Review of The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe

The Printing Revolution in Early Modern EuropeThe Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein

Harry Truman once said “The only thing new in this world is the history you don’t know.” He was guided throughout his political career by the lessons of history, a subject in which he was very well read. And studying history shows us how much our current issues can be better understood by their antecedents. As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.” Why does any of this matter? Well, right now we are going through a revolution in media known as the Internet. This is a topic about which many learned books will be written, and some of them will even get parts of the story right. But I think we can get some idea of what is happening by looking at the last real revolution in media, which was the invention of the printing press. I’m not alone in thinking this, of course. Jeff Jarvis recently published a monograph (available as a Kindle single) called Gutenberg the Geek that I think got some parts of story right. But I wanted to dive a little more deeply, which is why I read this book.

Professor Eisenstein has made a life study of this topic, and this book presents much of that research. As a word of warning, it is written as a scholarly work, so expect to work at it a little if you decide to pick it up. But it is definitely rewarding. I read it to get a sense of what might happen in our future, so I am going to focus on that as an exercise in “lessons learned”.

The first thing I noticed is that “crowd sourcing” (e.g. Wikipedia) is not something brand new. The early printer/publishers were eager to solicit corrections and suggestions from the readers. The very first printed works were based on hand-copied manuscripts, and the process of hand-copying lead to inevitable corruption as every mistake made by a particular copier survived into all subsequent copies based on that manuscript, and of course even more mistakes got added by each subsequent copier. By the time of the printing press, in the 15th century, no two copies of any work were the same. But by printing mass quantities and distributing them widely, these variants could be compared, scholars could focus on the discrepancies, and mistakes could be fixed. And with printing allowing for mass duplication of identical copies, the process of textual drift got stopped in its tracks. The idea that with many eyeballs all bugs are shallow really begins in the 15th and 16th century with mass printing.

Another development from printing that we are still dealing with is the invention of “Intellectual Property”. In the days of hand copying this concept did not exist. Most of the works people cared about were from antiquity anyway, and copying them to preserve them was a sacred trust. But with the development of a mass market for books, more new works were being created, and financial compensation became an issue. By 1500 this was already underway, and what been a commons was subject to an “enclosure” movement. One of the ironies is that a pioneer printer who was part of this process, Louis Elsevier, gave his name to a modern publishing company that is now being attacked by scientists for locking up what they believe should be a common. (Note, the modern company is not the legal continuation of the house of Elsevier. But they took the name of their countryman in recognition of his fame in printing history).

The religious wars are intimately linked to the rise of printing. On the one hand, it is difficult to see the Protestant Reformation succeeding if printing had not been available, since previous “heretics” had been rather easily suppressed by the institutional power of the Catholic Church. But with the ability to spread their tracts all over Europe in mere weeks this revolution could not be stopped. But it is equally clear that the Reformation had much to do with the success of the Printing revolution. Protestant Princes sheltered and supported the printers who published many notable scientific works. Interestingly, they did so not because of any commitment to free speech or freedom of thought, but primarily to antagonize the Catholic Church. In fact, the well known Index Liborum Prohibitorum (i.e. Index of Prohibited Books) compiled by the Catholic Church became the favorite source for printers in Protestant countries who were looking for works to print. Indeed, by specifying exactly which lines on which pages it found objectionable, the Catholic Church provided an invaluable guide to the printers as to exactly which passages to highlight and mass duplicate! I find it interesting that at the present time the situation has nearly reversed, with the fundamentalist Protestants opposing science and the Catholic Church mostly accepting science. But the lesson I draw form this history is two-fold: First, as during the Reformation, you cannot stop ideas from spreading. With the Internet, instead of traveling in weeks, an idea can travel at the speed of light. And the more you try to prohibit something, the more attractive it becomes.

The final idea I want to highlight is the this revolution did not take place primarily in the large nations, but in the small principalities. It was the smaller areas that lead the way, and I think you can see why when you consider how revolutionary printing was. Large nations by their nature resist revolutions because they have nothing to gain from them and much to lose. The printing revolution succeeded in large part because no one was in a position to stop it. And that is significant when you look at the desperate attempts of nations (and even the U.N.) to take control of the Internet. Whether they can do it at this point is a question for another day, but I think it is clear that they should be resisted as much as possible.

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