Eisenstein 1983

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Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

"If there was a 'run-away' tecnology which was leading to a sense of cultural crisis among historians, perhaps it had more to do with an increased rate of publication than with new audiovisual media? While mulling over this question and wondering whether it was wise to turn out more monographs or instruct graduate students to do the sme -- given the indigestible abundance now confronting us and the diffuclty of assimilating what we have -- I ran across a copy of Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy. ... It provided additional evidence of how overload could lead to incoherence. At the same time it also stimulated my curiosity ... about the specific historical consequences of the c15 communications shift." (x)
  • interesting question to begin text with!

implores reader to "keep in mind the tentative, provisional character" of the book," and points out it addresses shift from one kind of literate culture to another, not from orality to literacy (xii)

"As the title of my large version indicates,I regard printing as an agent, not the agent, let alone the only agent, of change in Western Europe." (xiii)

An Unacknowledged Revolution

difficulty of understanding a medium so embedded in our scholarly practices

"In order to assess changes ushered in by printing, for example, we need to survey the conditions that prevailed before its advent. Yet the conditions of scribal culture can only be observed through a veil of print." (6)

Johannes Trithemius, De laude scriptorum (1492)

  • explains why monks should not stop copying because of invention of printing
  • argues writing on parchment will have longer life than printing on paper
  • "his argument show his concern about preserving a form of manual labor which seemed especially suitable for monks." (11)

Defining the Initial Shift

from script to print, "an evolutionary model of change is applied to a situation that seems to call for a revolutionary one" (13)

Vespasiano quote about printed books being "ashamed" in the company of beautiful illuminated manuscripts "ballooned into many misleading comments about the disdain of Renaissance humanists for vulgar machine-made objects" -- in fact, atypical comment by snobby Florentine book dealer (18)

early books printed from manuscript, & looked like manuscripts; but c15 manuscripts also copied from early printed books; "thus handwork and presswork continued to appear almost indistinguishable, even after the printer had begun to depart from scribal conventions and to exploit some of the new features inherent in his art" (20)

"The absence of any apparent change in product was combined with a complete change in methods of production, giving rise to the paradoxical combination of seeming continuity with radical change." (20)

scribe: "concern with surface appearance" of manuscript (20); printer: marked up manuscript for collation, etc., in a way "which encouraged more editing, correcting, and collating" (20)

"The fact that identical images, maps, and diagrams could be viewed simultaneously by scattered readers constituted a kind of communications revolution in itself." (21)

new "fruitful forms of collaboration" fostered by printing -- engravers with scientists, printers with university professors (26)

scribal colophons come last; printers put their names first (29)

Protestantism linked with reading; but relationship between image/word in print is complex:

  • "engraved images became more, rather than less, abundant after the establishment of print shops" (35)
  • mnemonic functions of memory theatres transformed into emblem books
  • architecture, geometry, geography, sciences: printing "actually increased the functions performed by images while reducing those performed by words" (37)

also suggests caustion "about assuming that the spoken word was gradually silenced as printed words multipled" (40) -- printed music suggests otherwise

Some Features of Print Culture

availability of more texts "encouraged the development of new intellectual combinations and permutations" (Arthur Koestler, combinatory intellectual activity inspires creative acts) (43)

"Given the use of new media, such as woodcuts and metal engravings, to depict medieval cosmologies, we cannot think simply of mere survival but must consider a more complex process whereby long-lived schemes were presented in new visual forms." (50)
"the competitive commercial character of the printed book trade when coupled with typographical standardization made more systematic cataloguing and indexing seem not only feasible but highly desirable as well" (65)

Robert Estienne, Paris book catalogues issued between 1532-7 -- organizing, arranging information

similarities between desire for organization in medieval scribal culture and early printing (see C.S. Lewis quote on 68) -- but difference in dissemination

indexing; using scraps of paper arranged in alphabetical order to index (68-9)

"Classical criteria of unity, internal consistency, and harmony were extended beyond orations, poems, and paintings to encompass the rearrangement of large compilations and of entire fields of study which were not within the early humanist domain." (70)

Corpus Juris -- hard to cut through thicket of commentaries to reconstruct corpus in its ancient form (71); scholars quite literally barred from seeing the "relic"

  • Eisenstein is describing print as enabling the removal of textual accretions ("stripped of the encrustation of glosses, the ancient compilation was rendered ever more stylistically coherent and internally consistent by the same token, it came to seem less and less relevant to contemporary jurisprudence. Very much as was the case with Ciceronian Latin, when complete restoration had been successfully applied to the letter of the ancient code, its living spirit vanished for good.") -- but now we see print as doing the same thing (hard to argue dialectically in print because of accretion of footnotes/glosses) -- historical relations, past-present situatedness
"After printing, large-scale data collection did become subject to new forms of feedback which had not been possible in the age of scribes." (75)
"Bibliography no less than zoology became collaborative and subject to incremental change. Indeed, the so-called father of the two disciplines was the same man." (77)
"How much credit shoudl be assigned to map publishers and printers for the naming of the New World itself? The way names were fixed to human organs and to the craters of the moon is also indicative of the way individual immortality could be achieved by means of print." (83)
"scribal systems, elaborated in print, ultimately petrified and are only now being reassembled, like fossil remains, by modern research." (87)
"once imitation was detached from inspiration, copying from composing, the classical revival became increasingly arid and academic. The search for primary sources which had once meant drinking from pure well-springs came to be associated with dry-as-dust pedantry." (88)

"archetypes were converted into stereotypes" (88)

The Expanding Republic of Letters

"Alone with his quill pen, altogether remote from workshops and foundries, equally remote from the fickle readers upon whom his fame and fortune hinged, the professional author did not simply mirror the alienation of others from an industrial or urbanized society. he was himself an alienated man who worked hard to promote leisure, fought for a commercial success that he despised, set wives against husbands, fathers against sons, and celebrated youth even in his old age." (104)
"although I believe that scribal culture did come to an end, I am not persuaded that one can say the same about print culture. the effects of printing seem to have been exerted always unevenly, yet always continuously and cumulatively from the late fifteenth century on. I can find no point at which they ceased to be exerted or even began to diminish. I find much to suggest that they have persisted, with ever-augmented force, right down to the present." (106)

The Permanent Renaissance: Mutation of a Classical Revival

question of periodization: what is the "Renaissance"? how did "Renaissance" humanists experience history (closeness or distance of antiquity)? (arguing with Panofsky)

Panofsky: Renaissance heritage shown in the way Roman/italic scripts have survived/defeated barbaric "Gothic" scripts; however, Eisenstein points out, "the Renaissance type form left a permanent imprint not because it drew on one style of lettering rather than another but because it was impressed by type and not by a human hand" (121)

"for Orelius, as for Herotodus, geography was the "eye of history." Printing altered what could be seen by this metaphorical eye." (127)

question of the history of subjectivity; challenging Burckhardt's work (128-9)

changes to author's portrait brought on by print (130-1), rise of distinctive author; "almost no trace of personality" left in handwritten manuscript; "paradoxically, we must wait for impersonal type to replace handwriting and a standardized colophon to replace the indivudal signature, before singular experiences can be preserved for posterity and distinctive personality can be permanently separated from the group or collective type" (134)

theaters of machines: promoting bridges, buildings, large public works through print (134-6)

importance of master printer: "His products introduced new interactions between theory and practice, abstract brainwork and sensory experience, systematic logic and careful observation." (137)

two disparate developments between c14-16: 1) Renaissance / cultural movement initiated by Italian literati in the age of scribes that expanded in the age of print; 2) changes ushered in by print

we see antiquity as distant from us; Italian humanists saw it as on the verge of being "reborn"; contradiction leads to the paradox of a "permanent renaissance" (143-4)

"By prolonging a process of retrieval while draining it of its inspirational significance, the preservative powers of print seem to have had a negative and largely deadening effect." (144)

Western Christendom Disrupted: Resetting the Stage for the Reformation

early German Protestants believe printing was sent to them by God to aid them in their mission (good quotes) (147)

"The advent of printing was an important precondition of the Protestant Reformation taken as a whole; for without it one could not implement a 'priesthood of all believers.' at the same time, however, the new medium also acted as a precipitant. It provided 'the stroke of magic' by which an obscure theologian in Wittenberg managed to shake Saint Peter's throne." (151)
"When implemented by print, divisions once traced were etched ever more deeply and could not be easily erased." (152)
"Vernacular bible translation, while it owed much to trilingual studies, had precisely the opposite effect. It led to the typical Protestant amalgam of biblical fundamentalism and insular patriotism." (161)

similar "Englishing" of the law (161-2)

"Within Protestant Europe, then, the impact of printing points in two quite opposite directions -- toward tolerant 'Erasmian' trends and ultimately higher criticism and midernism, and toward more rigid dogmatism, culminating in literal fundamentalism and Bible Belts." (166)

Index Librorum Prohibitorum "boomeranged in ways that could not be foreseen"; gave authors free publicity; lists of passages directed Protestants right to arguments against the Church (170); "decisions made by Catholic censors thus inadvertently deflected Protestant publication policies in the direction of foreign heterodox, libertine, and innovative trends" (173)

Plantin, "Family of Love" (175-6)

polyglot Bibles, changing social relations in printer's/scholar's circles (179ff); "families", Concordia Mundi

"To look over the connections revealed in this correspondence is to see laid bare the central nervous system or chief switchboard of the Republic of Letters in its formative phase." (182)

The Book of Nature Transformed: Printing and the Rise of Modern Science

medieval use of Book of Nature metaphor: monastic discipline, ascetic advantages of hard work in the fields (187)

tendency to think of empiricists as turning away from books to read the Book of Nature -- but not true according to Eisenstein

"it would be wrong to assume that a rejection fo technical literature paved the way for the rise of modern science. It was not the burning of books but the printing of them that provided the indispensable step." (194)
"insistence on going directly to the "book of nature" soon took on the very attributes it was intended to repel. It became a ritualistic literary formula, devoid of real meaning." (194)

tension within Royal Society publications -- turning away from books vs. using books to spread message (195)

maps -- "Before the outlines of a comprehensive and uniform world picture could emerge, incongruous images had to be duplicated in sufficient quantities to be brought into contact, compared, and contrasted." (202)

  • novelty of Ortelius's Theatrum -- "collaborative ventur[e] in large-scale data collection" (202)
"The large library, George Sarton observed, is just as much a scientific instrument as is the telescope or cyclotron. Laboratory facilities were lacking to sixteenth-century observers. Star gazers still had to rely only on their 'naked' eyes. But the flower of information had been reoriented, and this had an effect on natural philosophy that should not go ignored." (202)

Copernicus and Tycho Brahe

"Much as was the case with mundane events when they were woven into tapestries or noted in monkish chronicles, diverse separate events merged into a single mythical category; conventional images and standard formulas smudged carefully observed detail. Jerusalem stayed at the center of the world, comets stayed below the lunar sphere, and neither could be permanently dislodged from their appointed places until scribal transmission had come to an end." (210)


Royal Societ;, Oldenburg and Malpighi -- Malpighi could print in England what he was unable to print in Italy (241-2)


"Attention focused on a communications shift encourages us to relate mind to society and at the same time avoid forcing connections between economic class and intellectual superstructure in order to fit a prefabricated scheme." (261)

"A new confidence in the accuracy of mathematical constructions, figures, and numbers was predicated on a method of duplication that transcended older limits imposed by time and space and that presented identical data in identical form to men who were otherwise divided by cultural and geographical frontiers." (269)

glossing bibles; reformers wanted to return to "purity" of scriptures uncorrupted by scribes' scribbles; but actually ended up muddying waters with print debates (270) -- God's "two books"

"in my view, the changes wrought by printing provide the most plausible point of departure for explaining how confidence shifted from divine revelation to mathematical reasoning and man-made maps." (271)

differences between how printing affected religion and science shows complexity of communications shift, "futility of trying to encapsulate its consequences in any one formula" (271)