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Although printing techniques using movable type existed to duplicate writing as early as the eleventh century, Gutenberg’s invention of the letterpress in the mid-fifteenth century was the catalyst fostering the widespread dissemination of knowledge and information. In the digital age of cold press (electronic) printing, and with the proliferation of copy machines and computer printers, texts continue to be replicated at an astonishing rate.
Printing is a term with many meanings. It may refer to the stamping of coins or the placing of patterns on textiles. Learning to print may mean shaping letters without using cursive script. This article deals with printing as a process for duplicating writing, and focuses on the developments that ensued after the invention of letterpress printing by the German inventor Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1390–1468) in mid-fifteenth-century Western Europe.
Printing Techniques—East and West
In the context of world history, Gutenberg was a latecomer. The Chinese had been using woodblocks to duplicate writing at least since the seventh century. From the eleventh century on, they were printing some texts using movable types. (After being fixed to a metal plate, the types, made of wood or ceramic, were rubbed by hand on paper.) In thirteenth-century Korea, types made of bronze were developed; later on, a special alphabet was devised to facilitate their use. Despite occasional use of these alternative techniques, printing by means of woodblocks remained the dominant Asian form.
In the West, the replication of hand-drawn images by woodcut and metal engraving is called xylography. It was in use (for making playing cards, among other objects) before Gutenberg’s invention. Thereafter it served as a replacement for hand illumination and worked in tandem with letterpress printing (or typography). The latter entailed the use of a wooden handpress, oil-based ink, and types made of lead, tin, and antimony. After the mid-fifteenth century, typography, not xylography, was the dominant method for duplicating texts in the West.
Most distinctive about printing in the West was not so much the new method of duplicating texts but rather the rapidity with which it was adopted in diverse locales and the way the output of printed materials, once underway, was continuously augmented. As is often the case, learning the details about a new technique tells us little about the uses to which it will be put. No doubt the difference between the uneven development of printing in Asia and the continuous exploitation of printing in the West had something to do with the difference between ideographic and alphabetic systems of writing. But many other variables have to be considered.
In some non-Asian societies where alphabets were used, printers were forbidden to apply their craft to sacred texts. In the vast empire governed by the Ottoman Turks, prohibitions against printing not only the Qur’an, but any text in Arabic script remained in effect for hundreds of years (Robinson 1993, 229–251). In Eastern Christendom, religious printing was sanctioned and, indeed, sponsored by the church. Yet in contrast to Western developments, Russian printers started almost a century after Gutenberg and thereafter maintained a very sluggish pace (Marker 1985). Only within Western Europe was the wooden handpress so energetically exploited by so many freewheeling entrepreneurs that some forty thousand editions of books (not to mention edicts, flysheets, broadsides, and the like) had been issued in the first forty years.
The Proliferation of Printing Shops
According to the historian Denys Hay (1967, xxii), printing spread with phenomenal speed; “by the 1490s each of the major states had one important publishing centre and some had several.” To understand how this happened, the role of the few major states seems less significant than the role played by many minor ones. Most histories of printing follow the convention of organizing developments around the rise of the major nation-states. (This is notably the case with the multivolumed national book histories that have recently appeared and are still being issued.) National histories work well enough for nineteenth-century developments, but they distort the geography of the book when applied to the earlier more cosmopolitan age of the handpress. The major centers of book production down through the eighteenth century were not congruent with the major political capitals such as Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, Madrid, and London. They were, rather, great commercial centers such as Venice, Antwerp, and Amsterdam. This pattern persisted until the Napoleonic era. “From 1690 to 1790, the works of the most famous French writers were read throughout Europe in editions published outside France” (Febvre and Martin 1976, 196).
Indeed, nation building worked at cross purposes with the rapid expansion of early modern printing industries. The rise of a few large, well-consolidated, dynastic states was less helpful than the presence in late medieval Europe of numerous small political units: bishoprics, communes, free cities, and other assorted quasi-independent states. Right down through the eighteenth century, rulers of small principalities continued to invite printers to set up shop within their realms and thus provide revenues and publicity—that is, to fill town coffers and to satisfy civic pride. The numerous place-names that illustrate the spread of printing across fifteenth-century Europe indicate the eagerness of petty rulers and town councils to get their town’s name in print at least once. Many printing offices in small Italian city-states issued only one or two editions before dropping out of the picture. The clustering of printing houses in Venice is reminiscent of Silicon Valley—not least because many of these startups (like recent “dot-coms”), rapidly went bankrupt and closed down (Lowry 1979, 18). The absence of any powerful central authority, whether provided by emperor or pope (in contrast once again to China and Korea or to the Ottoman Empire or Muscovy), provided opportunities for printers, as it did for other merchants and early capitalists, to play one power against another while extending far-flung trade networks from the shelter provided by fortified walled towns.
As the mention of trade networks suggests, when setting the stage for the rapid spread of printing shops, economic developments have to be coupled with political ones. Late medieval particularism had to be combined with early modern capitalism in order to produce favorable conditions for rapid expansion. The late medieval merchants who were engaged in a wholesale cloth trade had developed extensive networks and sophisticated systems of financing. Textile manufacture was linked to rag-paper production. The output of new paper mills had preceded Gutenberg’s invention and had benefited the retail trade in manuscript books. After Gutenberg, book production became a wholesale enterprise. Increased output was spurred by competition among printers and booksellers who curried favor with officials in order to win the privilege of issuing primers, prayer books, edicts, and other works for which there was a steady demand. Problems posed by unregulated competition led to new laws governing copyright, patenting, and intellectual property.
Although the increased output of books was the most dramatic result of the new duplicating process, the profit margin of most early printers hinged largely on their success with “job printing”—that is, with production of non-book materials such as advertisements, almanacs, calendars, handbills, horoscopes, proclamations, and the like. Of special significance for the subsequent development of science was the increased output of visual aids such as maps, charts, tables, and graphs. Engraved copies of detailed pictures that were especially difficult to reproduce in quantity by hand aided studies in such fields as anatomy, botany, and zoology. Early printers often had instruments as well as books for sale and advertised both on title pages that contained the location of their shops. Although hand copying persisted and indeed thrived after the introduction of printing, it did so within a changed literary environment. Handwriting itself was taught with reference to printed manuals; copyists imitated the title pages, the punctuation, and the pagination of printed books.
Printing and Patrons
Among the cultural and intellectual factors that contributed to the rapid growth of Western printing industries, Italian humanism is often singled out. Book-hunting literati and their patrons played an important role in recovering and replicating many classical texts that had almost been lost. Thanks to the Greek refugees who worked in the Venetian printing shop of Aldus Manutius (1449–1515), what remained of the corpus of Greek drama was secured from further loss.
The most significant patron of the early printer, however, was the Roman Catholic Church, which had long commanded the largest supply of scribal labor. One of the very first printed products to be issued was an edition of “indulgences.” These printed forms, offering purchasers partial forgiveness for their sins, were issued to help raise money for the crusade against the Turks. The printing of anti-Turkish handbills and flysheets also kept job printers busy. The Church also welcomed printing because it offered help with standardizing liturgies and educating young priests. Its patronage is suggested by the location of the first presses in Italy: a monastery in Subiaco and the papal city of Rome. Prohibitions against printing the Qur’an had no counterpart in Western Christendom. Indeed, a future pope admired a copy of the Gutenberg Bible.
The drive to tap new markets encouraged popularization, translations from Latin into the vernaculars, and a general democratization of learning and letters. By the 1500s, these trends were posing new problems for churchmen and statesmen alike. The Roman Catholic Church was divided over whether or not to authorize vernacular translations of Bibles and prayer books. After the Lutheran revolt (1517) decisions were made at the Council of Trent (1546) to authorize only the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible. From then on, lay bible reading was encouraged in Protestant regions and discouraged in regions that remained loyal to Rome. Both Catholics and Protestants used print for proselytizing and propaganda, but only Protestants hailed printing as a providential invention that enabled them to break free of papal rule. Both Catholic and Protestant officials censored the output of printers. But whereas a single Index of Prohibited Books provided guidance to all Catholic officials and booksellers, Protestant censorship was decentralized, taking various forms in different citystates and princely realms.
In all regions, learning to read paved the way for learning by reading. Autodidacts were urged to master various arts by means of numerous “how-to” texts. Authors, artists, and craftsmen—in collaboration with printers and publishers—used self-portraits, title pages, and paratextual materials to advertise their products and themselves. Individual initiative was rewarded; the drive for fame went into high gear. But the preservative powers of print made it increasingly difficult for successive generations to win notice from posterity. An ever more strenuous effort was required to cope with “the burden of the past” (Bate 1970).
From Scarcity to Abundance
The centuries of hand copying had been characterized by an economy of scarcity. The large collections of texts gathered in the Alexandrian Library and in some later centers of learning were exceptional and relatively short-lived. The retrieval, copying and recopying of surviving texts took precedence over the production of new ones. The acquisition of literacy was confined to restricted groups of churchmen and lay professionals. Oral interchange predominated. (As noted below, this has led some authorities to contrast print not with handwriting but with speech.)
Printing introduced an economy of abundance. The hand-copied books that continued to be issued for several centuries simply added to a growing supply. The literary diets of Latin-reading professional groups were enriched by access to many more books than had been available before. More abundantly stocked bookshelves increased opportunities to compare previously authoritative classical texts with each other and with more recent work. Academic activities were reoriented from preserving ancient wisdom to registering new findings and venturing into uncharted fields. The expansive character of print culture grew more pronounced during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Multivolumed reference works required constant updating; bibliographies grew thicker and more specialized. Librarians, in particular, were increasingly at a loss as to how to classify and shelve an ever-growing number of books. Merely keeping track of all the new titles became burdensome to bibliographers. Concern about information overload was experienced by each generation in turn.
In the late seventeenth century, the pace of output had increased sufficiently that booksellers began to issue reviews of new works at regular intervals, thus inaugurating the learned periodical press. Even before then, keeping readers informed about financial transactions, sensational crimes, and important battles had become a profitable business conducted by publishers of corantos (broadsides), gazettes, and newsletters. Satires on journalism were familiar to London playgoers who attended Ben Jonson’s Staple of News (1623). As the title suggests, news was already regarded as yet another commodity to be bought and sold.
Communications: Print versus Voice
The constant increase in books and other reading matter represents the diachronic aspects of print culture. There were also synchronic aspects. Unlike hand-copied works, printed copies were issued not consecutively but simultaneously. The receipt of the same work by diverse readers within the same interval encouraged better coordination of diverse activities. The output of the handpress fell short of achieving the degree of standardization that marks modern editions. Yet early modern readers were able to argue, in both scholarly tomes and polemical pamphlets, about identical passages on identically numbered pages. The distribution of printed copies was relatively slow before the development of modern transport systems. Nevertheless, the age of the wooden handpress saw a marked improvement in the capacity of scattered observers to check the path of a comet against diverse predictions and to send in new findings and corrections to the editors of atlases and other reference works. Coordination took on political significance when opponents of a given regime were able to distribute pamphlets and mobilize protests in different parts of a given realm. “We made the thirteen clocks strike as one,” commented the U.S. revolutionary Benjamin Franklin.
With the output of pamphlets, journals, and newspapers, the conduct of political affairs became more difficult to contain within traditional structures. Merely by contributing letters to the editor, ordinary citizens were newly empowered to participate in public debates. Writers, who were offended by a miscarriage of justice, increasingly began to appeal over the heads of duly constituted authorities to a reading public at large. In 1775, Malesherbes (the director of the French book trade) observed, “in an enlightened century . . . each citizen can speak to the entire nation by way of print . . . men of letters are, in the midst of a dispersed public, what the orators of Greece and Rome had been in the midst of a people assembled” (Malesherbes 1989, 92).
The transmission of messages via print rather than voice points to a facet of print culture that provoked much debate. It centered on the contrast between reading and hearing. To the French Enlightenment philosophes, impressed by advances in the mathematical sciences, the use of print held the promise of introducing rationality into political affairs. Whereas speech was ephemeral, they argued, a printed account lent itself to rereading and careful consideration. By means of rhetorical devices, orators could persuade their audiences to perform ill-considered acts. Legislators were less likely to be “carried away” by a treatise than by a speaker and were more likely to think calmly and carefully before taking action.
The same “distancing” effect of print that the French philosophes viewed as beneficial, others found objectionable. The Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century entailed a reaction against the sort of abstract thinking that had characterized revolutionary efforts to redesign the complex social structures of France under the old regime (the period before the 1789 Revolution) in accordance with a single blueprint. Political romanticism took the form of lamenting the way “the age of chivalry” had succumbed to that of “economists and calculators” (Burke 1790). Oral traditions, supposedly uncontaminated by print, were valued for preserving the true spirit of a given “volk” or people. Readers were urged by Romantic poets such as Wordsworth to abandon book learning: “close up those barren leaves!” Objections to the purported distancing effects of print persisted among critics and media analysts in the twentieth century. “Through the habit of using print and paper,” wrote Lewis Mumford (1934, 136–137) “thought lost something of its flowing organic character and became abstract, categorical, stereotyped, content with purely verbal formulations and solutions.” Marshall McLuhan (1962, 36–37) took a similar position by in his depiction of “Typographic Man.”
Both the proponents and opponents of the ostensibly impersonal, abstract character of print tended to overlook its coexistence with a human presence and a human voice. One thinks immediately of parents reading to children. But any text that appears in print lends itself to being read aloud. During the early modern era, printed broadsides and news reports were especially likely to have been transmitted by word of mouth to listeners gathered around a few literate townsmen. Even now, public readings or lectures are delivered to hearing publics by the authors of printed bestsellers. (During recent decades, of course, print and voice have come together in the form of “audiobooks.”)
Print culture did not supersede oral culture but did have an effect upon it. Printed ballads decorated the walls of rural cottages. As was true of handwriting, the speech arts, far from languishing, flourished in a more regulated form. Instruction in elocution and in holding debates figured among the many “how-to” books that printers kept in stock. There were exceptional preachers (such as the Marian exiles or the Huguenot refugees) who, when deprived of their pulpits and sent into exile, turned to printing as their only recourse. But most preachers (like Savonarola and Luther) made full use of both pulpit and press.
Other considerations cast doubt on the “distancing effect” of print. Whatever the effects of printed cartoons and caricatures, they cannot be described as distancing. Similarly the figure of a distant ruler became less distant when printed (or photographed) portraits could be cut out of newspapers and enshrined in peasant huts (as was done in Czarist Russia.) Even with regard to “bare” texts, a skillful writer (whether distant or dead) could (and still can) move unknown readers “to tears” or incite them to take action. The presumably “impersonal” quality of newsprint, not the rabble-rousing on the soapbox, got credit for generating hysteria and war fever by American opponents of the Spanish–American War (1898) and British opponents of the Second Boer War (1899–1902).
Industrialization and Digitization
The basic features of Western print culture remained more or less the same after the industrialization of paper-making and printing processes in the early nineteenth century. Subsequent technological innovations, which led to the eventual replacement of “hot type” (set type) by cold (computerized offset printing) in the twentieth century only helped to increase output and to exacerbate concern about overload.
The most noteworthy nineteenth-century development was the increasingly important role played by the newspaper press. The two key dates are 1814, when the London Times was turned off an iron rotary press powered by steam, and 1836, when Emile Girardin inaugurated La Presse. (This paper doubled its circulation and halved its costs, compared to previous Paris newspapers, and gave the French term “La presse” its special journalistic significance.)
Especially after the advent of wire services that made use of the telegraph, the daily delivery of newspapers would restructure the way readers experienced the flow of time. According to the scholar Benedict Anderson (1999), the reception of the same news at more or less the same time every day gave rise to a sense of collective participation in an unfolding national narrative that had no counterpart in earlier times.
By the 1830s, the British newspaper press was already being described as a “fourth estate” of the realm and was being assigned great influence over the public mind. Such an idea appealed to press barons and editors. “Books have had their day. Theatres have had their day. Religion has had its day. Nothing prevents the newspaper from being made the greatest organ of social life,” announced the U.S. publisher James Gordon Bennett in 1835 (Mott 1940, 232–233). What pleased newspaper editors was a matter of concern to others who worried that the popularity of the newspaper came at the expense of less ephemeral reading matter. The British philosopher, economist and moral theorist, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was concerned that people were no longer taking their opinions from books. “Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves through the newspapers” (On Liberty, 1859, 66). After the century’s end, the historian Oswald Spengler would assert that “the newspaper had completely expelled the book from the mental life of the people.” As had Thomas Carlyle and Louis Blanc, Spengler believed that the age of the book had ended. It was “flanked on either hand by that of the sermon and that of the newspaper” (Spengler 1928, II, 461, 463).
In twentieth-century America, however, the age of the sermon was given a new lease on life thanks to the advent of the so-called electronic church. Electronic media, such as radio, film, and television, represented what the historian Walter Ong (1971, 285, 296) called a “secondary orality.” Despite expectations that the new media would drive out the old, the so-called paperback revolution of the 1950s and 1960s led to increased book sales. Moreover, filmed and televised versions of popular novels by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and others, far from outmoding printed copies, spurred the issue of new editions. So did celebrity recommendations on television.
With the advent of the digital era, the movement of texts onto screens has persuaded many observers that the end is finally at hand. Enthusiasts dismiss “deadtree editions” as hopelessly out of date, and booklovers write elegies to Gutenberg (Birkerts 1994). Oddly enough, in view of nineteenth-century predictions, the book seems to be less endangered by online publication than is the newspaper. The machinery and transport systems required to get daily newspapers into print and at the doorsteps of subscribers are costly and cumbersome compared to the swift and easy delivery of texts onto screens. But although online publication does pose a threat to many daily papers and is already reducing advertising revenues, it continues to facilitate the browsing and the purchasing of printed books.
The virtual bookstores that display titles on screens do so not to encourage further recourse to computers but rather to facilitate the sales of real books shelved in brick-and-mortar structures. Furthermore, thanks to the photocopiers that are placed in libraries and shops, and the printers that accompany most home computers, texts are being replicated at a rate that defies calculation. The output of the printed word in this new age of cold type and mixed media has at least one thing in common with the output of the wooden handpress. Not a scarcity of texts but an overabundance still seems to be a chief cause for concern.
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