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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 found the passage, although she may well also have read the original author herself. But there is one disquieting little clue. In her discussion of Osiander’s preface to Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus the same misprint, Ad Lectorum, occurs four times on one page and once on the next. This is worrying, not only because it shows that neither the author nor anyone in the Cambridge University Press knows elementary Latin grammar, but also because up to the end of the seventeenth century a high proportion of serious books were written in Latin, and many of them contain prefaces addressed to the reader, Ad Lectorem. But perhaps I am reading too much into one repeated misprint.

Throughout her book the author intertwines two different levels of her subject: first, the more general consequences of the advent of printing, such as the preservation and standardization of texts, or the various effects at various times of the enormously increased diffusion of these texts on humanism, religion, and science; second, the particular role of printers and their workshops, especially in the first 150 years of the period, as cultural centers, as patrons of learning, and often as promoters of a tolerant, irenic attitude to the religious and political divisions of Europe. Rather than attempt a hopelessly compressed summary of the whole book, I want to pick out a few topics from each of these levels.

With regard to the second level, Eisenstein is particularly illuminating and discriminating on the part played by the great sixteenth-century scholar-printers, such as the Estiennes, Oporinus, Plantin, in the emergence of ideals of religious tolerance and international brotherhood. There can be no doubt that the houses of such printers served as regular meeting places and temporary residences for intellectuals of many creeds and nations. In the house of the great Bible-printer, Robert Estienne, were assembled scholars of so many different nationalities that even the servants had to learn a little Latin, the only international tongue. Most of the major heretics of the mid-sixteenth century lodged at some time with Oporinus at Basel, or were helped by him: Servetus, Lelio Sozzini, Ochino, Postel, Castellio, Schwenckfelt, David Joris.

The reasons why this was so form a complex strand of overlapping causes, and it is in such cases that Eisenstein is valuable in warning against hasty simplifications and generalizations. Like any businessman producing any commodity in large quantities, these successful printers needed an international market, and, in spite of confessional and political differences, even in time of war they had to maintain their commercial contacts. Printers publishing works of erudition, especially Bibles, which required knowledge of the three sacred languages, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, naturally welcomed expert scholars whatever their nationality or religious beliefs. The necessity of evading censorship, either in their own country, or in the countries to which they were exporting their books, or in both, encouraged habits of secrecy and a tendency to ignore the dictates of orthodox authority.

Thus, for reasons connected purely with the nature of their business, the great printing houses became nodal points in a semi-secret network of cultural communications that cut across political and religious boundaries. Now we happen to know, because of the remarkably complete survival of his correspondence, that perhaps the greatest of these printers, Christopher Plantin, was a member of a secret, heterodox, mystical sect, the Family of Love, whose members outwardly conformed to the religion prevailing where they lived. This they did systematically and on principle, since they believed that both theological doctrines and religious ceremonies were matters of indifference.

Many of the scholars associated with his work became members of the sect, especially those engaged, during the 1560s, on his polyglot Bible, which appeared under the aegis of Philip II. Because of such cases, as Eisenstein says, “one can never be sure whether one is extending the influence of a given secret society unwisely by confusing it with the normal operations of a large international book firm or, conversely, whether one is drastically underestimating the powerful levers of influence exerted by a seemingly small and obscure secret group.” Problems of the same kind crop up a little later with the Rosicrucians, and then the Freemasons, and their connections with printers. Eisenstein, on the one hand, rightly warns against the temptation to indulge in fantasies of a vast secret conspiracy involving all these sects and half the printers in Europe, and, on the other, emphasizes the need for further research into such connections, which undoubtedly existed.

On the first, more general level of the effects of printing, one of Eisenstein’s theses is that the shift from script to print was a major cause of the rise of modern science, first in the recovery of the great achievements of antiquity, preserved in such authors as Euclid, Archimedes, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen, and then in the rapid development beyond these that has continued ever since. This thesis seems to me at least probably true, and also true for another, closely allied, field in which the moderns have undoubtedly surpassed the ancients, technology. Printing, by arresting or reversing the tendency to corruption inevitable in scribal transmission, and by providing easily available, correct, standardized texts, made possible both the recovery of the ancients and, by assuring the preservation of each step forward and by rapidly diffusing new discoveries, the accumulative advance beyond them.

What of the third, equally extraordinary leap forward, modern polyphonic music? This subject is outside the scope of Eisenstein’s book; but it would be interesting to investigate how the development of polyphony, which certainly began well before the fifteenth century, was affected by printing in the sixteenth century, and then by the shift to engraving from the seventeenth century onward.

Another relevant question, also outside the range of this book, but which might confirm or go against Eisenstein’s thesis, concerns the effects of printing in China. One of the starting points of Joseph Needham’s great history, Science and Civilization in China, was the question he asked in a lecture given in 1946: “Why did not modern technology develop in China? Why did modern science not develop?” In the answer he then gave, namely that, among many contributory causes, the main factor inhibiting this development in China was the lack of a rich, powerful merchant class, Needham did not mention printing—understandably enough one might think, since the printing of books on a large scale in China began in the tenth century.

This would appear to provide a counterinstance to Eisenstein’s thesis. But these books were produced by printing from wood blocks, a long, laborious, and expensive process. Printing from movable type was invented in the eleventh century, but was little used, for the obvious reason that Chinese characters number thousands and therefore made the process neither quicker nor cheaper, whereas alphabets use only a few tens of different symbols. The alphabet, then, an invention of great antiquity, was a necessary condition for the kind of printing that could rapidly and cheaply produce hundreds of copies of many different texts. Perhaps further research would show that the answer to Needham’s question is: because the Chinese never invented or borrowed an alphabetical system of writing; and this answer would ultimately confirm Eisenstein’s thesis.

With regard to the effect of printing on magicians and alchemists I am more doubtful about Eisenstein’s presentation of the problems. She quotes, with approval, Sprat’s contemptuous remarks, in his History of the Royal Society, on alchemists and other occultists who are “ever printing their greatest mysteries,” and notes that the Paracelsians favor a “paradoxical” mixture of publicity with secrecy. The combination of secrecy with publicity seems less paradoxical, I think, if one remembers the great vogue in the Renaissance for esoteric writing, understandable only to a suitable audience of initiates, or of those worthy to become initiates.

The indiscriminate publicity produced by printed books would make still more necessary the use of deliberately obscure, veiled language by those who wished to communicate doctrines liable to be misunderstood or misused, or which were religiously unorthodox. It is the case that medieval writers on magic—the Picatrix, Arnaldus of Villanova, Peter of Abano—treat openly of demonic magic and advocate its use, whereas Renaissance authors, such as Ficino or Trithemius, conceal it under the most elaborate disguises. Also, printing made more urgent one of Leone Ebreo’s justifications of veiling the truth with fables: that profound ideas, if unveiled, by passing from one inept mind to another, become corrupted and degraded—still a very real danger today, as those of us know who have had to listen to a poor student summarizing a bad work of popularization.

In the course of establishing the important, but complex and indeed often conflicting effects of printing on modern culture, Eisenstein performs the useul function of demolishing some of the general theories now current that do not stand up to a careful examination of the available evidence. For example, the hypothesis, advanced by historians of such diverse quality as Lucien Febvre, Walter Ong, and Marshall McLuhan, that the advent of printing produced a shift from the ear to the eye, becomes very implausible if one thinks of the development of Western music from the sixteenth century onward, or of the enormous emphasis on preaching the word that was characteristic of all Protestant churches. Or again, Panofsky’s suggestion that “the capacity to see the past from a fixed distance is ‘quite comparable’ to the ‘distance between the eye and the object’ in central perspective renderings” is dismissed with the sentence: “In my view, the difference between a treatise on optics and one on chronology needs to be more carefully assessed.”

Another general theory about printing is that it produced a movement away from the image (picture, statue, or stained glass) and toward the printed word and the schematic diagram, such as Ramus was so fond of. This movement can then be connected with Protestant iconoclasm, which also smashed the mnemonic images, located in imaginary memory-buildings, so brilliantly investigated by Frances Yates, which were rendered unnecessary by the availability of printed reference works. But here again the counterinstances are far too strong: Dürer, Holbein, emblem books, Comenius’s pedagogic picture books, and so on. Moreover, during the Middle Ages treatises on mnemonics are few and far between, whereas they proliferated in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; and schematic diagrams are common throughout the medieval period.

It is, I think, this negative, critical side of the book that is its greatest strength. For Eisenstein lays no claim to provide any new historical facts, but merely puts what is already known in a new light. But she does give us a remarkably complete and highly critical survey of modern historical writing on humanism, the Reformation, and science up to the eighteenth century. Indeed, one might think that she is a bit too complete, since she bothers to refute some writers who are hardly worthy of the title of historian. But perhaps this is a fault on the right side, since such writers are often extremely influential, especially on the young.

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