In the middle of the 15th century an obscure German goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg invented a movable type printing press in the city of Mainz. Thereafter, the new printing industry quickly spread across Europe and made possible the mass production of identical copies of books leading to a standardization of publications that was unknown in the age of manuscripts.
The printing press has been associated with a number of social, political and religious transformations in the 16th and 17th centuries: mass literacy the rise of nationalism, the Protestant Reformation to name three. Yet, as Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979) observed, unlike other disruptive technologies, the printing press did not create a radically new product (in appearance the printed text is similar to a manuscript), only a vastly different means of production. In this sense, it triggered an “unacknowledged revolution” with a number of more subtle consequences that have often been overlooked.
In this paper, I will argue that an important effect of the transition to print culture was the gradual increase in the authority of printed text in western thought, and that this enhanced authority can be seen in a number of areas such the rise of Protestantism and the Scientific Revolution.
As well, the shift from scribal culture (based on codex manuscripts) to print culture (based on codex print) further diminished the residue of orality, which was still prominent in scribal culture.
Importantly, while the invention of the printing press remains the critical element in the transition to the age of print culture, it must also be noted that neither the scribal nor the print culture were static, and that a number of features often associated with print culture had begun to develop in the late stages of the middle ages and continued long after the invention of the printing press. In this paper, I will also examine some of the social explanations of the transition to print culture.
The codex manuscript was itself a radical technology, offering a number of improvements (more compact, two-sided, capacity for indexing, etc) over the scroll, which was the dominant medium for the written word until the 4th century A.D when the codex surpassed it in general popularity (Clement, 1997). Amazingly, although the size and quality of materials have changed, the basic design of the codex has remained virtually unchanged until the present day.
Since there was no means of mechanized production, each manuscript was hand copied and unique, and although the technology, materials (such as the use of paper) and processes involved in the reproduction of books improved in the centuries prior to the printing press, corruption of content was an inevitable consequence of the process (Eisenstein, 1980).
Throughout most of the Middle Ages, manuscript production largely took place in monasteries, which began to develop increasingly sophisticated copying processes housed in scriptoriums. Although universities (and also lay scribes) copied manuscripts in order to meet the growing demand, it was principally the efforts of monastic scribes that sustained the book trade until the 11th and 12th centuries. (Clement, 1997).
Characteristics of Scribal Culture
The literate and semi-literate societies of Europe in the Middle Ages maintained significant remnants of orality as script remediated oral transmission. As Walter Ong (1982) noted, the written word served largely to “recycle knowledge back into the oral world” (p.117). Written words lacked the authority of spoken words; for example, in England, the final approval of financial records was done aurally (i.e. an audit) even in the 12th century (Ong, 1982). Literary compositions and manuscripts were intended to be read aloud, even when the reader was alone, and the presentation of written material reflected this as no word division or modern punctuation appeared until after the 8th century (Clement, 1997).
However, scribal culture did evolve throughout Europe prior to the invention of the printing press, in some senses creating conditions that supported the development of print culture. For example, the practice of silent reading began to emerge in the 12th century, and gradually the structure and content of written work grew more complex as writers adapted to the greater capacity of the silent reader (Clement, 1997). Also, as noted earlier, while monasteries did maintain book production throughout most of the Middle Ages, the industry had already begun to expand outside the monasteries and universities by the 12th century long before the mechanization of print.
The Social Impact of the Printing Press
The impact of the printing press was almost immediate. Johannes Gutenberg invented it in around 1450; by the end of the 15th century presses had been established in most of the large centres of Europe with manuscripts reproduction focusing on disciplines like law, medicine, and religion, and significantly, in a number of vernacular languages (Innis, 1950). The vastly improved speed and accurate reproducibility of book production played a key role not just in the distribution of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517 but also in the continued expansion of the Protestant Reformation and nationalistic ideas in the following decades (Eisenstein, 1979). Literacy levels improved, due in part to the greater accessibility of books in vernacular languages but also to the protestant emphasis on scripture reading, which increased the demand for printed material (Eisenstein, 1979).
Characteristics of Print Culture
Although the social transformations initiated, or at least supported, by the mass production capacity of the printing press are well documented, the changes to human thought and understanding brought about by the print culture are often overshadowed. There is no obvious difference between the meaning expressed in a written or in a printed text. However, over time, the distinct qualities of print began to emerge, and remnants of orality (the authority of the spoken word, use of mnemonic aids, rhetorical prose, etc) that were still highly present in scribal culture diminished. The printed word preserved and codified thought (and behavior) in a way that script and oral transmission could not, leading to the increased authority of text, internalized by “silent and solitary readers” (Eisenstein, 1979, p. 429). Print had the capacity to distance the human from knowledge and present abstract ideas more than script (and much more than orality) (Ong, 1982).
The authoritative nature of print is demonstrated through the spread of Protestantism, which Eisenstein (1979) calls a “book religion” (p. 422) where scripture, now accessible to the masses often in their native languages, gained authority over tradition and spiritual knowledge mediated by the priesthood. While this can be attributed in part to the weakening power base of church elites (aided by mass literacy) the “literal fundamentalism” (Eisenstein, 1979, p. 439) of Protestantism would have been inconceivable in an age when the spoken word was authoritative.
The authority of print affected the sciences as well, which benefited from the increased reliability and accuracy of copied text and data where scientific knowledge, instead of being degraded through repeated reproduction, could be trusted and subsequently build upon, not just creating knowledge but creating public and durable knowledge that could be shared and critiqued (Eisenstein, 1979).
Remediation of Script
The remediation of a communication technology occurs when a new medium replaces the old, and “borrows and reorganizes the characteristics of … the older medium and reforms its cultural space” (Bolter, 2001, p. 23). The process may not be immediate and residue of the older medium may in fact linger for centuries. Print remediated script by offering improved means of production, if not improved quality (initially at least), and as such there was not a dramatic transition. However, the reforming or refashioning of cultural space did occur over time though as the “typographical fixity” (Eisenstein, 1979, p. 113) of print solidified the authority of text.
Modern post-print societies take for granted many of the characteristics associated with print culture and it is difficult to imagine a time when the written word deferred to the spoken word as the final authority, or that written content was intended to be spoken aloud, not read silently. Nor can we easily imagine that until the invention of the printing press, people could not rely on the accurate reproduction of written content. These developments occurred during the age of print culture as print remediated elements of script. The transition was not dramatic because, as Bolter (2001) observed, the printed book provided the same visual space as the written manuscript, but nevertheless, print altered the way people came to understand text.
As well, by increasing the accuracy and trustworthiness of text, print served to further the transition away from oralily that scribal culture began but could not complete as it still maintained many remnants of oral culture.
In closing, it is worth noting again the importance of avoiding a strict technological deterministic explanation for the rise of print culture, in spite of the obvious significance of the invention of the printing press itself. As illustrated in this paper, scribal culture did evolve during the Middle Ages and the reciprocal interplay between social forces and technology leading to the age of print should not be ignored.
Bolter, J.D. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Mahwah, NJ:
Clement, R. W. (1997). Medieval and renaissance book production-manuscript books. Retrieved from http://www.the-orb.net/encyclop/culture/books/medbook1.html
Eisenstein, E.L. (1979). The Printing press as an agent of change: Communication and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press
Eisenstein, E.L. (1980). The Emergence of print culture in the west. Journal of Communication, 30(1), 99-106.
Innis, H.A. (1950). Empire and communication. Toronto: Dundurn Press
Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the world. London: Routledge.