The Printing Press as an Agent of Preservation

I wrote this article back in the 80s but presented it only as a paper at a conference at Penn State and never published it. I finally posted it here because of the continuing discussion about the sacredness of books versus electronic books. Well, books have changed and what we have today was once not sacred. 

(I removed all of the images, but left the frames.)

(This article is protected by copyright.)

The invention of the printing press is heralded by several scholars as a turning point in history. Some suggest that had the printing press not been invented, society would not have advanced.

Meggs, for example, says: "Some historians have declared the invention of typography to be the most important advance in civilization after the creation of writing.
Writing gave the human family a means of storing, retrieving, and documenting knowledge and information that
transcended time and place. Typographic printing allowed the economical and multiple production of alphabet communication. Knowledge spread rapidly, and literacy increased as a result of this remarkable invention." (Meggs, p. 71)

Eisenstein is almost equally robust in touting the role of the printing press, although when she completed her momentous study on the subject, she titled it The Printing Press as an Agent of Change rather than The Printing Press as the Cause of Change. To her credit, she sometimes acknowledges coincidence between printing and the advancement of civilization rather than claiming cause and effect. (Eisenstein 1979, p. 19)

Whereas Eisenstein is willing to credit the idea, Febvre and Martin, on the other hand, ignore the idea and give all credit to technology. You would not know from the following passage if Martin Luther had a good idea or was merely lucky that the printing press was invented. "One has only to think, if one wishes to measure the influence of the
printing press, of the role played in the progress of the Reformation by posters. Before every big event in the Reformation there was a poster to advertise it, a poster which served to give the event general importance. When Luther began his attack on Indulgences, the act which marked that step was not so much the words of his sermon am the poster which he affixed to the door of the

Augustinian chapel at Wittenberg on the 31st October, 1517. His Theses, translated into German and summarised, were printed as flysheets and distributed throughout Germany. Within 15 days they had been seen in every part of the country." (Febvre/Martin, pp. 289-90)

Along the same lines, consider the argument that the great maps, tomes and charts that we consider milestones would have never existed without printing. As Eisenstein puts it: "Typographical fixity is a basic prerequisite for the rapid advancement of learning." (Eisenstein 1979, p. 113)

In sum, the argument for the printing press as a cause of change breaks out this Nay: An oral culture is incapable of developing new ideas; a scribal culture merely copies the ideas of the past; a print culture has the ability to discard the past-but only because the past is first put into print. In other words, an idea cannot be discarded until it has been printed. Eisenstein 1979, p. 502) Ideas put into print can be traced. Sequence can be understood. (Eisenstein 1979, p.
199) We owe it all to the printing press.

I want to argue for a more balanced view of the role of the printing press in the Renaissance and by indirection the role of technology in mankind's development. Generally, technological change is a product of a changing society.
Furthermore, any piece of new technology cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. Finally, new technology initially serves to preserve rather than to change.


We all know that printing was done long before Johann Gutenberg invented his press around 1450. Credit for printing text on paper must go to the Chinese of 770 A.D., who followed up with pictorial printing from wood block; a century later. (Hunter, p. 6) Gutenberg was not even the first to use movable type. Credit for
that invention goes to Ta-jong, king of Korea, who conceived and carried out the idea of movable copper type in 1403. (Diringer, p.

But we are dealing today with the Renaissance and I shall focus on

printing as it relates to that period.

In the first fifty years of printing, Stillwell says the following elements of printing appeared:

·  color (by Gutenberg in the 42-line Bible),

·  woodcuts for illustration,

·  page numbers,

·  title pages,

·  metal engraving,

·  folded plates,

·  indexing. (Stillwell, pp. 12-14)

Furthermore, with printing, it became easier to produce a book-the man hours were no longer so great. (Eisenstein 1979, pp. 44-45)

Before printing, books were not very functional. Few had table of contents, references, sections, indices, chronology, pagination. Says Ellul: "The books of the time were not written to be used, along with hundreds of others, to locate a piece of information accurately and quickly, or to validate or invalidate an experiment, or to furnish a formula. They were not written to be consulted." (Ellul, p. 40)

On the other hand, individuals found that printing made books convenient to use. For example:

·  Seldom did scribes index a book. It was too tedious and each copy needed a different index. Indexing a printed book was worthwhile because the results could be duplicated without error thousands of times. (Ong, pp. 86-87)

·  Editing and correcting were possible, and consistent from copy to copy. (Steinberg 24) Because printers were so concerned with how their works appeared, they spent more time with each manuscript, which encouraged more editing, correcting, collating. (Eisenstein 1979, p. 52)

·  If there were errors, errata could be published. This is no inconsequential matter if you are the printer who has

printed a Bible that is bound and ready and someone discovers that that 7th Commandment lacks "not." You can issue an errata to go with the printed Bible so that people know you really didn't mean to say "Thou shall commit adultery." (Eisenstein 1979, pp. 80-81)

·  Any innovation that made a book more likely to be purchased was adopted: subheads, running heads, footnotes, table of contents, cross references, title pages. (Eisenstein 1979, p. 52)

That is the functional side of printing. What of the intellectual?

Some scholars like to credit the Protestant Reformation with bringing about the vernacular, but Eisenstein credits printing, which needed a mass market to succeed.
Eisenstein 1979, pp. 353-54) Furthermore, by being willing to print in the vernacular, printers opened the door to authors who wrote in the vernacular. (Innis, p. 53) And, of course, new readers and new authors meant new interpretations of the Bible and other old works. (Innis, p. 54)

The perception and nature of knowledge were changed (Smith, p. 9) and the way records were kept was altered. (Eisenstein 1979, p. 24) As Eisenstein says: Food for thought was much more abundant. (Eisenstein 1979, p. 688) It was possible to provide feedback. (Eisenstein 1979, p. 111)

Printing helped in other ways. Before printing, the same unchanging, rigid ideas were passed on generation to generation-and corrupted in the copying to boot. With printing, new ideas could be duplicated without scribal corruption. (Eisenstein 1979, p. 686) Cicero, for example, complained that the Latin books for sale were inaccurate copies. (Diringer, p. 238) With printing, people were given the ability to conduct open-ended inquiry. (Eisenstein 1979,
p. 687) Printing also meant that a greater number of books could be duplicated, meaning books could enjoy wider distribution. Scholars no longer had to wander about to locate a rare book. (Eisenstein 1979, p. 72)

Without going into a great deal of detail, consider what printing did to help the Reformation. Protestant doctrine stressed Bible-reading as necessary for salvation, which undoubtedly increased literacy. Consider the refusal of the

Catholic church to permit a Bible to be printed in anything but the Latin Vulgate. It had to have the opposite effect; it had to discourage reading. (Eisenstein 1979, p. 333)


All of this suggests that the printing press caused changes in the way people thought. But as I said earlier, generally, technological change flows from intellectual demand or need rather than the other way around. Consider that the period we call the Renaissance began a century before Gutenberg invented the printing press. Social and intellectual change preceded the invention of the printing press. Change is reflected in the founding of the universities. "The secular development of learning profoundly affected the way in which books came to be written, copied and distributed." (Febvre/Martin, p. 15) As Pattison puts it: "European print literacy began well before Gutenberg." (Pattison, p. 89) Mumford cites the rise of the university-which he calls "a social invention of the first order"-for elevating the role of the pursuit of knowledge into an enduring structure. Says Mumford: "In the university, the functions of cultural storage, dissemination and interchange, and creative additional-perhaps the three most essential functions of the city-were adequately performed." (Mumford, p. 276)

We know, according to Febvre and Martin, that "a new reading public emerged in the late 13th century. . Lawyers, lay advisers at Court, state officials and, later on, rich merchants and town citizens-all needed books, not only in their own subjects like law, politics or science, but also works of literature, edifying moral treatises, romances and translations." (Febvre/Martin, p. 22)

This change reflected the evolution of the manuscript in western Europe from the Monastic Age to the Secular Age. (Febvre/Martin, p. 15) And as an aside, let me note that also helping this secularization of communication was relatively cheap paper (Innis, p. 127)--still another variable in the history of technology and thought.

Of course, the printing press helped ideas advance. But first it helped cement the intellectual advances to that date.
From printing, we got the standardization of language. Caxton, we are told, ignored all dialects except that of the Home Counties and London (Steinberg, p. 88) Spelling too

was standardized. (Steinberg, p. 89)

Early printing concentrated on reproducing works. In China, the prime minister became so worried about errors in the classics of Confucius that in the late 10th century he had the works printed-to authenticate and preserve, not disseminate. (Meggs, pp. 32-32) The same thing happened with Gutenberg's invention. One of his first publications was the Bible. He was sure he had an audience for a classic.
Eisenstein complains about the indiscriminate reproduction that went on and the amount of scientifically worthless material that gained wide circulation during the first century of print. (Eisenstein 1979, pp. 168, 509).

One of the first books William Caxton printed was The Canterbury Tales. Someone pointed out to him that his version didn't match the true version, so Caxton reprinted it with a statement that said, in essence, from now on future generations have the correct version to copy. (Winship, p.
158) The date is approximately 1490. Caxton's comment shows his appreciation for the permanence of print.

Eisenstein also argues, though, that fixity had its drawbacks. Once an edict was put into print, it could become irrevocable. (Eisenstein 1983, p. 82) Precedent became more significant, and the battle to establish precedents intensified. (Eisenstein 1983, p. 119)

In that regard, Gutenberg's invention did more to preserve than create. As Pattison points out, the major beneficiaries of print were the Latinists, "for the majority of books printed were classical texts and translations aimed at a learned audience." (Pattison, p. 99)

The printing press did more to advance ideas when it became a producer of materials for mass distribution. And that did not happen without technological advances.

The press Gutenberg invented was not improved upon for 350 years-until the early 19th century. (Steinberg, pp. 23,
198) Certainly, that makes Gutenberg's invention all the
more dramatic, but it also demonstrates that for something

so basic to be heralded as a cause of intellectual change misses the point of subsequent improvements. Printing equipment started improving around 1600. (Steinberg, p. 200):


Let me now go back in time to point out some of the elements of the scribal society. I am going to argue that many of the changes attributed to the printing press were merely technological improvements of the scribal society, not original with the printing press, as some suggest.

Writing, you may recall, did not fare well in some of the highly developed oral cultures. Plato, for example, complained that it served merely recall, not memory or wisdom. (Ong, p. 55) Several of the scholars cited at the outset suggest that one virtue of the printed word is that it can be re-examined-recalled, if you will-yet Plato centuries before associated recall with the written word. Recall really is a virtue of writing. Havelock, in fact, cites the creation of the alphabet as a major step in thought, because, with the alphabet, "a visible artifact was preservable without recourse to memory." (Havelock, p. 6)

Despite Plato's deprecating comments, writing came about for utilitarian reasons. scholars believe that the writing that evolved in Mesopotamia reflected the needs of a temple economy to keep records. The overlords had to know who had paid taxes, what seeds had been planted, food stored, how much food eaten. (Meggs, p. 6) And record-keeping was not something forgotten in the Dark Ages. Consider the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1065. A record of ownership, real estate values and assessments, and currents laws, the 600-page book contains 13,000 place names. Regardless of the age, people recognized a need and developed the technology to meet the need.

The printing press did not engender books. Books existed long before the printing press. Early books have been traced to Mesopotamia-baked clay tablets-and the Nile Valley-

papyrus. (Diringer. p. 51) Primitive books have been traced to 3000 B.C. Pliny says that the Egyptians also wrote on the leaves of palm trees, then on bark, sheets of lead for public documents and sheets of linen or wax for private documents. (Diringer, p. 42) Furthermore, evidence exists that Greek books were produced commercially in Rome. (Rawson,
p. 43) The spread of reading and writing created a market for books, a market that was ripe two hundred years before Gutenberg invented the printing press. (Pattison, p. 99)

With writing came libraries and a crude catalogue system. Books were catalogued according to Incipits-the first word or words of a book. (Steinberg, p. 105) This sounds similar to conducting a keyword search in a computerized database.

In another system, the tablets of a series were numbered and the number and "name" of the book appeared on each tablet. The Epic of Creation begins "In the beginning that which is above was not called the sky" and those words appear on each tablet followed by No. 1, 2 etc. (Diringer. pp. 64-66) These sounds to me like the running heads that Stillwell and others attribute to the printing press.

The Epic of Creation is only seven tablets long. But as we approach the Middle Ages, books get longer and more "expensive." A 200-page book required four or five months labor and 25 sheepskins for the parchment. In fact the sheepskins were worth more than the scribe's labor. (Meggs,
p. 71) In the early 1400s, the value of a book was equal to the value of a farm or vineyard. (Meggs, p. 72) No wonder Gutenberg invented the printing press; society needed a less expensive way to produce books.

Even before Gutenberg, cultures began to accumulate knowledge. Facts committed to paper allowed information to be transmitted from one generation to another. Thus, the first "textbook"-Treatise on the Astrolabe by Geoffrey Chaucer-was adapted from a book by an 8th century Arab. (Ong, p. 29)

Writing gave rise to libraries. (Charyk, p. 11) Most of the great scientists of antiquity had access to the libraries of their time. (Eisenstein 1979, p. 503) What printing did was

help libraries increase their holdings. Within twenty-five years of the invention of the printing press, Cambridge's library almost tripled its holdings. (Buhler, p. 19)

Recall the earlier comment by Febvre and Martin in which they gave all credit to the printing press for the pamphleteering that accompanied Luther's attack on Indulgences. Yet Rawson reports similar attempts to influence public opinion in Greece and Rome, where speeches and political pamphlets were reproduced and disseminated. (Rawson, p. 35) Centuries later, the assassination of St. Thomas a Bucket on December 19, 1170, was reported-in written form-within weeks in Bohemia, Palestine and Iceland. (Reif) Technology aside, modern mass communication theory suggests that ideas and predisposed audiences mix well whereas an audience that is not predisposed to an idea will not even examine it. (Klapper, passim)

Rawson also provides an example of writing as a preserver of the status quo. She says that in the second century Roman senators began to record the traditions of their past. They were concerned with protecting the legendary origins of the city by showing its links to the heroes of Hellenic legend. (Rawson, pp. 217-16)

And where some scholars credit printing with the standardization of the written word (Eisenstein 1979, p. 322), Ong says it began with writing. Writing saw the origin of grammarians. (Ong, p. 76) Rawson notes the demands of a Roman emperor for a simple prose style (Rawson, p. 319)-- again an attribute for which the printing press erroneously gets credit.


In this paper I have argued that many of the practical and intellectual feats attributed to the printing press were really products of the scribal society that preceded the Renaissance. I have also argued that the printing press was invented in a willing society and that far from causing change was really the product of a society in change.
Society's attitude toward language caused the technology; a society not interested in language would not have needed to invent the printing press. (Pattison, p. 89)

Finally, speculate for a moment where printing would be today without the First Amendment. Would it have advanced as far as it has?
Without the First Amendment, would printing presses still be as "crude" as Gutenberg's? Or did Gutenberg's invention trigger the First Amendment? Innis says: "The full impact of printing did not become possible until the adoption of the Bill of Rights in the United States with its guarantee of freedom of the press." The Bill of Rights sanctified the printed word and protected it from vested interests. (Innis,
p. 13B) Once again, the intellectual climate fostered technological development and growth, just as it had during the Renaissance.


Curt F. Buhler, The Fifteenth-Century Book. The Scribes * The Printers * The Decorators. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960.

Joseph Charyk, "Development of Information and Telecommunication Systems" in Telematics and lnformatics Volume 1, No. 1, 1984.

David Diringer, The Book Before Printing. Ancient, Medieval avid Oriental. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1953 (as The Hand-Produced Book).

Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. (Citations in this paper are from the 1980 paperback edition.)

Elizabeth L.. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983 (Abridged version of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.)

Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society. New York: Vintage Books, 1954.

Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coning of the Book. (Verso edition) Editions Albin Michel, 1950. (Translated by David Gerard)

Eric A. Havelock, The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1902.

Dard Hunter, Papermaking in Pioneer America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1952.

Harold A. Innis, The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951.

Joseph T. Klapper, The Effects of Mass Communication. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1960.

Philip B. Meggs, A History of Graphic Design. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983.

Lewis Mumford, The City in History, its Origins, its Transformations, and its Prospects. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1961.

Walter 3. Ong, Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology. Studies in the inter action of Expression and Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971.

Robert Pattison, On Literacy, The Politics of the Word from Homer to the Age of Rock. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Elizabeth Rawson, intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

Rita Reif, "A medieval manuscript" in The New York Times,
June 20, 1966, p. C26.

Anthony Smith, Goodbye Gutenberg. The Newspaper Revolution of the 1980s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

S.H. Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing. New York: Criterion Press, 1959.

Margaret Bingham Stillwell, The Beginning of the World of Books. 1450-1470. A Chronological Survey of the Texts Chosen for Printing during the First Twenty Years of the Printing Art. New York: The Bibliographical Society of America, 1972.

George Parker Winship, Printing in the Fifteenth Century.

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940.

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