Eisenstein, Elizabeth. (1983) The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe

Main Argument

Eisenstein studies the cultural impact of the transition from scribal culture to print culture and suggests that historians have not properly acknowledged the significance of this revolution.  The impact of the printing press on the flow of information allowed major intellectual revolutions (Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution) to take place.  Ideas and information could not have spread as rapidly with hand-copied manuscripts.

The printing press allowed better:

  • Access – more books, available more quickly.  People were able to learn by reading and educate themselves
  • Reliability – less errors introduced in the copying process
  • + more (detailed in chapter 3)


She was influenced by Marshall McLuhan who  got her thinking about the impact of communications technology on society

Chapter 1 – An Unacknowledged Revolution

The revolution may be unacknowledged because it is very difficult to find reliable historical sources from the pre-print era.  Plus scholars cannot properly investigate pre-print (oral) cultures because they have to rely on printed sources to do this – catch 22 (pg. 7).

Chapter 2 – Defining the Initial Shift

Improved quantity of information – In the early stages, owners of many printed books were often associated with divine or demonic powers – no human could possibly have access to that much information without divine intervention! (pg. 19)

Improved quality of information – Printers tried to copy manuscripts as accurately as possible and scribes returned the favour by hand-copying printed books as accurately as possible.

Some key cultural changes:

Printing press necessitated a new kind of shop structure where diversely skilled worked interacted together to produce books.   IN the past, it had mostly been highly educated monks or scribes all working together without outside interaction. (pg 23)

Beginnings of branding and advertising of printed goods.  Printers added their names and emblems to their books whereas scribes had been anonymous copiers only.  Printers prided themselves on their accuracy and quality of their books.   Began producing catalogues and broadsides adverting their printed goods (pg 29).

Transition from orality to literacy – no longer reliance on mneumonic devices, stained glass and cathedral decoration. (pg. 34)  Learning by reading instead of learning by hearing or doing.  However, to say there was a complete transition from image culture to word culture is a myth.  In fact, the printing press allowed even more images to be produced and reproduced – for example, development of new image-based children’s books and schoolbooks.  (pg. 35)

Chapter 3 – Some Features of Print Culture

1. Wide Dissemination

2. Standardization

3. Re-organization

4. Data Collection

5. Preservation/Fixity

Chapter 4 – The Expanding Republic of Letters

The rise of the reading public (literate commoners)

Although silent, personal reading expanded, orality didn’t die completely.  We still have public lectures, church sermons, plays, and poetry readings today.   While rural villagers may still have relied on orality, the information they gathered to hear shifted from storytelling, to public readings of  ballad sheets and cheap novels (low-brow, popular culture).

People became less social and read newspapers silently to themselves in public coffee houses instead of spreading news by word of mouth (pg. 93).  N.B. This reminds me of Cherie Turkle’s Alone Together – a critique of digital media’s affects on  social and family lives.  Reading the Sunday paper replaced the church sermon as the primary source of local news and announcements.  This lead to the use of the phrase “nothing sacred” to describe journalism! (pg 93)

People no longer separated by geography.  They have commonalities and shared opinions with others far away that they wouldn’t have known about before (NB. Anderson’s Imagined Communities).  Enhanced political consciousness (N.B. Habermas’ public sphere) Rulers printed portraits of themselves looking regal and disseminated around their kingdoms. (N.B. I saw this in Rwanda – every store/office/restaurant had a photo of the president). This marked the beginning of political propaganda wars.

New class of “men of letters”

Intellectuals became a new social class.  Print shops became meeting places and sources of news and information for the intelligentsia.  They were very familiar with printing technology and even printed their own works.  Rise of the “professional author” as a respected profession (Pg 103).

Chapter 5 – The Renaissance

Did the European rebirth coincide with the print revolution?  Did the print revolution cause the Renaissance?  Some would argue that the Renaissance had already started in Italy long before print was invented in Germany.  Eisenstein argues that the Renaissance is a period that encompasses over 300 years – it was not immediate.  The proper question to ask is” “how did the print revolution affect the cultural revival that was already underway in Italy?”  She suggests the the printing press allowed the cultural changes of the Renaissance to be permanent instead of just a passing phase.

Chapter 6 – The Reformation

Martin Luther’s 30 publications sold about 300,000 copies.  Previous attempts at religious reform did not have access to the printing press and were not successful.  Reformists used propaganda tactics such as cartoons and pamphlets written in the vernacular.  The Germans thought that God had given them the printing press so that the Reformation could happen. It was proof that God was on their side.

The Catholic church also made use of the printing press.  Liturgical texts were standardized and local variations eliminated.  Devotional books were printed in the vernacular.  Priests were given rule books for preaching and confession.

We can’t say for certain that the printing press caused the Reformation to happen.  There was discontent long before the printing press was invented.  However, the printing press did put a stop to the perpetuation of the status quo.  Even if Luther hadn’t existed, someone else was likely to question Catholic doctrine and use print to do it.

Chapter 7 – The Scientific Revolution

The Book of Nature

Primary sources show that traditional scholars valued the “book of nature” over book-learning.  (The “book of nature” refers to everything that can be learned simply by observing the natural world.)  Hand-drawn diagrams, charts and maps contained errors and so learning by first-hand observation was considered more accurate than relying on books.  But Eisenstein rejects this as a naive view of science.  She shows that Copernicus, Kelper, and Brahe thoroughly examined the ancient texts and used them to compare to their own observations.  They also befitted from having time to devote to observation and experimentation instead of slavish hand-copying of their own texts and diagrams.  Their printed texts were more widely disseminated and contemporaries could provide feedback and exchange information much more quickly.


Conclusion – Scripture and Nature Transformed

The transformation was not a smooth trajectory.  It can be characterized by clusters of activity, stops, starts and pauses, steps forward, and steps backwards.  However the overall effect is a giant leap forward.


One thought on “Eisenstein, Elizabeth. (1983) The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe

  1. Pingback: Task three: Essay in-lieu of examination | hannahgdixon

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