, 113. The capacity to view antiquity
from a “fixed distance” is, in my view, placed much too early in this study.
51 Burckhardt notes as a “singular piece of good fortune” that “Northerners
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 19
Once Greek type fonts had been cut, neither the disruption of civil
order in Italy, the conquest of Greek lands by Islam, nor even the
translation into Latin of all major Greek texts saw knowledge of Greek
wither again in the West. Instead it was the familiar scribal phrase
Graeca sunt ergo non legenda that disappeared from Western texts.
Constantinople fell, Rome was sacked. Yet a cumulative process of
textual purification and continuous recovery had been launched. The implications
of typographical fixity are scarcely exhausted by thinking
about early landmarks in classical scholarship and its auxiliary sciences:
paleography, philology, archeology, numismatics, etc. Nor are they exhausted
by reckoning the number of languages that have been retrieved
after being lost to all men for thousands of years. They involve the
whole modern “knowledge industry” itself, with its mushrooming bibliographies
and overflowing card files.
They also involve issues that are less academic and more geopolitical.
The linguistic map of Europe was “fixed” by the same process and at
the same time as Greek letters were. The importance of the fixing of
literary vernaculars is often stressed. The strategic role played by printing
is, however, often overlooked.52 How strategic it was is suggested by
the following paraphrased summary of Steinberg’s account:
Printing “preserved and codified, sometimes even created” certain vernaculars.
Its absence during the sixteenth century among small linguistic
groups “demonstrably led” to the disappearance or exclusion of their
vernaculars from the realm of literature. Its presence among similar groups
in the same century ensured the possibility of intermittent revivals or continued
expansion. Having fortified language walls between one group and another,
printers homogenized what was within them, breaking down minor differences,
standardizing idioms for millions of writers and readers, assigning a
new peripheral role to provincial dialects. The preservation of a given literary
language often depended on whether or not a few vernacular primers,
like Agricola, Reuchlin, Erasmus, the Stephani and Budaeus” had mastered
Greek when it was dying out-with the “last colony” of Byzantine exiles-in
the 1520’s in Italy; Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in
Italy, trans. S. G. C. Middlemore (New York, 1958), I, 205. The Aldine Press
(among others) had already insured its perpetuation, however. All these “northerners,”
one notes, were close allies of scholar-printers or (as with the “Stephani,”
i.e., Estiennes) famous printers themselves.
52 Compare abundance of relevant data in Febvre and Martin, chap. viii,
with what is missing in H. Stuart Hughes, History as Art and as Science (New
York, 1964), pp. 38-40, where the relation between linguistic fixity and nationalism,
individualism, capitalism, and the nation-state is discussed. Hughes
urges historians to make use of linguistic studies, but linguists, while careful to
discriminate between “spoken” and “written” languages, say little about scribal
versus printed ones. Judging by my own experience, books on linguistics are
most difficult to master and seem to lead far afield. I found the reverse to be
true when consulting literature on printing.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
20 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
catechisms or Bibles happened to get printed (under foreign as well as
domestic auspices) in the sixteenth century. When this was the case, the
subsequent expansion of a separate “national” literary culture ensued. When
this did not happen, a prerequisite for budding “national” consciousness
disappeared;a spoken provinciald ialect was left instead.53
Studies of dynastic consolidation and/or of nationalism might well
devote more space to the advent of printing. Typography arrested
linguisticd rift, enricheda s well as standardizedv ernaculars,a nd paved
the way for the more deliberate purification and codification of all
majorE uropeanl anguages.R andomlyp atterneds ixteenth-centuryty pecasting
largely determined the subsequent elaboration of national mythologies
on the part of certains eparateg roupsw ithinm ultilinguadl ynastic
states. The duplication of vernacular primers and translations contributed
in other ways to nationalism. A “mother’s tongue” learned
“naturally”a t home would be reinforcedb y inculcationo f a homogenized
print-made language mastered while still young, when learning to
read. Duringt he most impressionabley ears of childhood,t he eye would
first see a more standardizedv ersion of what the ear had first heard.
Particularly after grammar schools gave primary instruction in reading
by using vernaculari nsteado f Latin readers,l inguistic” roots”a nd rootedness
in one’s homeland would be entangled.
Printing helped in other ways to permanently atomize Western
ChristendomE. rastianp olicies long pursuedb y diverser ulersc ould, for
example,b e more fully implementedT. hus, the duplicationo f documents
pertainingt o ritual,l iturgy,o r canonl aw, handledu nderc lericala uspices
in the age of the scribe,w as undertakenb y enterprisingla ymen, subject
to dynastic authority, in the age of the printer. Local firms, lying outside
the control of the papal curia, were granted lucrative privileges by
Habsburg, Valois, or Tudor kings to service the needs of national clergies.
54 The varied ways in which printers contributed to loosening or
severing links with Rome, or to nationalist sentiment, or to dynastic
53Steinberg, pp. 120-26. Cases pertaining to Cornish, Cymric, Gaelic, Latvian,
Estonian, Lithuanian, Finnish, Pomeranian, Courlander, Czech, Basque, etc., are
cited. Of course, other factors may have been at work in other instances than
those cited, but the number of instances where sixteenth-century typecasting seems
to have been critical is noteworthy.
54 R. M. Kingdon, “Patronage, Piety, and Printing in Sixteenth-Century
Europe,” in D. H. Pinkney and T. Ropp (eds.), A Festschrift for Frederick B.
Artz (Durham, N.C., 1964), pp. 32-33, offers a detailed view of how Plantin’s
Antwerp firm implemented the Erastian policy of Philip II in order to evade
payments to a rival firm (none other than Manutius) that had been granted
the concession to print Catholic breviaries by Rome. Graham, pp. 71-72, also
shows how closely allied Thomas Cromwell was with a circle of law-printers led
by Thomas More’s brother-in-law, John Rastell-an independent crusader for
“Englishing” all law, French or Latin, canon or civil.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 21
consolidationc annotb e exploredh ere. But they surelyd o call for further
Other consequenceso f typographicafli xity also need to be explored.
Religious divisions and legal precedents were affected. In fact, all the
lines that were drawn in the sixteenth century (or thereafter), the
condemnationo f a heresy,t he excommunicationo f a schismatick ing, the
settling of disputes between warring dynasts, schisms within the body
politic-lines that prior generations had repeatedly traced, erased, retraced-
would now leave a more indelible imprint. It was no longer possible
to take for grantedt hat one was following “immemoriacl ustom”
when granting an immunity or signing a decree. Edicts became more
visible and irrevocable. The Magna Carta, for example, was ostensibly
“published” (i.e., proclaimed) twice a year in every shire. By 1237
there was already confusion as to which “charter”w as involved.56I n
1533, however, Englishmen glancing over the “Tabula” of the “Great
Boke” could see how often it had been repeatedly confirmed in successive
royal statutes.57I n France also the “mechanismb y which the will
of the sovereign” was incorporated into the “published” body of law
by “registration”w as probably altered by typographicafl iXity.58M uch
as M. Jourdain learned that he was speaking prose, monarchs learned
from political theorists that they were “making” laws. But members of
parliamentsa nd assembliesa lso learnedf rom jurists and printersa bout
ancient rights wrongfully usurped. Struggles over the right to establish
precedents probably became more intense as each precedent became
more permanenta nd hence more difficultt o break.
On the other hand, in many fields of activity, fixity led to new
departuresf rom precedentm arkedb y more explicit recognitiono f individual
innovation and by the staking of claims to inventions, discoveries,
and creations. By 1500, legal fictions were already being devised to
accommodate the patenting of inventions and the assignment of literary
properties.59U pon these foundations,a burgeoningb ureaucracyw ould
55 By pursuing this line of inquiry, one could usefully supplement the theoretical
views developed by Karl Deutsch (Nationalism and Social Communication:
An Inquiry into the Foundations of Nationality [Cambridge, Mass., 1953] with a
more empirical, historically grounded approach.
56 J. C. Holt, Magna Carta (Cambridge, 1965), pp. 288-90.
57 Graham, p. 93.
58 Franklin Ford, Robe and Sword (Harvard Historical Studies, Vol. LXIV),
(Cambridge, Mass., 1953), p. 80, describes this mechanism-not, however, how
it was altered. See also his remarks about the “great advance in publicity techniques”
and how major parlement remonstrances were being “published” by 1732
in printed form (p. 101).
69 A landmark in the history of literary property rights came in 1469, when a
Venetian printer obtained a privilege to print and sell a given book for a given
interval of time. See C. Blagden, The Stationers Company, A History 1403-1959
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
22 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
build a vast and complex legal structure. Laws pertaining to licensing
and privileges have been extensively studied. But they have yet to be
examineda s by-productso f typographicafli xity. Both the dissolutiono f
guild controls and conflictso ver mercantilistp olicies might be clarified
if this were done. Once the rights of an inventor could be legally fixed
and the problem of preserving unwritten recipes intact was no longer
posed, profits could be achieved by open publicity, provided new restraints
were not imposed. Individual initiative was released from reliance
on guild protection, but at the same time new powers were lodged
in the hands of a bureaucratico fficialdom.C ompetitiono ver the right
to publish a given text also introduced controversy over new issues
involving monopoly and piracy. Printing forced legal definition of what
belonged in the public domain and clear articulation of how one sort
of literaryp roduct differedf rom another.60W hen discussingt he emergence
of a new kind of individualismi,t mightb e useful to recallt hat the
eponymous inventor and personal authorship appeared at the same time
and as a consequence of the same process.
The emergenceo f uniquelyd istinguishedp, ersonallyf amous artists
and authors out of the ranks of more anonymous artisans and minstrels
was also related to typographicalf ixity. Cheaperw riting materialse ncouraged
the separate recording of private lives and correspondence.
Not paper mills but printing presses, however, made it possible to preserve
personal ephemera intact. As an expanding manuscript culture
found its way into print,f ormalc ompositionsw ere accompaniedb y intimate
anecdotes about the lives and loves of their flesh-and-blood
authors.W as it the “inclination”t o “publishg ossip” that was new in
the Renaissance,6′ or was it, rather, the possibility of doing so? The
characteristic individuality of Renaissance masterpieces surely owes
much to the new possibility of preserving the life-histories of those who
produced them. As art historians have shown, the hands of medieval
illuminators or stone-carvers were, in fact, no less distinctive. Their
(London, 1960), p. 32. According to Forbes and Dijksterhuis, I, 147, although
occasional privileges had been granted previously, the state of Venice was also the
first to provide legal protection for inventors in 1474.
60 Raymond Birn, “Journal des savants sous l’Ancien Regime,” Journal des
savants (1965), pp. 29, 33, shows how diverse fields of learning (and a division
between “serious” and “frivolous” literature) were clearly defined by the terms
of the official privilege granted this journal to cover a wide variety of different
topics of serious concern. Both this article and Fredrick S. Siebert’s Freedom of
the Press in England 1476-1776, The Rise and Decline of Government Control
(Urbana, Ill., 1952), passim, suggest how laws regulating printing raised new
issues pertaining to privilege and monopoly, which became an acute source of
conflict down through the eighteenth century.
61 P. 0. Kristeller, Renaissance Thought, Vol. II: Papers on Humanism and the
Arts (New York, 1965), p. 11.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 23
personalities remain unknown. Vestiges of their local celebrity have
vanished. They must therefore be portrayed as faceless master guildsmen
in terms of the garb they wore or the life-style they shared with
colleagues. What applies to personality may also apply to versatility.
Alberti probably was not the first architect who was also an athlete,
orator, scholar, and artist. But he was the first whose after-dinner
speeches, boasts about boyhood feats, and “serious and witty sayings”
were collected and transmittedt o posteritya long with the buildingsh e
designed and formal treatises he composed. He may be displayed at
home and in public, as an athletic youth and elderly sage, moving
through all the ages of man, personifying earlier archetypes and collective
roles. Possibly this is why he appearst o Burckhardtin the guise
of a new ideal type, homo universalis.62
Similar considerations are also worth applying to authors. The
personal hand and signature of the scribe was replaced by the more impersonal
type style and colophon of the printer. Yet, by the same token,
the personal,p rivate,i diosyncraticv iews of the authorc ould be extended
throught ime and space. Articulatingn ew conceptso f selfhood,w restling
with the problem of speaking privately for publication, new authors
(beginning,p erhaps, with Montaigne) would redefinei ndividualismi n
terms of deviation from the norm and divergence from the type. The
“drive for fame” itself may have been affected by print-made immortality.
The urge to scribble was manifested in Juvenal’s day as it was in
Petrarch’s. But the insanabile scribendi cacoethes may have been reoriented
once it became an “itch to publish.”63T he wish to see one’s
work in print (fixed forever with one’s name, in card files and anthologies)
is different from the urge to pen lines that could never get fixed in
a permanent form, might be lost forever, altered by copying, or-if
truly memorable-carried by oral transmissiona nd assignedu ltimately
to “anon.” When dealing with priority disputes among scientists or
debates about plagiarism among scholars, the advent of print-made
immortality has to be taken into account. Until it became possible to
distinguish between composing a poem and reciting one or between
writing a book and copying one, until books could be classified by
something other than incipits, how could modern games of books and
authors be played?
Many problems about assigning proper credit to scribal “authors”
may result from misguided efforts to apply print-made concepts where
they do not pertain. The so-called forged book of Hermes is a good case
62 Burckhardt, I, 149-50.
63 See a witty discussion of these terms by Robert K. Merton, On The
Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript (New York, 1965), pp. 83-85.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
24 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
in point. But countless other scribal works are too. Who wrote Socrates’
lines, Aristotle’s works, Sappho’s poems, any portion of the Scriptures?
Troublesomeq uestionsa bout biblicalc omposition,i n particulars, uggest
how new forms of personal authorship helped to subvert old concepts
of collective authority.64V eneration for the wisdom of the ages was
probablym odifieda s ancients ages were retrospectivelyc ast in the role
of individual authors-prone to human error and possibly plagiarists
as well.65 Treatment of battles of books between “ancients and moderns”
might profit from more discussion of such issues. Since early
printersw ere primarilyr esponsiblef or forcingd efinitiono f literaryp roperty
rights, for shaping new concepts of authorship, for exploiting best
sellers and trying to tap new markets, their role in this celebrated quarrel
should not be overlooked. By the early sixteenth century, for example,
staffs of translators were employed to turn out vernacular versions of
the more popular works by ancient Romans and contemporaryL atinwritingh
umanists.66T his might be taken into account when discussing
debates between Latinists and the advocates of new vulgar tongues.67
It is also worth considering that different meanings may have been
assigned terms such as “ancient” and “modern,” “discovery” and “recovery,”
“invention”a nd “imitation”b efore importantd eparturesf rom
precedent could be permanently recorded. “Throughout the patristic
and medieval periods, the quest for truth is thought of as the recovery
of what is embedded in tradition . .. rather than the discovery of what
is new.”68 Most scholars concur with this view. It must have been
difficult to distinguish discovering something new from recovering it in
the age of scribes. To “find a new art” was easily confused with retrieving
a lost one, for superior techniques and systems of knowledge
were frequently discovered by being recovered.69 Probably Moses,
64 The issue of authorship versus authority is discussed by McLuhan, pp.
130-37. The nature of medieval scribal authorship is brilliantly illuminated by
Goldschmidt, Medieval Texts, Part III.
65See the citation from Glanvill’s Essays of 1676 cited by Merton, p. 68 n.
Ramus, in the 1530’s, had already stated: “All that Aristotle has said is forged,”
according to H. Baker, The Wars of Truth (Cambridge, Mass., 1952), p. 93.
66 Febvre and Martin, p. 410. Additional data on the production of vernacular
as opposed to Latin works during the first century of printing is supplied by
Hirsch, pp. 132-34.
67Hans Baron’s “The Querelle of the Ancients and Moderns as a Problem
for Renaissance Scholarship,” Journal of the History of Ideas, XX (Jan. 1959),
3-22, like many other treatments of this battle of books, passes over the possible
role played by printers. Curtius, pp. 251-56, covers the scribal use of terms such
as “ancients” and “moderns” but fails to note how they were altered after printing.
All of Merton’s (tongue in cheek) treatment of the giant and dwarf aphorism
is also relevant and points to a vast literature on the topic.
68 Harbison, p. 5.
69 E. Rosen, “The Invention of Eyeglasses,” Journal of the History of Medicine
and Allied Sciences, XI (1956), 34, n. 99, regards an early fourteenth-
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impacto f Printingo n WesternS ocietya nd Thought 25
Zoroaster, or Thoth had not “invented” all the arts that were to be
found.70 But many were retrieved from ancient giants whose works
reentered the West by circuitous routes. The origins of such works were
shrouded in mystery. Their contents revealed a remarkable technical
expertise. Some pagan seers were believed to have been granted foreknowledge
of the Incarnation. Possibly they had also been granted a
special secret key to all knowledge by the same divine dispensation.
Veneration for the wisdom of the ancients was not incompatible with
the advancement of learning, nor was imitation incompatible with inspiration.
Efforts to think and do as the ancients did might well reflect
the hope of experiencing a sudden illumination or of coming closer to
the original source of a pure, clear, and certain knowledge that a long
Gothic night had obscured.
When unprecedentedin novationsd id occur, moreover,t here was no
sure way of recognizing them before the advent of printing. Who could
ascertain precisely what was known-either to prior generations within
a given region or to contemporaryin habitantso f far-offl ands? “Steady
advance,”a s Sartons ays, “impliese xact determinationo f everyp revious
step.” In his view, printing made this determination “incomparably
easier.”‘7H’ e may have understatedt he case. Exact determinationm ust
have been impossible before printing. Given drifting texts, migrating
manuscriptsl,o calized chronologies,m ultiformm aps, there could be no
systematic forward movement, no accumulation of stepping stones enabling
a new generation to begin where the prior one had left off.
Progressive refinement of certain arts and skills could and did occur.
But no sophisticated technique could be securely established, permanently
recorded, and stored for subsequent retrieval. Before trying
to account for an “idea” of progress, we might look more closely at the
duplicating process that made possible a continuous accumulation of
fixed records. For it seems to have been permanence that introduced
progressive change. The preservation of the old, in brief, launched a
tradition of the new.
century preacher as inconsistent when he is recorded as saying in one sermon,
“Nothing remains to be said . . . today a new book could not be made nor a
new art” and in a preceding one as referring to “all the arts that have been
found by man and new ones yet to be found.” Finding a new art was not, however,
necessarily equivalent to making one.
70 The Italian word for “invention” has been located only once in fourteenthcentury
literature-a reference by Petrarch to Zoroaster as the inventore of the
magic arts (ibid., p. 192). Thoth (or “Hermes Trismegistus”) was responsible for
inventing writing and numbering or measurement. Adam had, of course, named
all things and (in a prelapsarian state) may have also known all things. A full
inventory would include countless other (often overlapping) ancient claimants to
the role of originators.
‘1 Sarton, “The Quest for Truth,” p. 66.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
26 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
The advancement of learning had taken the form of a search for lost
wisdom in the age of scribes. This search was rapidly propelled after
printing. Ancient maps, charts, and texts once arranged and dated, however,
turned out to be dated in more ways than one. Ordinary craftsmen
and mariners appeared to know more things about the heavens and
earth than were dreamt of by ancient sages. More schools of ancient
philosophy than had previously been known were also uncovered.
Scattered attacks on one authority by those who favored another provided
ammunition for a wholesale assault on all received opinion. Incompatible
portions of inherited traditions were sloughed off, partly
because the task of preservation had become less urgent. Copying, memorizing,
and transmitting absorbed fewer energies. Some were released
to explore what still might be learned. Studying variant versions of
God’s words gave way to contemplating the uniformity of His works.
Investigation of the “book of nature” was no longer undertaken by
studying old glyphs and ciphers. Magic and science were divorced. So
too were poetry and history. Useful reference books were no longer
blotted out or blurred with the passage of time. Cadence and rhyme,
images and symbols ceased to fulfil their traditional function of preserving
the collective memory. The aesthetic experience became increasingly
autonomous, and the function of works of art had to be
redefined. Technical information could be conveyed more directly by
plain expository prose and accurate illustration. Although books on the
memory arts multiplied after printing, practical reliance on these arts
decreased. Scribal schemes eventually petrified, to be ultimately reassembled,
like fossil remains, by modern research. The special formulas
that had preserved recipes and techniques among closed circles of initiates
also disappeared. Residues of mnemonic devices were transmuted
into mysterious images, rites and incantations.72
Nevertheless, scribal veneration for ancient learning lingered on,
long after the conditions that had fostered it had gone. Among Rosicrucians
and Freemasons, for example, the belief persisted that the
“new philosophy” was in fact very old. Descartes and Newton had
merely retrieved the same magical key to nature’s secrets that had once
been known to ancient pyramid-builders but was later withheld from
the laity or deliberately obscured by a deceitful priesthood. In fact, the
72The most recent study is Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory (London,
1966), which centers on use made of “memory theaters.” According to J. Finegan,
Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton, N.J., 1964), p. 57, the term
“Amen” encapsulated in the three Hebrew letters aleph, mem, and nun (to
which different numbers were assigned) a scheme for remembering four ninetyone-
day seasons of the solar year. When consulting works on this topic, I find it
difficult to decide whether the ingenuity of modern scholars or that of ancient
ones is being displayed.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 27
Index came only after printing and the preservation of pagan learning
owed much to monks and friars. Enlightened freethinkers, however,
assignedC ounter-Reformatioinn stitutionst o the Gothic Dark Ages and
turned Zoroaster into a Copernican. Similarly, once imitation was detached
from inspiration and copying from composing, the classical
revival became increasingly arid and academic. The search for primary
sources was assigned to dry-as-dust pedants. But the reputation of
ancient seers, bards, and prophets was not, by the same token,
diminished. Claims to have inherited their magic mantle were put forth
by new romanticists who reoriented the meaning of the term “original”
and tried to resurrect scribal arts in the age of print. Even the “decay
of nature” theme, once intimately associated with the erosion and corruptiono
f scribalw ritings,w ould be reworkeda nd reorientedb y gloomy
modernp rophetsw ho felt that regress,n ot progress,c haracterizedth eir
E. Amplification and Reinforcement: Accounting for Persistent
Stereotypes and Increasing Cultural Difierentiation
Many other themes imbedded in scribal writings, detached from the
living culturest hat had shaped them, were propelleda s “typologies”o n
printed pages. Over the course of time, archetypes were converted into
stereotypes, the language of giants, as Merton puts it, into the cliches of
dwarfs.B oth “stereotype”a nd “cliche”a re terms derivingf rom a typographical
process developed three and a half centuries after Gutenberg.
They point, however, to certain other features of typographical culture
in general that deserve closer consideration. During the past five centuries,
broadcasting new messages has also entailed amplifying and
reinforcing old ones. I hope my use of the terms “amplify” and “reinforce”
will not distract attention from the effects they are meant to
designate. I am using them simply because I have found no others that
serve as well. Some such terms are needed to cover the effects produced
by an ever-more-frequenrt epetition of identical chapters and
verses, anecdotes and aphorisms drawn from very limited scribal
sources.T his repetitioni s not producedb y the constantr epublicationo f
classical, biblical, or early vernacular works, although it undoubtedly
sustains markets for such works. It is produced by an unwitting collaboration
between countless authors of new books or articles. For five
hundred years, authors have jointly transmitted certain old messages
with augmented frequency even while separately reporting on new
events or spinning out new ideas. Thus, if they happen to contain only
one passing reference to the heroic stand at Thermopylae, a hundred
reports on different military campaigns will impress with a hundredfoldimpact
Herodotus’ description on the mind of the reader who scans
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
28 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
such reports. Every dissimilar report of other campaigns will be received
only once. As printed materials proliferate, this effect becomes
more pronounced. (I have encountered several references to Thermopylae
in the daily newspaper during the past year.) The same is
true of numerous other messages previously inscribed on scarce and
scatteredm anuscriptsT. he more wide rangingt he reader at present,t he
more frequent will be the encounter with the identical version and the
deeper the impression it will leave. Since book-writing authors are particularly
prone to wide-ranging reading, a multiplying “feedback” effect
results. When it comes to coining familiar quotations, describing
familiar episodes, originating symbols or stereotypes, the ancients will
generally outstrip the moderns. How many times has Tacitus’ description
of freedom-lovingT eutons been repeateds ince a single manuscript
of Germaniaw as discoveredi n a fifteenth-centurym onastery?A nd in
how many varying contexts-Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, as well as German
-has this particulard escriptiona ppeared?
The frequency with which all messages were transmitted was primarily
channeled by the fixing of literary linguistic frontiers. A particular
kind of reinforcementw as involved in relearningm other tongues when
learningt o read. It went together with the progressivea mplificationo f
diverselyo rientedn ational “memories.”N ot all the same portionso f an
inherited Latin culture were translated into different vernaculars at the
same time.73 More important, entirely dissimilar dynastic, municipal,
and ecclesiastical chronicles, along with other local lore, both oral and
scribal, were also set in type and more permanently fixed. The meshing
of provincial medieval res gestae with diverse classical and scriptural
sources had, by the early seventeenth century, imbedded distinctively
differents tereotypesw ithin each separatev ernacularl iterature.7A4 t the
same time, to be sure, a more cosmopolitan Respublica litterarum was
also expanding, and messages were broadcast across linguistic frontiers,
first via Latin, then French, to an internationala udience.B ut messages
received from abroad were not amplified over the course of several centuries
in the same way. They only occasionally reinforced what was
learned in familiar tongues at home.75
73 Bennett, p. 158, notes a “striking difference” between the large number of
pagan classics translated into French in the sixteenth century and the greater
number of “edifying” devotional works translated into English.
74 How this was done in sixteenth-century England is traced with remarkable
clarity by William Haller, The Elect Nation: Thle Meaning and Relevance of
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (New York, 1963), passim-an exceptional work that
integrates printing with other historical developments. Children’s books about
Elizabeth I are still being written from bits and pieces drawn from Foxe’s massive
75The most important exceptions are France and Geneva, where by the
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 29
On the other hand, the fixing of religious frontiers that cut across
linguistic ones in the sixteenth century had a powerful effect on the
frequency with which certain messages were transmitted. Passages
drawn from vernacular translations of the Bible, for example, would be
much more thinly and weakly distributed throughout the literary cultures
of Catholic regions than of Protestant ones.76 The abandonment
of church Latin in Protestant regions made it possible to mesh ecclesiastical
and dynastic traditions more closely within Protestant realms than
in Catholic ones-a point worth noting when considering how churchstate
conflicts were resolved in different lands. Finally, the unevenly
phased social penetration of literacy, the somewhat more random patterning
of book-reading habits, and the uneven distribution of costly
new books and cheap reprints of old ones among different social sectors
also affected the frequency with which diverse messages were received
within each linguistic group.
These last remarks are relevant to most of the issues that have been
mid-seventeenth century two differently oriented native literary cultures coincided
with a single cosmopolitan one. A sounding board was thus provided for Rousseau,
Mme de Stael, Sismondi, and other Genevans who might otherwise have
been as obscure as their German, Swiss, or Dutch counterparts. The reasons for
the conquest of the Gallic tongue (which paradoxically linked the most populous
and powerful consolidated dynastic Catholic state with the tiny canton that had
served as the protestant Rome and with the cosmopolitan culture of civilized
Europe) deserve further study. Louis Reau, L’Europe frangaise au Sie’cle des
Lumieres (L’Evolution de l’humanite, Vol. LXX [Paris, 1938]), although devoted
to this important topic, slides over issues that need more rigorous analysis. David
Pottinger, The French Book Trade in the Ancien Regime 1500-1791 (Cambridge,
Mass., 1958), offers some useful statistics, pp. 19-23, as does Steinberg, p. 118.
Some further consequences of the spread of French are touched on below. See
pp. 51-52. One might note that the reaction to French armies and the rejection
of French influence, among Germans and eastern Europeans in the early nineteenth
century, necessarily involved disowning the cosmopolitan culture of the
Enlightenment as well.
76 R. A. Sayce, “French Continental Versions to c. 1600,” in Greenslade (ed.),
p. 114, contrasts the deep penetration of vernacular scriptural versions into the
literary culture of German and English-speaking peoples with the shallow effect of
French Bible translations. From Pascal to Gide, he notes, Latin citations from the
Vulgate appear most frequently when biblical references are evoked. The immense
repercussions of the decision taken by the Council of Trent to proscribe
vernacular translations and uphold the “authenticity” of the Vulgate are difficult
to locate throughout this massive collaborative volume. A clear view of how,
when, and where the decision itself was taken is not offered. F. J. Crehan, S.J.,
“The Bible in the Roman Catholic Church from Trent to the Present Day,”
pp. 199-237, ostensibly covers this issue but actually obfuscates it.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
30 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
raised by McLuhan in connection with the “making of typographical
man.” By making us more aware that both mind and society were
affected by printing, McLuhan has performed, in my view at least, a
most valuable service. But he has also glossed over multiple interactions
that occurred under widely varying circumstances in a way that may
discourage rather than encourage further study. “The print-made split
between heart and head is the trauma that affects Europe from
Machiavellit o the present.”77S ince this sort of statement cannot be
tested, it provides little incentive for further research. 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 metaphoricallya nd abstractly
and more historically and concretely about the sort of effects
that were entailed and how different groups were affected. Even at first
glance both issues appear to be very complex.
In many cases, for example, spoken words would be conveyed by
printed messages without being replaced by them. While often transposed
into print, sermons and public orations thus continued to be
delivered orally. These traditional forms of discourse were nonetheless
altered by the new possibility of silent publication. The printing of
parliamentary debates probably affected exchanges between members
of parliament. The printing of poems, plays, and songs altered the way
“lines” were recited, sung, and composed. Academic dialogues were
conducted along different lines after the advent of closet, philosophers.
On one hand, some “dying speeches” were fabricated for printing and
never did get delivered; on the other, printed publicity enabled evangelists
and demagogues to practice traditional arts outdoors before large
hearingp ublics. A literaryc ulturec reatedb y typographyw as conveyed
to the ear, not the eye, by classroom lectures, repertory companies, and
poetry-readingsN. o simple formula will cover the changes these new
activities reflect.
The same is true of how different groups were affected. Most rural
villagers, for example, probably belonged to an exclusively hearing
public down to the nineteenth century. Yet what they heard had, in
many instances, been transformed by printing two centuries earlier.
77McLuhan, p. 170. This formulation owes much to Lewis Mumford, Technics
and Civilization (New York, 1934), pp. 136-37. An excellent introduction to
problems associated with the shift from a hearing public to a reading one is
H. J. Chaytor’s From Script to Print (Cambridge, 1945). This study of medieval
literature, which has already been exploited by McLuhan, needs to be exploited
by historians as well. It should be noted, however, that a very limited area of
scribal culture is covered by Chaytor. Near the bookshops of Augustan Rome or
in the libraries of Alexandria, for example, the conditions he describes may not
be pertinent at all.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 31
In the seventeenth century the storyteller was being replaced by the
exceptional literate villager who read out loud from a stack of cheap
books and ballad sheets turned out anonymously for distribution by
peddlers.78A fairly sleazy “popular”c ulture, based on the mass productiono
f antiquatedv ernacularm edievalr omances,w as thus produced
well before the steam press and mass literacy movements of the nineteenth
century. Yet the bulk of this output was consumed by a medieval
hearing public, separated by a vast psychological gulf from their contemporaries
who belonged to an early modern reading one.79
The disjunction between the new mode of production and older
modes of consumption is only one of many complications that need
further study. Members of the same reading public, who confronted the
same innovation in the same region at the same time, were nonetheless
affected by it in markedly different ways. One cannot, for example, talk
about the effect of Bible-printingo n “typographicaml an” in generalo r
even on sixteenth-centuryP rotestantsi n particular.I nstead, one must
consider a disjunction between producers and consumers, that is, between
printersa nd purchasers.8T0 o be enabledt o read the holy words
of God in one’s own tongue was probably an awesome experience for a
devout sixteenth-centuryre ader.I t seems quite likely that new forms of
sect-type Christianitya nd literal fundamentalismr esulted from an increased
consumption of vernacular Bibles. A great many Protestant
printers were also devout, and some were even martyred for their faith.
They were persuaded, however, that God’s words could be spread
furtherb y printingt han by preaching.8’F or this purpose,m arketsh ad
to be gauged, financing secured, privileges sought, Catholic officials
evaded, compositorss upervised,d istributiono rganized.W hat appeared
to the devout consumeri n a quasi-miraculougsu ise involveda n exercise
7 Robert Mandrou, De la culture populaire aux 17? et 18e sigcles: La Bibliotheque
bleue de Troyes (Paris, 1964), passim, illustrates this topic in detail for
France. Altick, passim, touches on it, in scattered passages, for England.
79This gulf may be found even within some printers’ workshops during the
sixteenth century and separates some journeymen typographers from master
printers. See Natalie Z. Davis, “The Protestant Printing Workshops of Lyons
in 1551,” in Henri Moylan (ed.), Aspects de la propagande religieuse (Travaux
d’humanisme et Renaissance, Vol. XXVIII, [Geneva, 19571), pp. 252-57. The
illiterate journeymen, however, sang songs composed by Marot and Beza which
were circulated in printed form.
80 On my use of the term “printer,” see n. 34.
81Pottinger, p. 81, describes French martyrs to the faith who were hanged,
burned, or broken on the wheel during the wars of religion. Various essays in
Aspects de la propagande religieuse cover the activities of Protestant printers in
Lyons, Paris, and Geneva. The group of zealous Puritans associated with John
Day who turned to printing as the most formidable weapon in their campaign
against the papal Antichrist is studied in detail by Haller, passim (see Foxe’s
remark about every press as a “block house,” cited on p. 110).
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
32 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
in processing texts, shrewd politicking, and practical problem-solving
for the equally devout producer.82 Mammon as well as Caesar necessarily
entered into the latter’s calculations. So, too, did variant readings
of the same sacred words.
Moreover, printers themselves did not share a “common mind” and
hence were diversely affected by involvement in a new mode of production.
Some were fiery apostles wholly committed to serving one true
church and one “elect nation.” But others were not and tried to serve
many. Genevan printers surreptitiously turned out books for populous
Catholic markets in France. The same Antwerp firm won a privileged
position from Catholic Spain under Philip II but served Calvinist
Holland and Jewish communities as well.83 Paradoxically enough, the
printing press helped fan the flames of religious controversy even while
creating a new vested interest in ecumenical concord and toleration.
Similarly, religious, dynastic, and linguistic frontiers were fixed more
permanently by the same wholesale industry that operated most profitably
by tapping cosmopolitan markets. Even as Henri IV felt that Paris
was worth a mass or Cardinal Richelieu that raison d’etat dictated alliance
with infidel Turks, so too did a Manutius, an Estienne, or a Plantin
keep family firms solvent and presses in operation by alliances with
Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Spaniards, Dutchmen, and all shades of
Frenchmen alike. The formation of syndicats of heterodox businessmen
and printers, linked to far-flung distribution networks, indicates how the
new industry encouraged informal social groupings that cut across dynastic
or religious and linguistic frontiers. Circles associated with Aldus
Manutius’ “Academy” and Plantin’s “House of Love” suggest how a
syncretist faith was in some ways more compatible than a Protestant
one with the new wholesale book trade.84 Such syndicats and networks
82 The vocational shift from cleric, preacher, or teacher to printer, journalist,
or author during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (noted by Haller, p. 112)
might, incidentally, make an interesting study. Birn mentions a few instances of
French Jesuits who became professional lay journalists and publicists in seventeenth-
century France. R. Colie, Light and Enlightenment: A Study of the Cambridge
Platonists and the Dutch Arminians (Cambridge, 1957), pp. 29-33, 75,
offers some Dutch examples during the same era. Here, as elsewhere, the gradual
displacement of the pulpit by the periodical press also deserves more attention.
83 Febvre and Martin, pp. 293, 405; Kingdon, p. 29. A seventeenth-century
English printer, Henry Hill, served all comers: army, Anabaptists, Cromwell,
James II, etc. See Steinberg, p. 109.
84 On Plantin’s “House of Love” and suggestion re the “Banque Protestante”
myth, see R. M. Kingdon, “Christopher Plantin and His Backers 1575-1590, A
Study in the Problems of Financing Business during War,” Me’langes d’hlistoire
economique et sociale (Geneva, 1963), pp. 303-16. Additional information on the
sect (customarily called the “Family of Love” and founded by Hendric Niclaes)
to which Plantin belonged-along with other printers-is given by J. A. Van
Dorsten, Thomas Basson 1555-1613: English Printer at Leiden (Leiden, 1961).
The “Familists” overlapped with Arminian and Remonstrant circles in England
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 33
should be closely studied as a possible source of later conspiratorial
legends pertaining to the Banque Protestante or Freemasons. (Protestants
and foreigners did subsidize the output of French men of letters in
the eighteenth century. Behind debates about Masonic involvement in
the Grande encyclopedie lies the somewhat shadowy figure of the printer
who initiated, financed, and pushed through its publication.85)
A more cosmopolitan and ecumenical outlook on the part of many
printers should not, however, be regarded as a mere “rationalization” of
their financial interests. Sacred and devotional works did look different
to those who saw copy through all the stages of publication than they
did to those who procured the finished product. Belief in the Sacred
Scriptures as an ultimate source of truth has been correctly singled out,
by Kingdon, as a most important element in the rise of early printing
industries. (Overnight, Wittenberg was transformed into an important
printing center.) Unlike other sacred books, however, that of Western
Christendom happened to be composed in many tongues. It thus fed a
demand for Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, and Hebrew grammars and dictionaries,
bringing arcane letters into printers’ workshops86 and sometimes
even heterodox foreigners into printers’ households.87
and the Netherlands and were centered first in Antwerp, then in Leiden. Possibly
they also included members of the Elzevir firm who were linked with Plantin.
See David W. Davies, The World of the Elseviers 1580-1712 (The Hague, 1954),
pp. 2-3. Much as Plantin rode out the “Spanish fury,” Aldus Manutius had earlier
kept his firm going during the Italian time of troubles that hit Venice in 1504.
Not only as the greatest scholar-printer of his day, but also as Pico della Mirandola’s
protege, who later numbered Erasmus and Linacre among members of his
“Academy,” both Aldus and his circle also deserve a modern book-length
85 See below, pp. 51-52, on the collaboration between French authors and
foreign printers. For the debate on the role of Freemasons in the publication of
the Encyclopedie, see A. Wilson, Diderot: The Testing Years (New York, 1957),
pp. 74-81 and references cited pp. 3 58-59. Wilson’s interpretation seems to
underrate the role played by the printer Andre-Francois Le Breton and to overrate
that of Diderot, a salaried editor brought in after the project was under way.
Evidence of Le Breton’s close supervision of a costly project for which he employed
fifty workers and of how he rewrote several articles to protect his investment
is given by Frank Kafker, “The Effect of Censorship on Diderot’s Enclopedia,”
Library Chronicle (University of Pennsylvania), XXX (Winter 1964),
42. To assess the printer’s role correctly is more feasible and important, in my
view, than to decide whether he was or was not the Le Breton who is listed as a
master mason.
86 Plantin, linked via Hebrew type and Jewish financing to Jewish communities,
produced a polyglot Bible under Philip II’s patronage (Kingdon, “Patronage,
Piety, and Printing,” p. 23). Aldus had planned one in 1497-98 and cut types for a
specimen page before abandoning it. (Steinberg, p. 76). Robert Estienne’s stock
of type fonts included Hebrew letters (Armstrong, pp. 54-55). For data pertaining
to struggles to get Aramaic and Syriac as well as Hebrew studies launched,
see Basil Hall, “Biblical Scholarship: Editions and Commentaries,” in Greenslade
(ed.), pp. 44-45, 74-75.
87 Thus Robert Estienne had “correctors” representing ten disparate national-
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
34 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
Such considerations may help to explain how new semisecret brotherhoods
espousing syncretic and irenic creeds came to be formed during
the era when religious zeal was at its height and the claims of orthodox
faith seemed most compelling. For printers like the Estiennes and
Plantin, solvency required a steady output of devotional literature
during the first century of printing.88 But processing and marketing
texts also engendered attitudes that were more conducive to modernism
than to fundamentalism, to practicality than to otherworldliness. And
this in turn might be registered on other staple products that were compiled
by printers themselves.89 By looking more closely at their daily
routines and then looking again at the incidental information contained
in seventeenth-century English almanacs, for example, a few elusive
spirits might be trapped. “No book in the english language had as large
a circulation as the annual Almanack.”90 Like many other practical
manuals and household guides, such almanacs registered the views of
men who knew, well before Ben Franklin and Poor Richard, that time
was money, that profits went with piety, and that bookkeeping went
with book-reading.
The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism may indeed be
linked in ways most discussions have bypassed. “Printing,” said Luther,
“was God’s highest act of grace.” He also castigated printers who
garbled passages of the Gospel and marketed hasty reprints for quick
profit.9′ His insistence on scriptural revelation nonetheless entangled
spiritual illumination with a commercial enterprise. Moreover, even
before Luther had appeared with his “apple of discord,” the printer’s
devil had already been at work, turning out playing cards and holy
images, vernacular Bibles and indulgences-all on a scale hitherto
unknown. Because the fifteenth-century revolution is still invisible, most
ities in his household at one time, according to his son’s account, cited by Armstrong,
p. 15. The necessity of housing foreign translators and proofreaders may
have contributed even more than financial exigencies did to the notion of families
or houses of love.
88 How profits derived from religious works subsidized humanist publications
is noted by Kingdon, “Patronage, Piety, and Printing,” pp. 35-36. The case of the
publisher who relied on legal and scientific texts instead of devotional works to
supply a steady source of income is discussed by Davis, “Guillaume Rouille,”
pp. 88-89. She shows, however, how Rouille also hedged his bets by diversifying
his products.
89Thus a practical handbook compiled by Charles Estienne, Guide des chemins
de France (1553), guided merchants along routes followed by those who were
engaged in the book trade and reflected the experience of the compiler’s own
family (Armstrong, p. 34).
90 Eustace F. Bosanquet, “English 17th Century Almanacks,” Library, 4th
ser., X (Mar. 1930), 361. (These almanacs contained tables for computing costs
of goods or payment of wages, distances between main towns, lists of weights
and measures, even dentifrice ads.)
91 Relevant citations are in Black, p. 432.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 35
studies of the Reformation place first things last. Only after various
socioeconomic and political developments, theological issues, ecclesiastical
abuses, and charismatic leaders have been discussed and only after
controversieso ver causationh ave been exploredd oes the printingp ress
appear in conventional accounts-in conjunction with a wide dissemination
of Luther’s sermons and other Protestant broadsides. A more fruitful
debate about causes and consequences might result if first things
were placed first. After all, Gutenberg had preceded Luther. Similarly,
dissension among churchmen over new issues posed by printing preceded
the division of Western Christendom.
The necessity of making new decisions helped to polarize opinions
about “one true church.” These decisions involved justifying producing
indulgences on a mass scale, advertising relics, and commercializing
iconography. They involved determining how glad tidings
should be spread, who should be allowed to perform the apostolic function
of the clergy, whether grammariansp, hilologists,a nd lay scholars
should pass judgment on God’s words. Earlier heretics, such as Wycliffe
or Huss, might aspiret o place the vernacularS cripturesi n the hands of
every layman;92a nd new semi-lay orders such as the “Brethreno f the
Common Life” might try to bring literacy and prayer books to the
“people.”93O nly after Gutenberg,h owever, could such programsb e
fully implemented. Thereafter, collaboration with existing teaching or
preaching orders and the winning of papal approval for the creation of
new ones was no longer required by Christian reformers. Programs
could be implementedi,n stead, by winningt he favor of Erastianp rinces
and by close collaboration with the book-trade network in that “golden
age” between printing “and its antidote, the Index.”94 Collaboration
with printers, however, meant contact with men who, by the very nature
of their trade, shared a common contempt for monkish learning and
ungrammatical theologians. Pacific Christian humanists and zealous
Protestant reformers did, one should note, both collaborate with
printers and share this contempt.
It was not only the learning of monks and friars that came under
92 Medieval heresies based on efforts to get the Bible into the vernacular and
to the people are well described by Margaret Deansley, The Lollard Bible (Cambridge,
1920). The Waldensians used oral transmission and instructed initiates in
how to learn the Scriptures by heart (p. 28).
93The chief purpose of the new orders founded by Gerhard Groote are
often blurred by the catchall term “pietist.” The Windesheim Congregation
was set up to provide centers of scholarly studies and supervised scriptoria; the
Brethren of the Common Life, to teach reading and circulate devotional books
among the “people” (McMurtrie, p. 126). They did implement their program
with the new presses (Biuhler, p. 28).
94 H. Trevor Roper, “Desiderius Erasmus,” Men and Events (New York,
1957), p. 39.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
36 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
attack when new laboratories of erudition had been established. The
regular orders of the clergy also were more vulnerable to the charge
of being social parasites. The socially useful functions they had performed-
such as preserving and copying old texts (for which village
tithes had been collected by abbeys)95 or providing books for university
faculties (which the mendicant orders had supplied)”90-were transferred
to urban entrepreneurs. With this transfer the balance between
organs within the body politic was subtly altered in a way that subverted
traditional hierarchies. For many functions traditionally assigned
to churchmen belonging to the first estate were silently assumed by lay
commoners belonging to the third. Although the full consequences of
this shift took centuries to spin out, divergent responses to its initial
effects shaped the course of later developments. In Protestant regions,
these effects were swiftly implemented. Regular orders were dissolved,
and the printer was assigned the apostolic mission of spreading glad
tidings in different tongues. Within frontiers held by the Counter-
Reformation church, measures were taken to curtail and counteract
these effects. New orders, such as the Jesuits or the congregation of
the Propaganda, were created; teaching and preaching from other
quarters were checked by Index and imprimatur. That the fortunes of
printers waned in regions where prospects had previously seemed
bright and waxed in smaller, less populous states where the reformed
religion took root may be connected with these divergent responses.
Before lines were drawn in the sixteenth century, men in Catholic
regions appear to have been just as eager to read the Bible in their
own tongues as were men in what subsequently became Protestant
regions. Similarly, Catholic printers combined humanist scholarship with
piety and profit-seeking. They were just as enterprising and industrious
as Protestant printers. They also served the most populous, powerful,
and culturally influential realms of sixteenth-century Europe: Portugal
and Spain (with their far-flung empires), Austria, France, southern
German principalities, and Italian city-states. But they do appear to
95 See the reference to the allotment to the priory of Evesham in 1206 of
village tithes for parchment and copyists’ wages and of other funds for ink and
illuminating and binding materials in C. H. Haskins, The Renaissance of the
Twelfth Century (Cambridge, Mass., 1939), p. 75. Biihler, pp. 25-27, notes that
monastic scriptoria flourished after Gutenberg-down to 1500. However, the
missals and choir books they turned out became lucrative privileges granted to
printers by monarchs and popes thereafter.
96 K. V. Humphreys, The Book Provisions of the Medieval Friars 1215-1400
(Amsterdam, 1964), passim, suggests how organizational energies were channeled
by this task. I have not found a study of scribal book provisions for lay faculties
of law and medicine or how the scriptoria serving them were supervised.
What happened to clerical control of university book production after the advent
of printing in various Catholic and Protestant regions also needs to be explored.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 37
have been less successful in expanding their markets and in extending
and diversifying their operations during the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries.97 Needless to say, like those of other early capitalist enterprises,
the fortunes of printing industries hinged on an exceedingly complex
network of multiple interactions. Venetian printers, for example,
were affected by a commercial decline that can scarcely be explained
by singling out Protestant-Catholic divisions. If we want to understand
how these divisions did affect an important early capitalist enterprise,
however, this can be done better by looking at printing than at metallurgy,
mining, textiles, ship-building, or other such enterprises.
Here the contrast registered on the title-page illustration of Foxe’s
Actes and Monuments-showing devout Protestants with books on their
laps and Catholics with prayer beads in their hands98-seems to me
highly significant. After the Council of Trent, vernacular Bibles that had
been turned out previously in all regions were forbidden to Catholics
and made almost compulsory for Protestants. An incentive to learn to
read was, thus, eliminated among the former and reinforced among
the latter. Book markets were apt to expand at different rates thereafter.
Since Bible-printing was a special privilege, its extinction in Catholic
centers directly affected only a small group of printers.99 The entire
industry, however, suffered a glancing blow from the suppression of the
large potential market represented by a Catholic lay Bible-reading public.
Furthermore, vernacular Bibles were by no means the only best
sellers that were barred to Catholic readers after the Council of Trent.
Erasmus had made a fortune for his printers before Luther outstripped
him. Both, along with many other popular authors, were placed on the
97See Steinberg’s remarks (p. 194) about the movement of printing industries
from southern to northern Germany after the mid-sixteenth century. “Typefounding,
printing, publishing, book-selling” became “almost Protestant preserves,”
in his words. That this oversimplifies and exaggerates a more subtle
shift is suggested by Hirsch, pp. 109-10, and by Febvre and Martin’s most useful
chapter on the “geography of the book,” chap. vi.
98 Haller, p. 118, and see illustration facing p. 25.
99 The relocation of continental Bible printing centers following its extinction
in Venice is described by Black, pp. 440-51. H. S. Bennett. English Books and
Readers, 1558 to 1603 (Cambridge, 1965), p. 141, notes how the pace of Bibleprinting
accelerated under Edward VI and came “almost to a standstill” under
Mary Tudor. Thomas Cromwell’s order to place a Bible in every parish church
was, incidentally, granted at the bequest of the privileged printer who stood to
profit from the order (Plant, p. 50). That certain Catholic privileged printers
could and did profit from Tridentine decrees by supplying new breviaries and
missals to priests is noted by Kingdon, “Patronage, Piety, and Printing,” pp.
31-35. The promising French market for vernacular psalters that was closed by
Catholic victories at the end of the sixteenth century, is, however, also evident in
same article (pp. 28-30). The crippling effect of French censorship on printers,
who could not afford long delays entailed by Sorbonnist debates, is described by
Pottinger, chap. iv.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
38 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
Index. Being listed as forbidden served as a form of publicity and may
have spurred sales. It was, however, more hazardous for Catholic
printerst han for Protestanto nes to profitt hereby.10T0 o be sure, pastors
and printers were often at odds in regions governed by new consistories.
101B ut the “ProtestantR ome,” despite the spreado f Calvinism,w as
not served by an international clergy controlled from one center, could
not block a free trade in ideas outside its narrow confines, and above all
could not “fix” church policy in a permanent mold in the mid-sixteenth
century. Nor did it discourage (quite to the contrary!) the expansion of
a vernacular book-reading laity. Cautious Anglicans might temporarily
(in 1543) forbid Bible-reading among “women, apprentices, husbandmen.”
1102 Fiery Puritans would never thus abandon the most vital
principle of their creed. “The essential, imperative exercise of religious
life, the one thing not to be omitted was for everyone the reading of the
Bible. This was what the reformers put in place of the Mass as the
decisive high point of spiritual experience-instead of participation in
the sacrament of the real presence on one’s knees in church, they put
encounter with the Holy Spirit in the familiar language of men on the
printed page of the sacred text.”1103
That Protestantism was above all a “book religion” has certainly
been noted repeatedly.104 But this could be more fully exploited in comparative
studies if it were related to other unevenly phased changes set
in motion by printing. Given a clearly defined incentive to learn to read
that was present among Protestants qua Protestants and not among
Catholics qua Catholics, for example, one might expect to find a deeper
social penetration of literacy among the former than among the latter
during the second century of printing. Earlier lines dividing literate from
unlettered social strata-magistrates, merchants, and masters from journeymen
artisans and yeomen-might grow fainter in Protestant regions
and more indelible in Catholic ones between the 1550’s and 1650’s. This,
in turn, would affect the timing of “revolutions of rising expectations”
and help to accountf or differentp atternso f social agitationa nd mobility,
political cleavage and cohesion. We know that the mechanization of
100 Being listed as forbidden on the Index, that is. After the advent of printing,
censorship and book-banning were practiced in most principalities. Different
lists were drawn up by magistrates and princes in accordance with varying policies.
Only in Catholic areas, however, was guidance provided by the Index surimposed
on these policies.
101 Examples of conflict are given by Davis, “Strikes and Salvation at Lyons,”
pp. 58-64, and by Kingdon, “The Business Activities of Printers, Henri and
Frangois Estienne,” in Meylan (ed.), p. 265.
102 Cited by Bennett, English Books and Readers 1475-1557, p. 27.
103 Haller, p. 52.
l04Altick, pp. 24-25.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 39
most modes of production came much more gradually in France than in
England. The effects of the steam press, however, probably came more
explosively. Certainly religion had not acted on Bible-reading German
Anabaptists or English regicides as an opiate. Many low-born Londoners
were already steeped in book-learning, were turning out tracts and proclaiming
themselves “free born,” well before Parisian journeymen had
mastered letters.105 One might compare the silent war of words in
seventeenth-century England with the efflorescence of chansons and
festivals in eighteenth-century France. With regard to morals, the
Jacobins were “puritan”; with regard to oral and visual propaganda,
they were not. In brief, literacy rates among revolutionary crowds on
both sides of the Channel are worth further thought.
Possibly the most fundamental divergence between Catholic and
Protestant cultures may be found closest to home. The absence or
presence of family prayers and family Bibles is a matter of some consequence
to all social historians. Where functions previously assigned only
to priests in the church were also entrusted to parents at home, a
patriarchical ethic was probably reinforced. Concepts of the family
were probably also transformed where the Holy Spirit was domesticated.
Of course, family life was sanctified among Protestants by clerical
marriage. But boundaries between priesthood and laity, altar and hearthside,
were most effectively blurred, I think, by bringing Bibles and
prayer books within reach of every God-fearing householder. It might
be noted that where Bibles did displace confessors in upper-class
Catholic homes, in French Jansenist circles, for example,106 domestic
codes set by Counter-Reformation moralists were also rigorously followed
and a so-called bourgeois life-style was manifested, even among
nobles of the robe.
Going by the book seems to be somehow related to the formation
of a distinctive “middle class” or “secularized Puritan” ethos. To understand
this relationship it may be useful to look more closely at what
some kinds of early book-learning involved. In particular, we need to
think about domestic manuals and household guides while recalling,
once again, new features introduced by typography. Like cookbooks and
herbals, domestic books were written in the age of scribes. But they
105 Much useful data on the shaping of an indigenous working-class tradition
in seventeenth-century England is given by E. P. Thompson, The Making of the
English Working Class (New York, 1966), Part I. In her biography of John
Lilburne, Pauline Gregg, Free-born John (London, 1961), brings out clearly how
much Lilburne’s career owed to the printing press. Is there any seventeenthcentury
French equivalent of “free-born John”?
106 Crehan, p. 222, notes Jansenist insistence on Bible-reading as a layman’s
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
40 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
were not duplicated uniformly in repeated editions. Reliance on unwritten
recipes, here as elsewhere, prevailed. Elizabethans who purchased
domestic guides and marriage manuals learned in a new way how
family life should be conducted in a well-regulated household.107 A
more limited and standardizedr epertoireo f roles was extendedt o them
than had been extended to householders before. Instead of a cross-fire
of gossip conveying random impressions about what was expected or
haphazardi nterpretationso f what a sermon meant, books came that
set forth (with all the i’s dotted and all the t’s crossed) precise codes
for behavior that godly householders should observe. These codes were
known to others-to relatives and neighbors-as well as to oneself.
Insofara s they were internalizedb y silent and solitaryr eaders,t he voice
of individual conscience was strengthened. But insofar as they were
duplicatedi n a standardizedfo rmat,c onveyedb y an impersonalm edium
to a “lonely crowd” of many readers, a collective morality was also
simultaneously created. Typecasting in printers’ workshops thus contributed
to role-playing at home.
In dealing with altered concepts of the family and the roles performed
within it, we need then to consider the sort of cultural differentiation
that came in the wake of the printing press. Early booklearning
among Protestants was more homely, perhaps, and less courtly
than among Catholics. But we also might note that primers and grammars,
arithmetic books and writing manuals became more abundant at
the same time in all regions. Both domestic and educational institutions
were transformedi n a mannert hat affectedw ell-nurturedy ouths of all
faiths. The sort of changes that affected family life between the fifteenth
and eighteenth century have been brilliantly illuminated by Aries’ pioneering
study of French society.’08 Studies based on other regions are
needed to supplement his findings. But new theories are also needed if
we wish to understandh ow and why the changesh e describeso ccurred
when they did. “The family ceased to be simply an institution for the
transmission of a name and an estate,” it assumed moral and spiritual
functions, it “moulded bodies and souls.” How and why this happened
remains to be explored. In setting out to do this, a revival “of an interest
in education” seems to me the wrong place to begin. Why not consider,
first of all, how child-rearinga nd schoolingw ere affectedb y the printed
107 Louis B. Wright, Middle Class Culture in Elizabethan England (Chapel
Hill, N.C., 1935), pp. 106-10, 206, 211, contains many relevant titles and references.
See also p. 203 for the contrast between English domestic books and more
aristocratic foreign imports.
108 Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood, A Social History of Family Life,
trans. R. Baldick (New York, 1962).
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 41
Possibly no social revolution in European history is as fundamental
as that which saw book-learning (previously assigned to old men and
monks) gradually become the focus of daily life during childhood,
adolescence, and early manhood. Aries has described the early phases of
this vast transformation: “The solicitude of family, Church, moralists
and administrators deprived the child of the freedom he had hitherto
enjoyed among adults.” The school “was utterly transformed” into “an
instrument of strict discipline.”109 I would argue that such changes are
probably related to the shift from “learning by doing” to “learning by
reading.” Surely some sort of new discipline was required to keep
healthy youngsters at their desks during daylight hours. Some sort of
new profession-that of tutor, schoolmaster, or governess-was required
to keep them there. And some sort of new attitude on the part of parents
was probably also apt to result. A new “concept of childhood” indeed
might owe much to the widened gap between literate and oral cultures.
The more adult activities were governed by conscious deliberation and
going by the book, the more striking the contrast offered by the spontaneous
and impulsive behavior of young offspring110 and the more
strenuous the effort required to remould young “bodies and souls.”
The appearance of a stricter domestic discipline, together with new
forms of child-rearing, schooling, and worship, was probably linked to
the inculcation of book-reading habits. But new forms of scurrilous gossip,
erotic fantasy, idle pleasure-seeking, and freethinking were also
linked to such habits. Like piety, pornography assumed new forms.
Book-reading did not stop short with guides to godly living or practical
manuals and texts any more than printers stopped short with producing
them. The same silence, solitude, and contemplative attitudes associated
formerly with pure spiritual devotion also accompanied the perusal of
scandal sheets, “lewd Ballads,” “merry bookes of Italie,” and other
“corrupted tales in Inke and Paper.”’11 Not a desire to withdraw from a
worldly society or the city of man but a gregarious curiosity about them
could by the eighteenth century be satisfied by silent perusal of journals,
gazettes, or newsletters. Increasingly the well-informed man of affairs
had to spend part of each day in temporary isolation from his fellowmen.
As communion with the Sunday paper has replaced churchgoing,
there is a tendency to forget that sermons had at one time been coupled
with news about local and foreign affairs, real estate transactions, and
109 Ibid., pp. 412-13.
11 This sort of analysis seems relevant also to the problems considered by
Michael Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age
of Reason, trans. R. Howard (New York, 1965). A redefinition of la folie went
together with that of l’enfant.
1ll Cited by Wright, pp. 232-33.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
42 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
other mundane matters. After printing, however, news-gathering and
circulationw ere more efficientlyh andledu nder exclusivelyl ay auspices.
Such considerationsm ight be noted when thinkinga bout the “secularization”
o r “desacralizationo”f WesternC hristendomF. or in all regions
(to go beyond the eighteenth century for a moment) the pulpit was ultimately
displaced by the periodical press and the dictum “nothing sacred”
came to characterize a new career. Pitted against “the furious itch of
novelty” and the “general thirst after news,””12e fforts by Catholic
moralists and Protestant evangelicals, even Sunday schools and other
Sabbatarianm easures,”3p roved of little avail. The monthlyg azettew as
succeeded by the weekly and finally by the daily paper. Provincial
newspapers were founded. By the last century, gossiping churchgoers
could often learn more about local affairs by scanning columns of newsprint
in silence at home.
In the meantime, however, communal solidarity among parishioners
had been dissolveda nd vicariousp articipationin more distante ventsh ad
been enhanced. Indeed, a sharper division between private and public
zones of life accompanied the advent of printed publicity. The family,
itself, “advanced in proportion as sociability … retreated…. It was a
movementw hich was sometimesr etardedb y geographicalo r social isolation.
It would be quicker in Paris than in other towns, quicker in the
middlec lasses than in the lower classes.E verywherei t reinforcedp rivate
life at the expenseo f neighborlyr elationshipsf,r iendshipsa nd traditional
But even while social bonds linking parishionersw ere loosened, the
claims of larger collective units also became more compelling. Printed
materials encouraged silent adherence to causes whose advocates could
not be located in any one parish and who addressed an invisible public
from afar. As Aries himself notes, the “concept of class and perhaps …
the concept of race””‘-a5p peareda longside a new privacy assignedt o
familyl ife withint he home. Like nationalc onsciousnessc, lass consciousness
reflected a new form of group identity that displaced an older,
more localized nexus of loyalties. Similarly, the amorphous overlapping
categories that were assigned different “ages of man” would later give
way to chronologically numbered and segmented age grades. Newly
112 Citations from the British Mercury of 1712 and Addison in Preserved
Smith, The Enlightenment 1687-1776 (New York, 1934), p. 284.
113 See Altick, p. 128.
114Aries, p. 406.
115 Ibid., p. 415. The increasing remoteness and impersonality of political
theorizing in the seventeenth century, discussed by Lionel Rothkrug, Opposition
to Louis XIV. The Political and Social Origins of the French Enlightenment
(Princeton, N.J., 1965), pp. 458-59, seems relevant to the above analysis.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impacto f Printingo n WesternS ocietya nd Thought 43
segregated at schools and receiving special printed materials geared to
distinct stages of learning, separate “peer groups” ultimately emerged;
a distinctive “youth culture” that was somewhat incongrous with the
“family” came into being. Such developments, however, did not really
crystallize until the last century, after both typography and schooling
underwent new transformations.
Public life was nonetheless profoundly transformed from the sixteenth
to the eighteenth centuries, as many historical studies suggest.
They say little about the advent of printing. It must have affected traditional
governing groups in many ways. The printing of emblems of
heraldry and orders of chivalry, for example, probably encouraged class
consciousness among hereditary nobles and helped to codify notions
about rank, priority, and degree.116O ne may learn from Curtis how
“drasticc hangesi ntroducedb y printing”a ffectedu ndergraduatset udies
at Oxford and Cambridge and how “well-born successors to medieval
clerks”p rofitedf rom these changes.11U7 nfortunatelyC, urtis’a pproach
seems to be exceptional. The effects produced by printing on higher education
and academic institutions usually have to be inferred from occasional
casual remarks. The same is true of treatments of other pertinant
topics. How access to printed materials affected attitudes toward estates
of the realm, the cultivation of landed estates, the collection of seigneurial
dues, the conduct of courtiers, the strategies of councilors, military
and fiscal policies, even the aspirations of would-be gentlemen-all
could be usefully explored. Recently some historians have begun to
abandon, as fruitless, older debates about the “rise” of a new class to
political power in early modern times. They seek to focus attention
insteado n the re-educationa nd regroupmenot f older governinge litesand
have, thereby,p recipitatedn ew debates.B oth lines of inquirym ight
be reconciled and fruitfully pursued if the consequences of printing
received more attention.
According to Hexter, for example, “a revaluation of our whole conception
of social ideas, social structurea nd social functioni n Europei n
the Age of the Renaissance is long overdue.” We must start “by thinking
in terms not of the decline of the aristocracyb ut of its reconstruction.”
This reconstruction, moreover, was marked by a “new and radical”
116 See the reference to Caxton’s Ordeyne de chevalrie and other early books
on heraldry in Jacob, p. 665. On the very different form taken by the art of
heraldry before printing, see N. Denholm-Young, History and Heraldry 1254-1310
(Oxford, 1965). The hardening of the concept of “degree” is treated by Altick,
p. 31. The printing of the Almanach de -Gotha from the eighteenth century on
has helped to perpetuate the existence of a hereditary aristocracy despite its
political abolition in some regions.
117 Mark Curtis, Oxford and Cambridge in Transition 1558-1642 (Oxford,
1959), pp. 89-111.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
44 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
suggestion that “bookish learning”w as not “supererogatory”b ut indispensable
to ruling a commonwealth and by “a stampede to bookish
education” which “edged the clergy” out of some schools.118 If Hexter
is right, it is also time to start thinking about changes that affected the
natureo f bookishl earningi tself. Hereditaryn obles were probablyf orced
by these changes to choose between old ways and new ways of training
their sons. “In my day, gentlemen studied only to go into the Church
and even then were content with Latin and their prayer book. Those
who were trained for court or army service went, as was fitting, to the
academy. They learned to ride, to dance, to handle weapons, to play
the lute . . . a bit of mathematics and that was all…. Montmorency,
the late Constable, knew how to hold his own in the provinces and his
place at court without knowing how to read.””19
Once military command required mastering a “copious flow of
books” on weaponrya nd strategy’20a nd royal councilorsw ere called
upon “to think clearly, analyze a situation, draft a minute, know law’s
technicalities, speak a foreign language,”‘2’ it must have become more
difficult to hold one’s place in court without knowing how to read. Failure
to adopt new ways in some instances probably paved the way for
the ascension of new men. Whether we describe it as a “rise” or “regrouping”
the increasing pre-eminence assigned robe nobles in France,
for example, might be examined with this in mind.’22 Officials and
magistrates who acquired landed estates and adopted a noble life-style
from the sixteenth century on apparently abandoned many of “their
bourgeoisw ays.”’23Y et they did not relinquisht hem all. From the early
sixteenth century on, robe nobles were acquiring private libraries that
outstripped those of the clergy by the end of the sixteenth century and
left those of the noblessed ‘e’pe’fea r behind.’24W as it not largelyb ecause
118J. T. Hexter, Reappraisals in History (Evanston, El., 1961), chap. iv. See
also Lawrence Stone, “The Educational Revolution in England, 1560-1640,” Past
and Present, No. 28 (July 1964), pp. 41-80.
119 Remarks of a seventeenth-century French nobleman, reported by Saint-
Evremond and cited by John Lough, An Introduction to Seventeenth Century
France (London, 1960; 1st ed., 1954), p. 203. See also the exchange between
Richard Pace and a Tudor gentleman in 1514 relating to the same issue, cited by
Curtis, p. 58.
120 John Hale, “War and Public Opinion in the 15th and 16th Centuries,” Past
and Present, No. 22 (July 1962), pp. 20-22. This whole article contains much
relevant material on the effect of printing on military affairs.
121 Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (Oxford, 1965),
p. 673. See also W. T. MacCaffrey, “Elizabethan Politics: The First Decade,”
Past and Present, No. 24 (April 1963), pp. 32-33.
122See Ford, pp. 246-52.
123 J. Russel Major, “Crown and Aristocracy in Renaissance France,” American
Historical Review, LXIX (Apr. 1964), 631-45.
124 Febvre and Martin, pp. 398-99.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 45
learning by reading was becoming as important as learning by doing that
the robe took its place alongside the sword? New powers were lodged
in the hands of a legal bureaucracyw hich defineda nd interpretedr ules
pertainingt o privileges,p atents and office-holdingw hile seeking privileges,
profits, and places itself. Some of these new powers redounded to
the benefit of the crown and to the royal officials who served it. But the
provincial parliament commanding its own press also became the focal
point of resistance to the extension of royal prerogatives; it often
played a leading role in the formation of new learned societies and
turned out propaganda that mobilized regional loyalties. The issue of
literacy is already beginning to appear in discussions of the modernization
of privileged status groups, which went hand in hand with the modernization
of the royal court.125T o discuss this issue, however, one
must also take cognizance of the activities of printers and booksellers
and of how their markets and sources of supply were diversely patterned
in different regions. A comparative study of the effects of lawprinting
in England and in France, for example, might illuminate many
Similarly, when discussing the “quiet” rise of modern science amid
the “noisy” clash of rival Christian faiths, one must also consider the
unevenly phased changes that came in the wake of the printing press. In
this regard,i t seems unwarrantedto single out science from all “other
European movements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” In
comparison with the worldwide revolution introduced by Western
science, the Reformation may be viewed as “a domestic affair of the
European races.”’26 Nonetheless, the noisy domestic affair profoundly
affected the more silent worldwide process. The appearance of a
Protestant ethic, a spirit of capitalism, a middle-class ethos, new concepts
of the family and the child, educational reforms, and a bureaucratic
officialdoma ll owed much to multiple,c omplexi nteractionsi ntroduced
by typography.T hat this appliesm ost particularlyto the “rise of
modern science” is suggested by previous comments. On this basis, I
would argue that medieval schoolmen should not be chided for relying
too much on oral disputation.’27 Renaissance artisans did not turn “from
books to nature”f or instruction.’28A phorismsa bout the “book of na-
125 See the contrast between education of robe nobles vis-h-vis those of the
sword (Ford, pp. 217-21).
126A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (London, 1933), pp.
127 E. J. Dijksterhuis, The Mechanization of the World Picture, trans. C.
Dikshoorn (Oxford, 1961), pp. 167-68.
128 L. M. Marsak, “Introduction,” in L. M. Marsak (ed.), The Rise of Science
in Relation to Society (Main Themes in European History, ed. B. Mazlish [New
York, 1964]), p. 1; italics mine.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
46 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
ture” may be traced to scribal writings, but their meaning was probably
altered when the nature of the book was changed.129 If Leonardo’s
notebooks “contributedn othing”t o the “organizationo f anatomy as a
discipline,” this was probably not because he lacked “talent for classification
and arrangement”13b0u t because his notebooks were not processed
by sixteenth-centuryp rinters.H is curious position as a scientific
genius who contributed almost nothing to sixteenth-century science
serves to underlinec onnectionsb etween a “scientificc ontribution”a nd
the act of publication. Debates over contributions made by medieval
schoolmen and Renaissance humanists,13’ Aristotelians and neo-Platonists,
later Catholics and Protestants, or Puritans and Anglicans’32 all
might become more fruitful if printing occasionally entered into the
To illustrate this last remark, let us look at a recent summary of
efforts to explain “why the acceleration of scientific advance took place
between 1540 and 1700.” A seemingly interminable argument is in
progress. Should one stress the role played by individual genius, the
internal evolution of a speculative tradition, a new alliance between
intellectuals and artisans, or a host of concurrent socioeconomic or
religious changes affecting the “environment against which these discoveries
took place”?’33T o say that this sort of argumenti s pointless
because all these “factors”w ere at work still leaves open the questiono f
how and why they became operative when they did. Unless some new
strategy is devised to handle this question, the old argument will break
out once again. Since it perpetually revolves about the same issues,
diminishing returns soon set in. One advantage of bringing printing into
the discussion is that it enables us to tackle the open question directly
without prolonging the same controversy ad infinitum. As previous
remarks suggest, the effects produced by printing do seem relevant to
129 Curtius, pp. 316-26.
130 Hall, The Scientific Revolution 1500-1800, p. 42.
131See, e.g., J. H. Randall, The Making of the Modern Mind (Cambridge,
Mass., 1926), p. 212; Dana B. Durand, “Tradition and Innovation in Fifteenth
Century Italy,” Journal of the History of Ideas, IV (Jan. 1943), 1-20; Edward
Rosen, “Renaissance Science as Seen by Burckhardt and His Successors,” in
T. Helton (ed.), The Renaissance: A Reconsideration of the Theories and Interpretations
of the Age (Madison, Wis., 1964), pp. 77-105.
132 To sample this controversy, see references cited by S. F. Mason, “Science
and Religion in 17th Century England,” Past and Present, No. 3 (Feb. 1953), pp.
28-43; H. F. Kearney, “Puritanism, Capitalism, and the Scientific Revolution,”
Past and Present, No. 28 (July 1964), pp. 81-101; contributions by C. Hill et al.
to debates on “Science, Religion, and Society in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth
Centuries,” Past and Present, No. 31 (July 1965), pp. 97-126; and Leo F. Solt,
“Puritanism, Capitalism, Democracy, and Science,” American Historical Review,
LXXIII (Oct. 1967), 18-29.
133 Kearney, p. 81.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impacto f Printingo n WesternS ocietya nd Thought 47
cognitive advance, creative acts, and indeed to each of the contested
factors in the dispute.P roblemsp ertainingt o the “environmenta gainst
which these discoveries took place” might also be more squarely confrontedi
f we took into account studies pertainingt o the “geographyo f
the book.”
Clearly the outcome of dynastic and religious wars affected the
conditions under which printers and booksellers operated. Forms of
piety and patronage, licensing and censorship, literacy and book-reading
habits varied from region to region in accordance with this outcome.
Since the distribution of printing industries can be determined with a
fair degreeo f accuracy,t he “geographyo f the book”c an be mappedo ut.
The movement of printing centers can be correlated with the fixing of
new frontiers.
The printer can be readily identified before the scientist began to
emerge. The distributiono f talents contributingt o “scientific”a dvances
in the early moderne ra is, therefore,m uch more difficultt o ascertain.A
wide varietyo f activities( mathematicadl escriptionsi,n strument-making,
data collection, and so forth) and occupational groups have to be considered.
The question of where and how to apply the term “scientist”
to men who did not regard themselves as such is open to dispute.
Furthermoref,r om the 1540’s to the 1640’s, investigationsn ow regarded
as scientificw ere still largely unco-ordinatedS. cattered” centers”c ontaining
very small clusters of talents-an observatory on a Danish
island, a universityi n Padua, a group of lens-grindersin Amsterdam,a
court in Prague-dot the map somewhat randomly. Given two Italian
academies and Abb6 Mersenne’s letter box to go by (and they do not
appear till the end of the interval), the location of the most energetic
centers of activity is also a matter for dispute. Those who argue that
the rise of modern science was a cosmopolitan movement, unaffected
by political and religious divisions, or that Catholic Italy, with its universitiesa
nd academies,p layed a preponderanrt ole duringi ts formative
phases base their views on an interval where activities can only be coordinatedi
n retrospect.T hey take for grantedt hat co-ordinationw ould
be forthcoming and hence overlook the conditions that made it possible.
They also assumet hat a free flow of informationw as securedd uringa n
interval when it was, instead, most vulnerable to every turn of fortune’s
It is not until the second half of the seventeenth century that a
clearlyl ocalized center of fruitfulc ollaborationc an be found. To reach
134 -“By 1640, with the work of Galileo, Harvey, and Descartes virtually complete,
one can safely say that science had risen”; T. Rabb, “Religion and the Rise
of Moderm Science,” Past and Present, No. 3 (July 1965), p. 112.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
48 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
it one must travel north toward the English Channel. The formation of
this center has been noted by many authorities.T hey try to accountf or
it in various ways. The prior relocation of printing industries is left out
of their accounts.T hus Butterfielda ptly describesa cross-channe”l humming
activity” entailing “the publication in Holland of journals written
in French,c ommunicatingE nglishi deas.”’35F ollowingH azard,h e glides
over the role played by Dutch presses in order to point instead to the
Huguenot printers who manned some of these presses. The Huguenots,
however, were latecomers to the world of the Elzevirs. The wars of
Dutch independenceh ad usheredi n a golden age of printingi n Holland
(and had established at Leiden a great Protestant university) before
the Edict of Nantes had even been proclaimed. The works of Descartes
and Galileo (and of Bacon, Comenius, Hobbes, Grotius, Gassendi,
et al.) were being turned off Dutch presses before this edict had been revoked.
The humming activity that propelled scientific advances toward
the end of the seventeenth century hinged on defeats suffered by the
Spaniards a century earlier-minor scuffles on a corner of the globe, to
be sure, but with worldwider epercussionsn onetheless.
“In the story of the rise of modern science, religion is of peripheral
concern.”’36I think this statementc an be made only because the full
story has not been told. The makers of early popular almanacs in England
“generally adopted the Copernican system of the world.”’37 In
French popular almanacs down through the eighteenth century one will
find “not the slightestt race . . . of the Copernicana stronomy.””3T8h is
particular contrast, based on two secondary accounts, may not stand
up on closer examination. I offer it merely to suggest that the divergent
routes taken by science in Catholic and Protestant lands have not all
been traveled. What Jesuit presses turned out in Peking is, I think,
really “of peripheralc oncern.”’39I n Europe, propagationo f the new
philosophy, from the time of Newton’s birth on, did not come from
135 Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science 1300-1800 (New
York, 1951), p. 140.
136Rabb, p. 126.
137 Cited from Marjorie Nicolson, by Mason, p. 41. Nicolson’s article, which
shows how the Copernican system triumphed first over the Ptolemaic and then
the Tychonic in the course of the seventeenth century, is worth consulting in full.
See “English Almanachs and the ‘New Astronomy,'” Annals of Science, IV (Jan.
15, 1939), 1-33.
138 Mandrou, p. 157.
139 Rabb, p. 117, and Koestler, p. 495 n., both suggest that Jesuit propagation
of the Copernican theory in China in the late seventeenth century is somehow
applicable to the question of how religious divisions affected scientific developments
on the Continent. Yet we know, on other issues, that what the Jesuits
taught in China brought them into disrepute at home. See Paul Hazard, La crise
de la conscience europeenne (1680-1715) (Paris, 1935), I, 29.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought 49
Rome, Madrid, Vienna, or Paris. The completion of the Copernican
revolution drew on books that seldom received an imprimatur and often
turned up on the Index. I have already suggested that conditions which
favored the expansion of book markets and a literate artisanate were
linked to scientific advance. The fact that unauthorized vernacular versions
of the book of nature could be duplicated and circulated more
freely among Protestants than among Catholics also must be taken into
Seventeenth-century Protestant printers ran afoul of authorities with
political or theological tracts. But they could serve virtuosos in relative
peace. In noting this fact, it has been suggested that Protestant convictions
had simply lost their force and should not be dragged into the discussion.
Early Protestant divines had after all condemned the new
astronomy. The point is, however, that their faith did not entail preserving
the old astronomy. There was nothing in the Bible about crystalline
spheres or epicycles. Insofar as pagans, scholastics, and papists had
contributed to the old astronomy, it was also viewed with some suspicion
by Protestant divines. The Bible was of no use at all to the professional
astronomer. Yet no society could dispense with his services. Reliance
on the Scriptures and not a watered down faith probably forced a divorce
between Protestant theology and mathematical astronomy. The professional
astronomer was left alone to get on with his reckonings. Given a
free hand and the new flow of information, he did get on, moving ahead
by astonishing leaps and bounds. “In the year 1500 Europe knew less
than Archimedes . . . in the year 1700 Newton’s Principia had been
written”’40-not merely written, published as well.
If the connection between the act of publication and a scientific
contribution could be drawn more firmly, reasons for the turmoil over
Galileo’s “crime” might be better understood. What has been uncovered
by recent historians was scarcely perceptible to printers and virtuosos
two centuries ago. Nor were they aware that Bruno had been burned
because of his theological rather than his astronomical views. The
consequences of the “mild reproof” of Galileo were, at all events, not
nearly as trifling as some accounts suggest.14′ Copernican views were
140Whitehead, p. 16.
141 On this point, Koestler leads his readers astray by diverting attention from
the effect of Galileo’s trial to that of the condemnation of Copernicus’ De
revolutionibus. Koestler argues (p. 458) that the book remained on the Index
only four years while “trifling” corrections were made, that any Catholic publisher
could reprint it thereafter but that no one (Catholic or Protestant) bothered to,
since it was outdated already, and that hence the “temporary suspension had no
ill effects on the progress of science.” Even here, his interpretation seems to me
wide of the mark. As Kuhn notes (p. 199), “Not until 1822 did the Church permit
the printing of books that treated the earth’s motion as physically real.” Freedom
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
50 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
thereafter linked to the antipapist cause. On patriotic and religious
grounds,t heir adoptionw as sanctioneda mongP rotestantsT. he contrary
occurred among Catholics, for whom they were tainted with sedition.
Proselytizingh ad to be conductedc autiouslya nd often surreptitiouslyI.t
is notable that Anglicans and Puritans, bitterly divided over God’s words
in the seventeenth century, were brought together by the study of His
“works.” According to Bishop Sprat, the Royal Society served as a
refuge from political and religious controversy. Across the Channel, as
Voltairen oted, thingsw ere orderedd ifferentlyT. here, programsa ssociated
with the advancemento f learning,t he spreado f book-readingd, ata
collection,a nd the popularizationo f the new cosmologyw ere not peaceful
at all. To appreciate the difference, one need only compare the quiet
receptiono f Chambers’C yclopwediian Englandw ith what happenedt o
the project to translate it in France.
Possibly because all transformations introduced by printing are
“quiet,”i ncreasingt ensions that accompaniedt he subterraneane xpansion
of the Republic of Letters in Catholic lands are often overlooked.
Since these tensions were explosive and of major historical conseqvence,
the contours of this invisible republic need to be brought into clearer
focus. This is difficult because one must deal with a realm that had no
tangiblee xistence as an institutionalo rganization-not even a shadowy
existence as a legal fiction.
It is clear enough that Bayle’s Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres
came from Rotterdam. It is also evident that the language of its inhabitants
had shifted in the course of the seventeenth century from
Latin to French. Its central city in the eighteenth century was, according
to one authority,A msterdam.14B2u t a marginf or uncertaintyh as to be
left when tryingt o pinpointi ts headquarterso r designatei ts frontierso n
real maps. It remained, from the beginning a fanciful domain, issuing
products from “Cosmopolis”o r “Utopia,”1143c onveying by the same
to print speculations about what is physically real is not, in my view, a “trifling”
matter and does have a bearing on the progress of science. Galileo’s Dialogue
remained on the Index for 192 years. As for his later Discourses, Koestler suggests
he might have had them printed in Vienna rather than Leiden. On why
this must have seemed inadvisable, see G. de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo
(Chicago, 1955), p. 326.
142 Febvre and Martin, p. 298.
143 See invented accommodation addresses mentioned by Steinberg, pp. 264-65.
Bennett, English Books and Readers 1475-1557, p. 210, provides an amusing
early English example: “Printed in Jerico in the land of Promes by Thome
Truth” (London, 1542). During the first centuries after Gutenberg, a considerable
amount of illicit literature, both pornographic and political) was circulated in
manuscript form (Biuhler, pp. 30-31). This tradition persisted in eighteenthcentury
France. See Ira 0. Wade, The Clandestine Organization and Diffusion of
Philosophic Ideas in France from 1700 to 1750 (Princeton, N.J., 1938), passim.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impact-of Printing on Western Society and Thought 51
clandestine channels strangely assorted forbidden works by austere philosophers,
libertines, pornographers, political-party hacks, visionary
fanatics, scientists, and romancers. Yet those who took advantage of the
new career opened to the talents of skilful writers were not disembodied
spiritsw ho must be materializedt o be believed. They were, rather,r eal
men. Those who provided the foundries, workshops, and officials scattered
throughout this imaginary realm made real profits by tapping the
talents that gravitated to it. By the eighteenth century, most of these
printers were located in northern Protestant regions-Holland, Switzerland,
England, Denmark,144 and smaller buffer states on the fringes of
France’45-and were seeking populous markets for an expanding industry.
Most of the authors were Frenchmen whose way had been paved
by the conquests of the French language. Their command of their native
tongue made them indispensablew hen translationw as requireda nd still
sought after when it could be bypassed. “For a century, from 1690 to
1790, the works of the most famous French writers were read throughout
Europe in editions published outside France.””46
New careero pportunitiesw ere thus openedf or ambitiousa nd industrious
young men of obscure parentage who happened to be born in
French-speakingr egions and who were gifted with their pens. The lure
of internationacl elebrityc hanneleda spirationst owarda chievementi n a
new direction. To older dreams of purchasing land or titles and offices
was added another, possibly more glamorous pursuit-one that has
proved particularly attractive to able young Frenchmen down to the
present.Y oung men from variedb ackgroundws ho set out on a “perilous
voyage to prosperousd istinction”‘4i7n the seventeenthc enturyw on their
way to acceptance at Parisian salons and foreign courts (as well as to
prison and penury) in the next century by wielding their pens for
But the circulation of hand-copied political lampoons or scatological verse seems
to me socially inconsequential compared to the organized underground trade in
printed books.
144Pottinger, p. 76, notes the large proportion of French works that came
from these regions.
145 A most useful, detailed case study of a French playwright turned foreign
publisher and propagandist for the Encyclopedists is given by Raymond Birn,
Pierre Rousseau and the Philosophes of Bouillon (Studies on Voltaire and the
Eighteenth Century, ed. T. Besterman, Vol. XXIX [Geneva, 1964]). Birn offers
much relevant data on the role played by buffer states and also on the clandestine
book trade between 1760-1789. A. Bachman, Censorship in France from 1715 to
1750 (New York, 1934), passim, describes difficulties with parliaments, bureaucrats,
and censors experienced by French publishers. Members of the librairie
were hit harder than authors, who could and did turn to foreign printers in
neighboring regions.
146Febvre and Martin, p. 278.
‘147 Pottinger, p. 11.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
52 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
printers everywhere. Some were treated as lackeys by unenlightened
aristocrats, some served other nobles as hired hands, while a number
of the most celebrated Enlightenment authors-Condorcet, Condillac,
Mably, Helvetius, et al.-were of noble birth themselves. Still, in no
other eighteenth-centuryre gion would the hope of obtaining an independent
eminence and international prestige be similarly encouraged
by aid forthcomingf rom foreignw orkshops.
Drawn from diverse strata and detached from local loyalties, the
new careeristsw ould appeart o posteritye ithera s ghost-writerfso r others
or as free-floating intellectuals. No group, however, had a stronger
vested interest in the inculcation of book-reading habits or as close a
connectionw ith the book-traden etworkt han did the Frenchp hilosophes.
Their cosmopolitan outlook, their values and attitudes reflected conditions
that were peculiar to their new occupation. Particular pecuniary
interests and personal vanity (often a most important element in the
outlook of authors) have to be considered when accounting for their
views. But book-writing authors were also wide-ranging readers. Even
as an ecumenical faith came naturaliy to continental printers, so too did
the notion of a timeless consensus among all reasonable men from all
eras and places come naturally to men who were more at home in the
world of books than in their own home towns.
It was, I think, as spokesmen for their own particular pressure
group-as a new class of men of letters rather than as spokesmen for
the robe nobility, the tiers etat, or the royal power-that the philosophes
urgedm en to trustt heiro wn understandinga, ssailedt he church,a ttacked
privileges and monopolies, fought for a free trade in ideas, and hoped to
wean enlightened monarchs away from collaboration with the Index
and the presses of the Propaganda. Their political attitudes and the
pressures they exerted were distinctive and need to be considered as
such. They should not be classed among traditional parvenus seeking
offices closed by the so-called feudal reaction. Did not the fall of the
Bastille in 1789 signify something of particular importance to men of
letters in comparison with all other social groups? Over eight hundred
authors, printers,b ooksellers, and print-dealersh ad been incarcerated
there between 1600 and 1756.148 The crowds who stormed the fortress
seeking gunpowder may have seen cannon trained on crowded quartiers
or thought about toll barriers and bread prices. To the journalists who
hailed its fall, it probably appeared as a symbol of the fate of a somewhat
different sort of tyranny. Certainly printers, authors, and “publicists”
began at once (and have continued to the present) to amplify
the meaning of its capture.
-48 Ibid., p. 79.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impacto f Printingo n WesternS ocietya nd Thought 53
The sort of influence that was exerted by this new class of men of
lettersh as been the topic of an unendinga rgument.14G9 eneralt heories
about the relationship between ideas and social action are frequently
invoked. Seldom, if ever, do the specific effects of the advent of printing
enter into the discussion.Y et both the thrust of Enlightenmentp ropaganda
and the invisible meeting of minds that came with its diffusion can
scarcely be understood without taking these effects into account. It
was after all printing that made possible vicarious encounters with
famous philosophers who turned out to be kindred spirits. They boldly
spelled out the repressed content of interior dialogues. They argued at
length with persuasive power about matters one could not discuss in
front of one’s servants, parents, or neighbors. Few visible traces, save
thumbprintos n well-wornv olumes or a chance remarka bout a youthful
enthusiasm for a favorite author, would be left by such encounters. Yet
fear of disapproval, a sense of isolation, the force of local community
sanctions, the habit of respectful submission to traditional authorityall
might be weakeneda mong many obscurep rovincialb ook-readersb y
recognition that their innermost convictions were shared by fashionable
and famous men of letters. Moreover, print is a singularly impersonal
medium.L ay preachersa nd teachersw ho addressedc ongregationsfr om
afar often seemed to speak with a more authoritativev oice than those
who could be heard and seen within a given community. The publication
in numerous editions of thoughts hitherto unthinkable involved a new
form of social action that was indirect and at a distance. “The revolutionary
spirit was surely not formed in silence and solitude. One might
write revolutionaryw orks, but they would remainp ure and inoffensive
speculations if their ideas had not fermented in the heat of conversation,
discussion, and battles of words. In order for such ideas to become
idces forces, they requireda public.”’50A most importantc onsequence
of the printing press, however, was that it did create a new kind of public
for idees forces.’,’ The reading public was not necessarily vocal, nor
149For a brief review, see Henri Peyre, “The Influence of Eighteenth Century
Ideas on the French Revolution,” in Franklin L. Baumer (ed.), Intellectual
Movements in Modern European History (Main Themes in European History,
ed. B. Mazlish [New York, 1965]), pp. 63-85.
150 Daniel Mornet, Les origines intellectuelles de la Re’volution fran aise
(1715-1787) (Paris, 1947; 1st ed., 1933), p. 281.
151 This view conflicts not only with Mornet’s work but also with more recent
French studies bf the eighteenth-century bookish world-currently the topic of
intensive investigation. Much as Febvre and Martin hold that printing retarded
the adoption of new ideas by duplicating old ones in the sixteenth century, so
Dupront argues that, far from contributing to revolutionary dynamics, eighteenthcentury
book production reinforced tradition and acted as a brake: “le livre
retarde”; Alphonse Dupront, “Livre et culture dans la societe frangaise au XVIII.
siecle (R6flexions sur une Enquete),” Annales economies-soiietes-civilisations
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
54 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
did its members necessarily frequent cafes, clubs, and salons of known
political complexion. It was instead composed of silent and solitary
individuals who were often unknown to each other and who were linked
only by access to bookshops, lending libraries, or chambres de lecture
and, here and there, also by membershipin “correspondinsgo cieties.”152
There is no way of knowing, with certainty, what really went on in
the minds of silent, solitary readers who have long since gone to their
graves. Authors are often surprised by what gets read into their works.
A wide margin for uncertainty must be left whenever one tries to read
the minds of other readers. It is precisely because it shows where this
margin lies and why it cannot be eliminated that speculation on this
matter may be useful. Interactions that cannot be determined with
certainty in retrospect could not be foreseen or controlled in prospect.
Failure to speculate about the indirect effects exerted by the philosophes
on their public prolongs the search for some alien invisible hand that
set Frenchmeni n motion by 1789. The law-abidings ubjectso f Bourbon
France did behave in a manner that astoundedc ontemporariesI. f we
sidestep the problem in social psychology their unexpected behavior
poses, the myth-makers are apt to step in, and debates will center on
thickly documenteds olutionst hat leave no marginf or uncertaintya t all.
The conspiratorialm yths that have been woven around Masonic
lodges, reading societies, and the French Revolution could themselves be
better understood if various effects produced by printing were taken into
account. New forms of secrecy, publicity, duplicity, and censorship
underlie all modern myths of this genre. Examination of these issues cannot
be undertaken here. Let me just note in passing that conspiratorial
hypotheses in general are more often propelled than dispelled by efforts
that stop short with disprovingt hem. Bibliographiesg row thicker, the
atmospherem ore charged,a s skepticsa nd trueb elieversf ail alike to convince
each other.153T he possibility that multiple invisible interactions
(1965), pp. 895-97. This article was recently republished in an important collaborative
volume sponsored by the Sixieme Section of the Ecole Pratique des
Hautes Etudes: Livre et societe dans la France du XVIIIe (Civilisations et
societes, Vol. I [The Hague, 1967]).
152 On chambres de lecture, see Augustin Cochin, Les societes de pensee et
la re’volution en Bretagne 1788-1789 (Paris, 1925), I, 20. On corresponding
societies that circulated hundreds of thousands of copies of Paine’s Age of Reason
between 1791 and 1793 in the British Isles, see Altick, p. 70, and Thompson,
chap. v.
153A cogent example is Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of
the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (New York,
1966). The author concludes with useful insights. But by reproducing lurid tales
and vicious cartoons, the bulk of his work helps to keep the same virus in
circulation and even revives some old strains. It was, incidentally, a satire on
Napoleon III’s regime as “jourmalism incarnate” that provided a model for the
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The Impacto f Printingo n WesternS ocietya nd Thought 55
were introducedb y a silent communicationss ystem is a point that both
parties tend to ignore and that the skeptics, at least, should be persuaded
to explore. Most of them agree that pens can poison the atmosphere
when they are used to accuseP rotestantso r papists,M asonso r Jacobins,
Jesuits, Jews, or Bolsheviks of sinister plots. If this is true, then climates
of opinion can be affected by pens, including those wielded by enlightened
philosophes. A clearer understandingo f social “action at a
distance”m ight at least help to explainh ow earlierv iews of conspiracypertainingt
o assassinationp lots or rabble-rouserhs iredb y seditiousf actions-
gave way to the more awesome image of a vast network, controlled
from secret headquarterst, hat set men to do its bidding from
Many other developments could be clarified by exploring the new
complex interplay between different groups of writers and readers. Vicarious
experiences with newly created fictional worlds, for example,
affected human hearts as well as heads. Empathy induced by novelreadingp
robablyh elped to sustainh umanitarianm ovementso f various
kinds. Powers of calculation and abstraction were sharpened by access
to printed materials. New imaginative and sympathetic faculties were
also brought into play. Were all the senses save sight partly atrophied?
McLuhan’s suggestion that a heightened visual stress served to dull other
senses is debatable.S ince authorsb ecamem ore skilledi n simulatingt he
noisy, colorful, odorous, rich-textured stuff of life, it seems likely that
readers also became more keenly sensitive to varied tactile and sensory
stimuli. It should be noted that printers served not only pedants and
scientists but composers and painters, gourmets and gardeners, connoisseurs
and aesthetes as well.
Unfortunatelys, pace does not permits ettingd ownf urtherc onjectures
here. Although I have tried to touch on varied fields of study, the full
range of problems that might be reviewed by those who are concerned
with early modern Europe has by no means been displayed. As for the
more recent past, I have had to stop well short of the interval when the
power of the press was harnessed to steam and hence have said nothing
about issues that seem to be particularlyr elevantt o present concerns.
The arbitraryn atureo f this stoppingp oint should be underlined.W hen
protocols. See David Kulstein, “Government Propaganda and the Press during
the Second Empire,” Gazette: International Journal for Mass Communication
Studies, X (1964), 125-44.
154 The effect of printing on collective psychopathology urgently needs further
study. Recent analyses by Richard Hofstader on “the paranoid style in politics”
and by Hugh Trevor Roper on the “witch craze” and a spate of studies on
differences between medieval and modern anti-Semitism might be reconsidered
in this light.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
56 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
dealing with the effects of printing, it is a mistake, in my view, to think
in terms of periods that open and close. These effects were exerted always
unevenly, always continuouslya nd cumulativelyf rom the late fifteenth
century on. I can find no point at which they ceased to be exerted
or even began to diminish. I find much to suggest that they have persisted,
with ever augmentedf orce, right down to the present.S cribalc ulture
did come to an end. Despite the advent of new audiovisual media,
one cannot say the same about typographicacl ulture.A t least I do not
think one can say this. Recent obituaries on the Age of Gutenberg show
that others disagree.15A5 s yet, however, so few historiansh ave been
heardf rom that finalv erdictss eem unacceptablea nd, in more ways than
one, premature.
The deliberatelyin conclusiven atureo f this stoppingp oint also must
be underlined. These conjectures have been based on very uneven
acquaintance with relevant data, much of it drawn from unreliable
general accounts, all of it pertinent to very few regions. Numerous
gaps have been filled in by logical inference-at best a poor substitute
for empirical findings. No conclusions are in order at this point. Let
me simply recapitulate: A new method for duplicating handwritingan
ars artificialiters cribendi-was developeda nd first utilized five centuries
ago. Recent historians still concur with Bacon’s opinion that this
changed “the appearance and state of the whole world.” “It brought
aboutt he most radicalt ransformationin the conditionso f inteliectual ife
in the history of western civilization . . . its effects were sooner or
later felt in every department of human life.”’56 At present we must
reckon with effects “felt in every department of human life” without
knowing which came sooner, which later, and, indeed, without any clear
notions as to what these effects were. Explicit theories, in short, are
now overdue. To make a start at providing them, I have cut across
fields properly cultivated by specialists and made sweeping assertions
that have not been substantiatedT. his rash courseh as-beenp ursuedw ith
a more prudent goal in mind. Collaboration is required to achieve it.
If my conjecturesh ave alerteds ome readerst o how much remainst o be
done and aroused some concern about doing it, then they have fulfilled
their purpose.
155 The obsolescence of print technology and its supercession by electric media
is repeatedly asserted by McLuhan, not only in The Gutenberg Galaxy but also
in Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man (New York, 1965). See also
George Steiner, “The Retreat from the Word,” Kenyon Review (Spring 1961),
pp. 187-216, and Kenneth Winetrout, “The New Age of the Visible. A ;Call to
Study,” A. V. Communication Review, XII (Spring 1964), 46-52.
156 Gilmore, p. 186.
This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Sep 2013 14:46:42 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions