The emergence of print and the printing revolution played a critical role in the development of global society and many individual cultures. It had several direct consequences, including the increased accessibility of books, improved information flow, and the commercialization of literature as a whole. However, there were also some indirect effects linked to the emergence of print, such as social responses and cultural shifts that affected the development of society in Europe and the rest of the world. This paper will examine the effects of printing on society and culture, as well as outline how it changed the interaction between the text and the reader.
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The Emergence of Print
The emergence of print dates to the mid-15th century, although there are several possible accounts of how the printing press was invented and by whom. According to Johns, the history of print began when Johann Gutenberg developed the press around 1455 with the help of Johann Fust.1 The two partners split up shortly after that, with Fust and his son-in-law continuing the dissemination of the invention, thus triggering the emergence of print in Germany, Europe, and the rest of the world.2
If this account is true, then the printing press first appeared in England in 1471, and the first printing office in the country was established in Westminster.3 However, there remain some questions about whether or not the printing press was invented by Gutenberg, and various printed documents are supporting other theories.
Despite the concerns about the origins of the printing press, the impact of this technology on the lives of contemporary people cannot be doubted. The invention of the printing press and the dissemination of this technology-enhanced the book trade, creating a large and diverse market for books in most parts of Europe. The increased availability of books meant that it cost less for publishers to produce copies, which increased competitiveness in the industry. Printers and booksellers sought to maximize their profits by purchasing the rights to print or sell books exclusively.4 By giving rise to literature as an industry, the emergence of print resulted in important social and cultural changes.
The main outcome was the improved availability of books due to the increased number of copies in circulation.5 As a result of this, the flow of information in society was enhanced, leading to advances in science, politics, and education. The emergency of print also led to an increase in literacy, as education became more accessible to people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Many authors contend that print was the key technology of the time, as it made an immense contribution to the development of culture and society during the early modern period.6 Nevertheless, as the following section will show, the social responses to the emergence of print were not always positive.
The initial social responses to the emergence of print were mixed. While most educated people appreciated the increased availability of knowledge, there were two main concerns with regards to the popularity of printed books. First, the emergence of print created opportunities for piracy and illicit use of the press.7 Those who had access to printing facilities and technologies could use famous authors’ names to produce and sell books that were not written by them.
The information in books that were published without approval could be false, which undermined the credibility of printed books as a whole. As noted by Johns, the reliance on printed books as evidence in legal cases was problematic due to this phenomenon.8 However, the suspicion towards printed materials extended beyond legal proceedings and reached the general public. This limited the possibility of using books for educational purposes, thus hindering the effects of printing on society and fostering negative perceptions of the technology.
The second concern was the public’s need for printed books. As the vast majority of Europe was illiterate at the time print became common, printed books did not become popular among the general public immediately. People who lived in villages and had poor access to education relied on communication for entertainment and information exchange, and thus the emergence of print had little to no effect on them at first.
Eisenstein confirms that rural villagers “belonged to an exclusively hearing public at least until the nineteenth century.”9 Hence the popularity of printed books among this population relied predominantly on the development of literacy, and their response to the emergence of print was indifferent.
Nonetheless, improved access to education facilitated an interest in printed books among the general public during the Enlightenment. It was at this time that the popularity of bookshops increased exponentially and many members of the general public developed the habit of reading.10 Books became a source of both knowledge and entertainment, resulting in the development of new literary genres and ideas. The Enlightenment period resulted in a change of attitudes towards printed texts, even though piracy and illicit use of printing were still relatively common.
The most prominent effect of the emergence of print was probably the cultural shifts that followed it. As Johns writes, it is a common notion in the scholarly community that “the Renaissance and Reformation were rendered permanent by the very permanence of their canonical texts, that nationalism developed thanks to the stabilization of laws and languages, and that science itself became possible on the basis of phenomena and theories reliably recorded.”11
The invention of the printing press resulted in three main cultural shifts. First, it promoted education and science by improving access to knowledge and generating new topics for discourse. Second, it contributed to political movements and enhanced politics by improving legal practices and enabling the dissemination of ideas. Finally, it also affected religion by promoting new ideas and increasing the distinction between religion and science.
Education and Science
The advancement of knowledge was perhaps the most apparent effect of the printing revolution in Europe. The revolutionary impact that printing had on education was mainly caused by the increased availability of books for education and entertainment. Before printing, books were only available to members of the elite, as the number of copies sold was limited to small numbers. The printing press enabled publishers to produce an indefinite amount of copies at a low price, thus improving the process of knowledge dissemination and making books available to all people.12
As more people gained access to education and scholarship, the number of new ideas and theories also increased exponentially, thus prompting a cumulative increase in knowledge.13 The continuous circulation and improvement of knowledge facilitated scientific development, aiding the overall development of culture and society.
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Another significant effect of printing on science and education was that it improved people’s access to the works of classical authors. As explained by Eisenstein, the dissemination of the printed works of Galileo, Aristotle, and other prominent scholars also facilitated the development of science.14 As opposed to scholars in medieval Europe, where science had significant ties to religion, theorists now had more freedom to express revolutionary ideas and document them in writing. The printing and distribution of their works increased the volume of scientific knowledge and enabled contemporary scholars to design and test new theories.
The impact of printing on politics was also profound and relatively well-documented. On the one hand, printing allowed for a cultural shift towards order and discipline by facilitating the development and dissemination of printed laws.15 The emergence of print reduced reliance on customs and traditions in legal and political activities, thus facilitating the cultural development of European societies.
On the other hand, printing also aided in the distribution of political ideas. For example, Condorcet’s Esquisse dramatically influenced the advancement of the French Revolution, as the views it expressed contributed to the revolution’s ideological foundations.16 The positive effect of printing on political movements was determined by three factors. First of all, printing made it possible to produce large numbers of books, and thus the ideas expressed by authors could now reach a significantly larger audience.
Moreover, printing facilities and technology were not controlled by the government, which allowed covert groups to publish and distribute their ideas among the general public. Finally, printed books containing revolutionary ideas could be easily hidden or disguised as works of the popular literature to avoid detection. These three features made printing particularly useful to emerging political notions and ideologies and thus also contributed to cultural shifts in Europe.
Printed books also played a significant role in the development of religion. The first effect of printing on religion was that it contributed to changes in religious practices and education. Eisenstein reports that instead of turning to preachers at times of need, people could use printed, pocket-sized religious manuals.17 Printed versions of the Bible appeared shortly after the introduction of printing, which meant that people could also purchase the Bible for home use and read it to family members or children who were illiterate. The publishing of religious manuals and the Bible aided the religious development of European society.
Furthermore, the emergence of print also supported the growth of new religious ideologies and movements. One example of this effect was observed during the Reformation when Protestants used printed texts to spread their ideology covertly.18 The influence of printing on the Reformation was somewhat similar to its effect on the French revolution. The writings of major Protestant ideologists were disseminated among the public in print, which raised awareness about this emerging branch of Christianity.
Similarly, Christian missionaries used printed texts to promote their religion among native peoples in newly discovered lands, including North America and Australia. In New Zealand, printed versions of the Bible were used to encourage religious education and conversion among Maori populations.19 Hence print played an essential part in the development of new religious ideologies, as well as in disseminating religious education.
Another interesting effect of printing on religion was that it increased the distinction between science and religion. As mentioned above, during the Middle Ages, the scientific efforts of European scholars were confined by religion. Findings or theories that did not fit into Catholic ideology were deemed false and could threaten the lives of scientists. However, as printing contributed to the advancement of knowledge, religion and science became recognized as two different notions.
For science, this meant the development of new ideas independent of religious norms and beliefs. However, this also contributed to the study of religion and the popularization of theology as a science. By granting access to printed texts from past times and foreign countries, printing assisted scholars in understanding the plurality of religions and their different ideological foundations. This in turn changed the nature of religion from blind belief to a set of concepts that had historical and social foundations.
The Interaction between Printed Text and the Reader
The social responses and cultural shifts brought about by the emergence of print affected not just society, but also the interaction between the text and the reader. As printed books were used for a variety of purposes, there was a wider choice of literature, which increased people’s interest in books as a whole. This had several important effects on the way books were perceived, used, and read.
The most significant influence of print in this area is that it created opportunities for comparing texts from different authors, times, and literary genres.20 Comparing literature made readers more conscious about the language and content of the book, as well as of their reactions to it. Instead of merely reading printed books, people could now make notes, analyze the text, and create their interpretations.21
The development of various ways of reading also promoted the notion of individualism. Interpretations composed by people relied more on their character, beliefs, and reading practices than on the contents of the book. Grafton and Sherman explain that “once readers finally engaged with words on pages, both the forms of attention they gave to texts and their ways of recording what they found in them diverged in every imaginable direction.”22 This enabled readers to develop preferences for particular authors or literary genres. Hence as a result of social and cultural shifts caused by print, the interaction between the text and the reader became more meaningful and personal.
It is also important to note that the use of books for political or religious purposes also contributed to the way certain works of literature were perceived. Cressy states that certain printed books were seen as material objects of importance that reflected a person’s political or religious beliefs.23 The Bible is one example of this idea; even today, it is widely used as a material object in courts, along with other major religious works. Using books as material objects of significance also supports the connection between the reader and the text. However, in this case, the connection depends on the external socio-cultural environment, such as religion, rather than on personal interpretations or preferences about literature.
Overall, the emergence of print resulted in substantial economic, sociocultural, political, and religious changes. As a result of print, people gained access to knowledge and ideas that previously were not available, which prompted new developments in science, religion, and culture. Political and religious movements also benefited from printing, as it provided them with an opportunity to disseminate ideas easily. After the popularization of print, many people developed the habit of reading. Instead of using literary works for entertainment only, readers could now compare and analyze books to develop personal interpretations and express personal preferences. This changed the interaction between the text and the reader, making it more meaningful and, in some cases, deeply personal.
Cressy, David. “Books as Totems in Seventeenth-Century England and New England.” Journal of Library History 21, no. 1 (1986): 92-106.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Grafton, Anthony, and William Sherman. “In the Margins of Josephus: Two Ways of Reading.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 23, no. 3 (2016): 213-238.
Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
McKenzie, Donald Francis. “The Sociology of a Text: Orality, Literacy and Print in Early New Zealand.” The Library 6, no. 4 (1984): 333-365.
- Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 329.
- Ibid., 250.
- Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 129.
- Johns, The Nature of the Book, 11.
- Ibid., 162.
- Ibid., 330.
- Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution, 103.
- Johns, The Nature of the Book, 406.
- Ibid., 11.
- Ibid., 374
- Ibid., 378.
- Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution, 142.
- Johns, The Nature of the Book, 321.
- Ibid., 373.
- Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution, 186.
- Ibid., 164.
- Donald Francis McKenzie, “The Sociology of a Text: Orality, Literacy and Print in Early New Zealand,” The Library 6, no. 4 (1984): 346.
- Johns, The Nature of the Book, 10.
- McKenzie, “The Sociology of a Text,” 334.
- Anthony Grafton and William Sherman, “In the Margins of Josephus: Two Ways of Reading.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 23, no. 3 (2016): 214.
- David Cressy, “Books as Totems in Seventeenth-Century England and New England.” Journal of Library History 21, no. 1 (1986): 98.