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Elizabeth L. Eisenstein: The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe
(Cambridge University Press: 1983)

“Even a cursory acquaintance with the findings of anthropologists or casual observations of preschool-age children may help to remind us of the gulf that exists between oral and literate cultures.... The gulf that separates our experience from that of literate elites who relied exclusively on hand-copied texts is much more difficult to fathom. There is nothing analogous in our experience.... Historians are trained to discriminate between manuscript sources and printed texts; but they are not trained to think with equal care about how manuscripts appeared when this sort of discrimination was inconceivable. Similarly, the more thoroughly we are trained to master the dates and events contained in modern history books, the less likely we are to appreciate the difficulties confronting scribal scholars who had access to assorted written records, but lacked uniform chronologies, maps , and all the other reference guides which are now in common use.”
(Eisenstein, pp.6-7)

Communications studies have a dubious reputation in the humanities. Not only do they have the hyperbolic exaggerations - and strange over-generalizations - of the late Marshall McLuhan to contend with as their most prominent “ancestor”, there are also the many dodgy extensions of Shannon’s “information theory” (which, unfortunately, did not measure information), as well as the current crop of intellectual entrepreneurs riding the excitement surrounding the internet...

With “friends” like these, it’s no wonder that many tend to associate the entire field with poor scholarship - an attitude which, unfortunately, leaves the important findings of significant historians such as Eric Havelock and Elizabeth Eisenstein tarred by association, and far too little known by the wider readership. Of the work of these genuine students of communications shifts, Eisenstein’s undoubtedly serves as the best introduction to the field. Not only is she blessed with a wealth of empirical evidence - unlike those who wish to treat the oral/literate divide - but, in reaction to McLuhan’s hyperbole, she is a veritable model of careful scholarship, clearly building on solid evidence and eshewing the more speculative “philosophical” questions in favour of what can be securely established.

The real surprise is just how far such a modest approach can take us. This work, a one volume condensed verion of her magnum opus, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979), to my mind clearly establishes what McLuhan bungled - the basic fact that the introduction of printing in Europe was a truly revolutionary change; ushering in crucial new ways of thinking, as well as “merely” supplying more - and cheaper - words on pages.

“Concern with surface appearance necessarily 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...which encouraged more editing, correcting, and collating than had the hand-copied text. Within a generation, the results of this review were being aimed in a new direction - away from fidelity to scribal conventions and towards serving the convenience of the reader.... Well before 1500, printers had begun to experiment with the use ‘of graduated types, running heads...footnotes...tables of contents...superior figures, cross references...and other devices’.... [As well,] the fact that letters, numbers, and pictures were all alike subject to repeatability by the end of the fifteenth century needs more emphasis. That the printed book made possible new forms of interplay between these diverse elements is perhaps even more significant than the change undergone by picture, number, or letter alone.”
(Eisenstein, pp.21-4)

“Increased familiarity with regularly numbered pages, punctuation marks, section breaks, running heads, indexes and so forth helped reorder the thought of all readers, whatever their profession or craft. The use of arabic numbers for pagination suggests how the most inconspicuous innovation could have weighty consequences - in this case, a more accurate indexing, annotation, and cross-referencing resulted.”
(Eisenstein, p.73)

Because, as Eisenstein repeatedly reminds us, we simply take for granted the innovations made possible by printed books, reading The Printing Revolution provides a strange kind of revision of our taken-for-granted intellectual world. Rather than “teaching” us about these changes, most of the relevations come more like “reminding” us of things we sort-of knew...but had never clearly thought through before - particularly as an inter-related ensemble of changes.

“It seems likely that the very concept of a ‘style’ underwent transformation when the work of hand and ‘stylus’ was replaced by more standardized impressions made by pieces of type.... Thus distinctions between the fresh and original as against the repeatable and copied were likely to have become sharper....Concepts pertaining to uniformity and to diversity - to the typical and to the unique - are interdependent. They represent two sides of the same coin. In this regard, one might consider the emergence of a new sense of individualism as a by-product of the new forms of standardization. The more standardized the type, indeed, the more compelling the sense of an idiosyncratic personal self.”
(Eisenstein, pp.53-6)

"Even while more copies of one given text were being 'spread, dispersed, or scattered' by the issue of a printed edition, different texts, which had previously been dispersed and scattered, were also being brought closer together for individual readers.... 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 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' began.... Contradictions became more visible, divergent traditions more difficult to reconcile.... Not only was confidence in old theories weakened, but an enriched reading matter also encouraged the development of new intellectual combinations and permutations."
(Eisenstein, pp.43-4)

Thinking through this point isn't too hard - once we remember all of the times that we've been overly impressed by an argument/book...only to be confronted soon after by a decent counter-argument - whereupon, if necessary, we revisit the first w/a newly skeptical eye. But...what if we couldn't? We'd be the natural prey of the last plausible systems-monger that'd rung our bell - exactly what we see in most intellectual work of the pre-print era (although this problem has hardly gone away with print, I hasten to add). And, while it is true that skeptical systems of thought did emerge earlier, their most significant efflorescence, I'd suggest, was the result of the peculiar (& partly oral) intellectual hothouse of ancient Greek thought at its peak - overly combative by any standard (see G.E.R. Lloyd) - and soon dissipated once that had settled down to any great degree. But, once print had shoved competing texts into everyone's faces, its revival was as natural as breathing...

“It is undeniable that there is a fundamental difference between medieval and modern views of antiquity. Medieval scholars did not see the classical past from a fixed distance as we do now.... [But] it took at least a century of printing before the multiform maps and tangled chronologies inherited from scribal records were sorted out, data reworked, and more uniform systems for arranging materials developed. Before then, there was no fixed spatiotemporal reference frame which men of learning shared.... I would argue then, that ‘a total rationalized view’ of antiquity began to appear only after the first century of printing, rather than in Petrarch’s lifetime, and that the preservative powers of print were a prerequisite for this new view. It is not ‘since the Renaissance,’ but since the advent of printing and engraving that ‘the antique has been continuously with us.’ Furthermore, it seems very likely that the same changes which affected the classical revival in Italy also affected medieval survivals on both sides of the Alps. The so-called historical revolution of the sixteenth century owed perhaps as much to the ‘systematization and codification of existing customary law’ as it did to the systematic investigation of the legal heritage from Rome.”
(Eisenstein, pp.118-122)

Perhaps the most overwhelming support for Eisenstein’s thesis comes from the historical sequence of intellectual shifts during this overall period. Viewed in the abstract, one could - almost literally - expect that printing would turn one of a series of revivals of antiquity into a permanent “Renaissance”, that more systematic study of sources would not only sterilize the revivalist instinct, but also induce a revolution in historical study, and that expansion of comparative study would induce first an expanded, skeptically tolerant notion of humanism, and then a rigorous movement to rebuild the most systematic studies upon the firmest foundations possible. Given the comparative disunity of Europe - where publication of anything was possible in some locality - the entire story appears nigh-on inevitable, albeit we are always wise in retrospect. And even more intriguing is Eisenstein’s exploration of the real significance of some archaic ideas we now routinely misunderstand:

“Before printing, no artifice was required to sustain the belief that loss and corruption came with the passage of time. As long as ancient learning had to be transmitted by hand-copied texts, it was more likely to be blurred or blotted out than augmented.... Only after that age came to an end would the superior position of the ancients require a defense. Because the ‘mere resoration off ancient wisdom’ has by now been completely drained of its inspirational content, we are likely to overlook its many contributions to cognitive advance in an earlier age. We are are also likely to misinterpret the effect of attributing superior feats in all fields to the ancients. Far from hindering innovation, belief in prior superlative performance encouraged emulators to reach beyond their normal grasp. [Furthermore,] the notion that supreme mastery of a given art had been obtained under divine dispensation in an earlier golden age linked imitation to inspiration.... Insofar as the Enlightenment may be regarded as an heir to the Renaissance, the notion of a movement away from darkness toward radiance has been preserved. But when the direction of the movement was reversed...its implications were transformed as well. The advance of disciplines was detached from the recovery of ancient learning. Inspiration was set against imitation, moderns against ancients; and the early humanists, themselves, increasingly appeared in a Janus-like guise, looking hopefully in two opposite directions at once.”
(Eisenstein, pp.144-5)

And, although I have tended to choose quotations mainly from the secular side of things here, Eisenstein offers a wealth of incisive arguments upon religious matters - including the unusual (but convincing) claim that the Counter-Reformation, no less than Protestantism, was heavily indebted to the new perspectives which printing opened up, rather than being primarily backward-looking. On the religious/secular divide too, The Printing Revolution is informative, suggesting that whilst the earliest effects of printing were relatively uniform, the intellectual and social processes set in train eventually drove theology and science, in particular, in opposing directions:

“Medieval heresies can be distinguished from the Protestant Revolt in much the same manner as medieval revivals from the Italian Renaissance. In both instances, localized transitory effects were superseded by widespread permanent ones. And in both, lines were traced back as well as forward, so that culture heroes and heresiarchs gained increasing stature as founding fathers of movements that expanded continuously over the course of time.”
(Eisenstein, p.154)

“Scriptural and scientific traditions had taken a ‘like course’ in the age of the scribes. By the time of the Reformation, however, they had come to a partiting of the ways.... Whereas the Vulgate was followed by a succession of polyglot editions and multiple variants, the downfall of the Almagest paved the way for the formulation by Newton of a few elegant, simple universal laws. The development of neutral pictorial and mathematical vocabularies made possible a large-scale pooling of talents for analyzing data, and led to the eventual achievement of a consensus that cut across all the old frontiers."
(Eisenstein, pp.268-9)

The most impressive arguments relating to disciplinary devevelopments, however, are probably those on the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. If the conventional argument is that printing came too late to “cause” humanism, the reverse applies w/science. In general, historians of modern science simply take printing for granted, since all the great figures emerged well after printing. However, if instead we look to the long-term intellectual processes underlying the rise of science - the new meetings of theory and practice, the consolidation of standard frames of reference and intellectual tools, the revival of skepticism, and the declining faith in dogmatic schemes in the face of comparative approaches to knowledge - printing starts to look like the crucial prerequisite that it was, even if open-minded historians of science such as Stephen Toulmin fail to give it sufficient credit.

“In seeking to explain new interactions between theory and practice, schoolman and artisan, few authorities even mention the advent of printing. Yet here was an invention which made books more accessible to artisans and practical manuals more accessible to scholars, which encouraged artists and engineers to publish theoretical treatises, and rewarded scholars for translating technical texts.... It also brought bookworms and mechanics together in person as collaborators within the same workshops. In the figure of the master printer, it produced a ‘new man’ who was adept in handling machines and marketing products even while editing texts, founding learned societies, promoting artists and authors, advancing new forms of data collection, and diverse branches of erudite disciplines.”
(Eisenstein, pp.137-9)

“It is important to remember that there is no way of making fresh observations ‘universal’ and ‘public’ as long as they can be recorded only in manuscript form.... To make multiple copies would not lead to improvement, but to corruption of data; all fresh increments of information when copied were subject to distortion and decay. The same point applies to numbers and figures, words and names. Observational science throughout the age of scribes was perpetually enfeebled by the way words drifted apart from pictures, and labels became detatched from things.... Present evidence suggests that medieval natural philosophers were not lacking in curiosity. They were, however, lacking some essential investigative tools.”
(Eisenstein, pp.197-203)

“It is worth recalling Laplace’s dictum that logarithm tables doubled the life of the astronomer. Consideration of the intellectual labor saved by printed materials points to aspects of early modern scientific activities which are neglected by those...who emphasize the Puritan work ethic.... Something more should be said about the new leisure that printing gave to a learned class. Within the Commonwealth of Learning, systematic work habits were coupled with released time from grinding labor such as compiling long tables of numbers by hand. Less reliance on memory work and rote repetition in lecture halls also  brought new mental talents into play. Printing enabled natural philosophers to spend more time solving brain teasers, designing ingenious experiments and new instruments or even chasing butterflies and collecting bugs if they wished. The pleasure principle should not be ruled out.”
(Eisenstein, pp.240-2)

Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe is a brilliant book, essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the modern world, the “knowledge economy”, or intellectuals and their tools. While it garnered near-universal praise at the time of publication, it is still noticeable that the old prejudices persist, and that many otherwise exemplary historians make little mention of the effects of printing in their recent works. The reverse fault, however, cannot be lain at Eisenstein’s door:

“My aim is to enrich, not impoverish, historical understanding, and...I regard monovariable interpretations as antipathetic to that aim. As an agent of change, printing altered methods of data collection, storage and retrieval systems, and communication networks used by learned communities throughout Europe. It warrants special attention because it had special effects. In this book I am trying to describe these effects and to suggest how they may be related to other concurrent developments. The notion that these other developments could ever be reduced to nothing but a communications shift strikes me as absurd.... When I take issue with conventional multivariable explanations (as I do on several occasions), it is not to substitute a single variable for many, but to explain why many variables, long present, began to interact in new ways.”
(Eisenstein, p.xiv)

To sum up, in her conclusion Eisenstein makes her strongest point yet about the value of investigating the impact of printing, in direct contrast with more fashionable (and vague) inquiries on the nature of “modernity”. And, while she has been unafraid to severely criticize her fellow historians throughout the text, it is here that she arguably mounts the toughest critique yet. Because, in direct contrast to “modernity”, printing offers a clearly definable problem, a mass of directly connected empirical evidence, and - now - a coherent set of well-supported hypotheses which implicate it closely with the emergence of the world we now live in. There is no excuse for not understanding this, whatever the faults of other theorists...

“To ask historians to search for elements which entered into the making of an indefinite ‘modernity’ seems somewhat futile. To consider the effects of a definite communications shift which entered into  each of the movements under discussion seems more promising.... We can see how movements aimed at returning to a golden past (whether classical or early Christian) were reoriented in a manner that pointed away from their initial goal and how the very process of recovering long-lost texts carried subsequent generations even further away from the experience of the church fathers and of the poets and orators of antiquity. We can also see how lay humanists, priests, and natural philosophers alike shared the common experience of acquiring new means to achieve old ends and that this experience led, in turn, to a division of opinion and ultimately to a reassessment of inherited views.”
(Eisenstein, pp.255-6)

John Henry Calvinist