The Power of the Press

The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-modern Europe

by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
Cambridge University Press, two volumes, 794 pp., $49.50 the set

This is a good and important book, and, in spite of its formidable length, the author’s clear and forceful style makes it a pleasure to read. Given the huge literature on the history of printing, especially in its early stages, it may seem surprising that there should be room for a large work on the effects of this invention. But, although Eisenstein has a few predecessors in the field, notably Lucien Febvre and H.J. Martin in L’Apparition du livre (1958), and, more embarrassingly, Marshall McLuhan, whom she fully acknowledges, this is in fact a strangely neglected subject.

Modern scholars often mention the momentous, far-reaching consequences of the shift from script to print, but they usually evade stating, even in the briefest outline, what these consequences were or how printing caused them. A good example of such evasive tactics is the astonishingly inane remark that Eisenstein quotes from Ernst Curtius: “The immense and revolutionary change which it [the invention of printing] brought about can be summarized in one sentence: Until that time every book was a manuscript.” Other scholars minimize the effects of printing by pointing out how similar early printed books are in appearance to fifteenth-century manuscripts, how conservative the printers of incunabula were in their choice of texts, and how small many of their editions were.

These generalizations are in themselves highly questionable owing to important counterinstances: for example, Ficino’s Latin translation of all the extant works of Plato was printed in 1484 in an edition of 1,025 copies at a cost about three times that of producing one manuscript copy. But in any case one would expect that such a technical innovation would take a few generations to produce its full effect. By the earlier sixteenth century the crucial importance of printing in the spread of Lutheranism is too obvious for any historian to deny. But that was neither the beginning nor the end of the story, a story which Eisenstein traces, from about 1450 to the eighteenth century, with great competence, carefully avoiding oversimplifications, criticizing attractive but shakily based theories, and pointing out the large gaps in our knowledge. The three interconnecting areas she investigates are: humanism, the Reformation, and early modern science.

An obvious criticism of this book is that it relies almost entirely on secondary sources. But this, I think, is inevitable with any work of synthesis having a wide scope; and such works are surely of value, not only to the general reader but also to the scholar who, working on original sources, while investigating in detail a narrow field, is always in danger of seeing no further than the hedges round his own domain.

Nevertheless, since she is concerned with the impact of early printed books, it would be reassuring if the author gave clearer evidence of direct acquaintance with them. That she does not do so is partly owing to her meticulous honesty; when quoting any primary source, she always cites the modern historian in whom she …

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