45 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 1998
Occasionally, a book has initial, unseen qualities that must wait many years before society reaches a point where it can fully appreciate it. Dr. Eisenstein's wonderful work is actually an abridged version for the lay historian of her much longer, more scholarly and definitive two-volume work on how the printing press changed civilization.
Our transition from an industrial to a knowledge-based civilization will probably create the most extensive and radical transformation of our civilization since the printing press. Knowledge of how the printing press changed European civilization may help us understand the changes resulting from the Internet today.
As Dr. Eisenstein explains, the Protestant Reformation would almost certainly never have occurred without the printing press. Will there be an equivalent movement today? Dr. Eisenstien highlights how the printing press defined the linguistic and cultural borders of present-day Europe, encouraged the use and teaching of the vernacular, and eliminated Latin as the international tongue of the educated classes. I wonder, will the WWW again reconstitute our current Babel of languages into a single language, English, as it once atomized the common language of Latin among literate people?
Eisenstein illustrates the printing press' role as the chief cause of the elevation of the individual over the social unit during the Enlightenment. For the first time, individual authorship could exist in a way that was impossible in the age of scribes. It brought the kind of immediate personal fame and recognition that was inconceivable in the Dark Ages. Galileo's Siderius nuncius, for example, made him an overnight sensation. Will we see further radicalization of the individual relative to society, now that the WWW has made it possible to pursue "publication" even more narrowly, without the need for a broad and popular readership? For a preview of how this is already occurring, visit GeoCities on the WWW.
According to Eisenstein, the loss of knowledge in the age of scribes was a constant and inevitable consequence of limited numbers of laboriously hand-made copies. Whenever truly new knowledge was gained, it had no mechanism for dispersal. The previous invention of clocks and the knowledge of how to make them had been lost to the Chinese when Europeans discovered them, because the absence of printing in China limited the knowledge base. Their calendars were off, and they had to be taught all over again by the Europeans how to correct them. The WWW is a far more effective means for the dispersal of knowledge today even than printing. Will it create similar opportunities in novel thinking?
Eisenstein points out that the perishability of written documents, even on sheepskin, meant that few scholars were granted access to them, and documents were kept locked away for fear of theft or just simple wear. They were unavailable to the public, which couldn't read anyway, and even to most scholars. She explains how the very concept of the term `discovery' has changed, by describing how the search for knowledge in the scribal culture of the Middle Ages actually meant trying to recover the works of the Ancients, not the discovery of new things.
Eisenstein explains how, with the advent of the printing press, it suddenly became possible to preserve knowledge simply by printing such large numbers of books that humanity need never again fear such a tragic loss as occurred with the dispersal of the works gathered together at the great Egyptian library at Alexandria. The cost of books fell off a cliff, making knowledge available to nearly everyone. As she quotes in her book:
"In 1483, the Ripoli Press charged three florins per quinterno for setting up and printing Ficino's translation of Plato's Dialogues. A scribe might have charged one florin per quinterno for duplicating the same work. The Ripoli Press produced 1,025 copies; the scribe would have turned out one."
By comparison to what books cost in the Age of Scribes, they became virtually free. Will a similar revolution occur when the cost of telecommunications falls off a cliff?
Eisenstein feels that the use of the small numbers of works available to teachers in the universities of Medieval Europe, and even early modern Europe, greatly retarded the progress of learning. As she states, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler "... had an opportunity to survey a wider range of records and to use more reference guides than any astronomer before...". The sheer number of works to which the young Tycho Brahe had access surpassed the best libraries of medieval and ancient times. They allowed him to leave school, educate himself, compare alternative explanations unavailable to his teachers, and form new theories, without the stifling restrictions of centuries of traditional university thinking.
It is not a stretch for us to imagine a new world in which the WWW will create similar changes in the way people learn. It will make possible widespread, cheap, unlimited knowledge and teaching, at a fraction of the cost of traditional universities. Why limit the number of students, meeting times and places for courses on the WWW the way physical locations do? Why should some courses even have an end? It will make it possible for individuals to pursue individual study at any age, and without restriction as to time or place. Will this cause the kinds of intellectual breakthroughs today that the printing press made possible in the enlightenment? As Dr. Eisenstein says, "Combinatory intellectual activity, as Arthur Koestler has suggested, inspires many creative acts." If the WWW isn't combinatory with a vengeance, nothing is.
Eisenstein devotes considerable space to how the advent of the printing press produced dramatic changes in language, social behavior, government power and the movement of intellectual and financial capital. She explains how the existence of the Index (a list by Catholic scholars and the Vatican of prohibited publications), and extensive restrictions in Catholic countries on what printers could publish, caused a massive flight of intellectual and financial capital to the Protestant countries, where there were fewer restrictions on printing, a situation that explains the relative technological inferiority of Southern European countries to this day. According to Dr. Eisenstein:
"The influx of religious refugees into Calvin's Geneva in the 1550s `radically' altered the professional structure of the city. The number of printers and booksellers jumped from somewhere between three and six to some three hundred or more. ...Geneva gained in the 1550s at French expense"
Will we see a similar flight of capital today from countries like France and China that restrict their citizens' use of the WWW? Will widespread government restriction of encryption technology cripple their countries' technological superiority? Who will benefit, and who will suffer?
Eisenstien shows the many ways in which the printing press caused dramatic changes in the ways people associated, fracturing society in multiple new directions. Does this presage the extensive new divisions within our culture today? Will it make political parties as presently constituted irrelevant? Will it drive a wedge between different cultures?
This book was written in 1983, long before the explosion of the WWW., so Dr. Eisenstein did not consciously pursue parallels with our current information revolution. However, this makes the incredible similarity of the social and technological changes she notes even more remarkable, since they were not consciously drawn
Robert Loest, Ph.D.
39 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on September 28, 1998
Professor Eisenstein has answered a question I have been asking myself for thirty years. I knew that "modern" Europe consisted of institutions based upon the "individual" -- protestantism, capitalism, universal education and modern science -- and that these first arose in Europe about 500 years ago. But I could not answer why then? And why Europe? I suspected that it had to do with the rise of stranger experience but could not locate a convincing historical cause for it. Print literacy first occured to me as the cause when I read Walter Ong's book, "Orality and Literacy," which also happily cited Prof. Eisenstein's work. Her book convincingly implicates the print revolution with the rise of the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and Modern Science.Her thesis made it easy for me to see how the other three institutions could be included as well and to see the role of print in spreading "individuation" and assumptions associated with it, such as the idea of progress. It is remarkable that historians have apparently ignored for so long the role of print literacy in creating modernity. Scholars, including myself, sometimes seem to find the obvious the most inscrutable. Anyway, my personal and heartfelt thanks go to Professor Eisenstein for answering my nagging question.
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 1999
This book is fine, but it doesn't really capture the full power of the unabridged version: "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change" (2 vols in 1; Cambridge Univ. Press -- possibly currently out of print). The unabridged version (which is still much too short!) is one of the great books of the 20th century. I just didn't see the abridged versino as really "bringing home" the significance of Eisenstein's theses about the effects of print technology on Western civilization.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on July 31, 2003
This is an excellent book to read if you are interested in the history of printing. Eisenstein's thesis is that the advent of the printing press is the most logical point at which the medieval period of European history ends and the Renaissance begins. She shows how many so-called innovations in science, religion, and politics were directly related to the ready availability of books-not necessarily to increased brilliance on the part of mankind.
Eisenstein disagrees with scholars who point to the lag between the press and the beginning of the Renaissance as proof that the press did not make an appreciable difference. Books, Eisenstein says, had to accumulate in order to make their presence felt. The lag was due to a sort of scholarly catch-up. First the printers rushed to issue the volumes that many people wanted but had been unable to afford previously. Once those were printed, disparities could become apparent. Scribes freed from the tedious process of copying books had the leisure to notice errors and disagreements among authors which had not been apparent when books were scattered and rare. This process caused a deceptive lag between the advent of the press and real improvements in cartography and science.
The last two chapters of the book were the most interesting to me. Among other things, Eisenstein talks about the way early Protestant printers beefed out their catalogues by referring to the Catholic Index (the list of books forbidden by the Pope). Once Europe became split into Catholic and Protestant nations, the Index had the unexpected effect of boosting sales for books listed on the Index, making some protestant printers their fortunes. Not only were Protestants eager to read whatever the Pope had banned (and Catholic priests obligingly cited chapter and line of objectionable material, with the result that the protestant scholars were able to cut right to the chase), but many early scientific books on the Index were much sought after in Catholic countries, and with their printers under heavy pressure to forbear, Protestant printers just over the border made a fortune in black-market books.
Eisenstein's style is somewhat pedantic (which was to be expected; this is a thesis, after all). However, I give the book 4 stars instead of 5 because quotes are frequently uncited-a nearly unforgivable sin in a research book. We are frequently given rather large blocks of quoted text with absolutely no way of connecting this material to any given authors in the bibliography. The fact that the book is an abridgement is no excuse.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2008
Eisenstein, in the absence of literature on the consequences of the fifteenth-century shift from script to print, sees her work as a preliminary effort. She presents the advent of print, which triggered a communication revolution, in two parts. The first discusses the main features of the communication revolution and the second relates to developments that occurred during the transition between medieval literate culture and that of early modern times. This second point is very important and Eisenstein emphatically states: "I regard printing as an agent, not the agent, let alone the only agent, of change."(xiii)
Part I.: Eisenstein identifies and discusses some of the features of the print culture. These are: a changing pattern of cultural diffusion, standardization, reorganized texts and reference guides, correcting errors and data, preservation of knowledge, and how print cultures helped perpetuate "stereotypes and sociolinguistic divisions." Another feature, discussed at length, is the pervasiveness of silent scanning. In this way the reading public became more individualistic and nationalistic. The author suggests "the disjuncture between the new mode of production and the older modes of consumption is only one of many complications that need further study."(92)
Part II: Eisenstein selects three particular developments, each interacting with print, "which seem strategic in the shaping of the modern mind."(106). These are the Renaissance, the Reformation, and print's effect on science.
The problem with defining the Renaissance as a period marking the advent of modernity, according to Eisenstein, is whether "the period contains a major historical transformation and hence should be set apart."(111) In her opinion the advent of printing is something specific that can be discussed objectively rather than using the more subjective meanings of "medieval" and "modern." She proposes redefining the term Renaissance as a two phased movement to include the cultural changes brought on by print.
With print technology, Church leaders lost their monopoly on reading and interpreting the Bible. The Bible could be read privately and interpreted more fundamentally when printed in the vernacular and more widely distributed. Martin Luther's words were spread farther and carried greater weight with printing. The Catholic Church responded by resorting to censorship.
The scientific revolution is less revolutionary when studied contemporaneously according to Eisenstein, then retrospectively. That way we see the effect of Copernican and other ideas on science going forward. Print helped to disseminate and perpetuate scientific ideas for later consumption.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2005
Little was understood about the relationship of printing to the social movements of the Early Modern period before Elizabeth Eisenstein seized on the opportunity to give an in depth treatment to the history of printing in Europe in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. In addressing a void in the field of communications history, Eisenstein has provided new clues and new answers for old questions. At the same time, the very method of taking printing as a principal historical force creates some tensions in the historical account. The conception of printing as a revolution gives to communications and history some useful observations while also producing some particular problems.
This book is an abridged version of Eisenstein's 1979 The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. While that was a two volume work, the material has been condensed in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe into two sections each paralleling a volume of the full-scale work. The sense that the later book, first published in 1983, is for a more general audience is most evident in the lack of citations and references. One is directed to the original for these. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe has also included for this audience wonderful illustrations, which are not in the original.
The research for this work arose from the scholar's feeling that inquiry of this kind simply had not been done. Eisenstein had encountered historians and communications scholars who encouraged her to question the consequences of print. Her attempts to explore these questions through the literature on the shift from script to print in her own field made the lack of study glaringly obvious: there was no historical literature, nor a literature in any other field, manifestly exploring print in its relationship to contemporary social formations and movements.
There had been a number of others before Eisenstein who had recognized that printing was somehow important. However, no one before Eisenstein set about the task of describing why and how printing related to other social changes (5). Eisenstein accounts for this startling lack of historical work, describing an instance when Pierce Butler implied that there was something obvious about the relationship between print and the end of medieval times, by saying that "[t]his is partly because the very act of drawing connections is not as easy a task as one might think" (111). Throughout the book she makes references to the idea that historians and others knew that there were "implications" of print, but did not understand them in any substantive way.
Eisenstein sets a reasonable goal in the face of a dearth of research. While much needs to be done, Eisenstein's work is to be a first step into examining the consequences of the shift from script to print. She is clear that this is a beginning, a place to start to understand what changes in the fifteenth century and onward are related to print and how they are related. The book is not meant to fill the void in scholarship but to outline the questions and suggest areas for further study.
The revolutionary character of print is due, in part, to the greatly increased access to texts that printing afforded over manuscripts. Greater access came from the ability to produce many copies of a text at once, which simply made more texts available, as well as to the wider dispersion that printing allowed (42). A scholar in his home could have copies of many texts by the time of Copernicus' death. A scholar could have a library of his own by 1560 (208). Even the unschooled could have a bible in his home in his own language, through the interaction of printing with the move to the vernacular.
While other scholars had remarked on the greater dispersion of texts made possible by print, made particularly visible in studies of Protestantism, another more important attribute was less visible. Eisenstein argues that "typographical fixity" was a new and crucial effect of the printing press (xi). The notion of typographical fixity is one of the key elements in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Eisenstein argues that the preservative powers of print delivered information to readers in a whole new way, thus allowing scientific and cultural developments to unfold as they did.
Some Renaissance scholars noted this effect, but no one studied the implications this standardization had. "By and large, the effects of this new process are vaguely implied rather than explicitly defined and are also drastically minimized" (42). In chapter five, Eisenstein argues that one implication of typographical fixity was to make what we now call the Renaissance "permanent" whereas two earlier classical revivals had come and gone (117). Here is another example of scholars skimming a print-related topic which yields a new analysis when Eisenstein fully examines it from the vantage point of print.
Eisenstein's persuasive arguments go a long way to establishing the importance of printing. She argues that a fully developed history of printing as it relates to social change has been neglected and demonstrates that once attention is placed on the printing press, old puzzles are solved. One wonders if the case is not somewhat overstated, however, through the particular view of history Eisenstein develops. This is a version of history skewed to look at the printing press as an agent of historical change. For Eisenstein, it is necessarily skewed, first, to correct the inattention of scholars to the importance of print then to explain cultural and intellectual movements. However, the very explanations that arise from her discussion of the printing press may be more due to the interpretation made possible by focussing on printing in history. Eisenstein convinces us that printing has been overlooked and that it is important, but the next step she takes, to argue that printing has a "revolutionary character," is intertwined with her very standpoint which is focussed on the centrality of printing.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 2011
The sections of this book that interested me the most were the sections on the effect of
printing on the scientific revolution. Eisenstein argues that the scientific revolution
either would not have happened or would have been impeded without printing. And, she
prevents plenty of examples to make this a convincing claim. In general the ability to
publish and print affected the progress of science in the following ways:
- Tools -- Scientific research was enabled and facilitated by printed materials. For
example, logarithm tables were needed to enable astronomers to make the accurate
measurements and observations needed so that they could compare results.
- Communicating results -- Printing enabled scientists to publish and distribute their
results. This enabled them to compare and discuss their results, then to subject those
results to verification and to tests of consistency with proposed theory and claims.
All this enabled scientists and their avid fans to revise and correct their claims and
the observations that they recorded in support of those claims in ways and at a speed
that had never before been possible.
Eisenstein, in effect, is arguing that the scientific revolution would not have happened
when it did, if it were not for the rapid increase in the availability of printing and the
ability of scientists and those who support them to publish their results and materials.
It's especially fascinating because Eisenstein does not ignore the need for explaining
motivations. In particular, her account makes clear how the profit motive played a
significant part in the drive to publish scientific materials. She even describes how the
listing of banned materials in the Catholic church's Edict or Index of 1616 and 1633 was
used to promote published books and to drive sales. Excitement drives sales and profits.
One of the astonishing aspects of this story about the effects of printing on science and
the scientific revolution is how modern it seems, perhaps more modern than we, in the
U.S., are today. Apparently, in spite of the religious conflicts, they in the 17th and
18th centuries, were able to resolve the issues around a sun- centered solar system and an
earth-centered solar system. But, in our age, in the U.S., at least, we are still arguing
about creationism. We actually have nationally know politicians who advocate teaching
creationism in U.S schools, along side of the theory of evolution. For those of you in
more enlightened countries, please forgive me for being obsessed over this.
What interests me about Eisenstein's account of the effect of printing on the scientific
revolution in particular is how it can help us understand the effects of recent changes in
communication technology the progress of science and the development of technology, today.
- Researchers can now make huge volumes of research data available on public (or not so
public) data bases. That means that some scientists can concentrate on analysis rather
than data collection and that the amount and range of data that they have to work with
is potentially huge.
- Researchers can make their results public and available to others doing research in the
same or related fields almost immediately and at low cost. That enables these
researchers to compare results, to criticize findings, and to offer suggestions and
ideas leading to improved experiments, results, and findings.
- Collaboration -- Scientists can work together even from widely separated locations.
There are several ways that this provides leverage. First, and most obviously, it
enables teamwork among workers who may not be able to travel to a common location. And,
in instances where equipment and facilities are required, it enables a scientist to stay
where her/his equipment is and still work as part of a team.
And, this technological and communications boost to scientific research and technological
development has only just begun. I suspect that we are still learning how to exploit the
following particular aspects of communication technology:
- Self-publishing -- It is now extremely easy and cheap to publish your own book. Search
the Web for "print on demand" and you will find links to Web sites where you can upload
your copy/content, create and cover and title page, and make your book available so that
you and others can order single or multiple copies.
- Blogs and Wikis -- Although different in significant ways, both of these Web application
or Web site styles lower the barrier for creating content on the Web. In most cases, no
technical, Internet/Web knowledge is required, though typing skills are helpful. See
the entries for "Blog" and "Wiki" at Wikipedia for details about these two Web app
styles. And, by the way, not only is the *use* of these Blogs and Wikis possible
without detailed know-how, but, in addition, there are now software packages and Web
hosting services that enable even non-techies to create Web sites that implement Blogs
- CMS -- Content management systems are yet another Web application style that supports
the creation of Web content. What's special about CMS is the control it provides over
the process of creating, reviewing, editing, and approving (for visibility and
publishing) content, and the control over who is allowed to do what.
We are a long way past the printing revolution, and I have not yet even mentioned cloud
computing, which is likely to put collaboration (or wasting time, take your pick) into
So, we need to ask ourselves whether now things are really much that different. Are we
experiencing a revolution that is as dramatic as the one described by Eisenstein? Or, are
we in the midst of a more incremental change. Remember that Darwin was receiving snail-
mail twice daily. Yes, email is a bit faster than that, but when you are as determined as
Darwin was, does that increase in speed make much difference? And, if so, what sort of
difference? If you believe that electronic communication forms like email will make
significant differences in how we work, the ways we think, and what we know, then you will
need to answer questions about whether mobile phone texting and instant messaging will
also make significant differences? But why stop there? Will we do things differently
when everyone has a Web cam on their computer and we are also routinely doing n-way video
Or, ... will we just use more time? Will we spend more time on our social networks
(whatever those are) than we did before we had anything *but* paper? And, will we spend
more time with our devices than we do with the work they were meant to save us from?
on December 12, 2010
Eisenstein's book details how printing changed our world. Not only the way ideas and information were communicated, but how we think, how we do research, how we interact, and even how censorship in one area (e.g., censorship of Protestant writings in Catholic areas inadvertently curtailed scientific publishing as well). She has recognized implications and trends that have not even yet been fully worked through in our culture, and this necessarily limited survey doesn't even touch on other technologies through the centuries since the printing revolution: movable type, telegraph, telephone, computer technology, and the net.
The book can be dry at times (even in this relatively short book, she's covering a lot of material) but it is well worth the reading. To get an idea of how she thinks, this is a useful video featuring her as well:
on May 9, 2011
This book was very informative, but was able to avoid the dryness that weighs down many otherwise interesting history books. Most likely, it has to do with the fact that this book is a condensation of two normally separate volumes. Highly recommended.
on February 20, 2015
This is one of the most insightful books I've read recently.