Information Societies

A Brief History (& Speculation) of Reading, Writing, and Information

Martin Luther (c. 1483-1546), who harnessed the potential of the printing press in unprecedented ways, and whose writings gained enormous popularity due to their composition in the German vernacular and his concern with the lives of working class peoples.

The popular notion that our hyper-informed digital age is “unique in history” is a misconception: “every society since ancient Egypt,” writes Martyn Lyons, “has been an ‘information society’”—i.e., a society where “those who control and restrict access to knowledge…thereby control a key component of power.” Indeed, the accessibility of information—more so than any single technological innovation—is a major element driving and shaping western European society, giving rise to numerous innovations in communication as well as information—recording and—accessibility. Crucial groundwork was laid by premodern societies long before the sweeping changes the press would one day catalyze: it was, as Elizabeth Eisenstein wrote, not “the agent, let alone the only agent of change in Western Europe,” but “an agent” whose effects would be chiefly determined by its utilization and relationship to information.

Since at least 2600 BCE, Ancient Egyptians had been using papyrus for writing surfaces and “reeds or soft quills” to write. While other surfaces rose and fell, papyrus was dominant until ancient Mysians (in modern-day Turkey) introduced parchment (“untanned leather”) or vellum, a far smoother surface which had by the fourth century CE surpassed papyrus. Soon enough, another alternative, paper, was developed (this time in China, c. 140-86 BCE). But the paper-making process wouldn’t take hold in Europe until the early 8th century CE, entering via both the Silk Road and the “spread of Muslim culture and values” by the Arab Empire, a critical, rarely-credited benchmark on the road to the press. Europe’s delayed appropriation of paper was largely fueled by xenophobia, directed at the new technology’s Arabic roots. But paper allowed for the introduction of the folio, “a sheet of paper folded in half,” whose earlier ancestor, the Roman diptych (first century CE; structurally similar to a modern book), had a cover and two inside planes “coated with wax.” The diptych was the inspiration for the later collation of sheaves of parchment (or papyrus) into the codex.

Throughout these stages, western Europe cultivated a devout scribal culture whose monastic scriptoria (“writing rooms”) were filled with scribes cooperatively hand-copying religious texts, overseen by an Armarius. Since the Church was a “leading” force “in promoting written culture” and, broadly, any education, the audience for scribal works was severely restricted to ecclesiastical scholars and increasingly after the 12th century CE, “wealthy Italian merchants” who displayed books alongside “paintings and other works of art.” So scribes’ painstaking work was enjoyed by a narrow readership, despite the “thousands of books” that conglomerated (many of them chained to desks) in medieval monasteries. And this state of information accessibility would not see significant change until the 14th century, when, many have suggested, the Italian Renaissance and its new ideologies—chiefly humanism and its “embrace” of “new knowledge…excavated from the classical past”—spurred unprecedented “demand” for new information and, implicitly, “an improved means of transmitting that information.” This is what came with the press, although not in the manner many have believed.

Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1397-1403) is a largely enigmatic figure. Many elements of his life are unknown, although his “entrepreneurial flair” and his “pattern” of failed business ventures provide informative glimpses at his life (as in the case of his 1438 “ambitious” and miscalculated “scheme to manufacture pilgrim’s badges”). We know his printing experiments began in 1448, twenty years after the first of their kind, and that he tried assembling woodcuts into a “primitive book.” But the real “genius of print,” writes Andrew Pettegree, was the idea that “if the letters could be produced separately, then they could be arranged into an infinite number of new combinations…constantly reused.” Gutenberg’s success is in neither his business ventures nor in constructing the press (which had a structural precedent in the winepress); rather, it is in the conception of a “mould for [the] hand-casting of individual pieces of type”—basically “a complex wooden frame into which a soft metal alloy could be poured and from which set type could then be released.” The sweeping effects of this invention should not be underestimated, but neither do they render Gutenberg the father of the press: even in conceiving of the type-molds, Gutenberg was not alone, but “was one of a small group of craftsmen who developed [the] method,” as described by Nicole Howard. It would seem that, in a roundabout way, the mythification of Gutenberg has shrouded the most resounding effects of his most impressive contribution.

The press’s effects—especially textual standardization and dissemination as made possible by Gutenberg’s type—have been discussed by Elizabeth Eisenstein in the context of the changes they wrought during the late-15th and early-16th centuries. The rising “tide of print” was largely a result of innumerable presses opening and generating “more scholarly texts than they could sell” (despite the aforementioned demand), which “flooded local markets.” Replacing parchment with paper had significantly reduced the cost of printing, making the final product cheaper than ever, but this mattered little if buyers—chiefly, in these early days, scholars—felt these early editions “could not live up to the standard set by manuscript production”—although aesthetic was only half the problem, since humanists/other scholars declared the “flood of cheap books…was corrupting morals,” promoting the “wrong” readers, and that printers were “uncultured men” compared to the once-dominant, “refined scribe.” Intellectual elitism and information restrictions were still very much at play, and it wouldn’t be until Luther arrived that both questions—of aesthetics and of content—were addressed in a radical form.

Elizabeth Eisenstein argues that word separation and individual reading were severely intensified with the press’s arrival and its first series of productions (even though more businesses collapsed than survived these early years). The press reinforced textual separation with its mechanical efficiency, and with this, the rising polarization of typefaces—Roman and Gothic—which replaced the imperfect, “variegated” scribal text (and the font used by Gutenberg & Co., which was intentionally “crude” in order to look handwritten, for fear of backlash against the new mechanization). The same could be said for architecture, and for an elevated European “awareness” of “regional boundaries, [which was] encouraged by the output of more uniform maps containing more uniform boundaries and place names.” In a similar vein to the changes printing wrought on reading methods and composition, the new influx of output necessitated the use of supplementary “catalogs” and indexes for increasingly massive inventories that could be overwhelming for potential buyers to navigate.

Still, Eisenstein’s assertion that the press had “given rise to the transformations traditionally known as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution” is an exaggeration guilty of technological determinism. While her work encouraged interdisciplinary “study of intellectual and cultural history,” Eisenstein’s tendency to “exaggerations,” especially in her idealistic representations of print-shops and “the pace of change” from scribal to printed cultures, are causes for concern.

With Martin Luther (c. 1483-1546), we truly see the potential of the printing press realized in unprecedented ways: Wittenberg, (modern-day Lutherstadt) the main hub of printed Lutheran output, and Luther’s base for the latter half of his life, was a “settlement of some two thousand souls” when Luther arrived. Thirty years later, Pettegree writes, the town was “seriously overcrowded” with “tradesmen, merchants, and especially students.” But the changes Luther wrought were most obvious in the “teeming mass of printers” producing Luther’s corpus of writings which had, in the past three decades, disrupted the inflating economy of indulgences (concurrent with the press’s rise). Luther’s writings gained such enormous popularity due to their composition in the German vernacular, which opened up theology to the working class, while depleting priestly elitism; their short, digestible lengths and their portable size; and their use of iconography, chiefly Luther’s own likeness, the earliest use of associative imagery boosted sales. For the same reasons, printing Luther’s work was extremely profitable, as was the voracious hunger with which readers demanded more.

Pettegree regards Luther’s adaptation of his writing style “to optimize benefit for the printing trade” as “remarkable,” for while other book-deals were “risky” ventures for printers, “a Luther pamphlet…was ready for sale in a couple of days, sale was virtually assured, and with German titles, the market was largely local.” Of course, Luther was not alone (and could not have been successful as such) in his ventures; but the explosion of his individual popularity meant that by 1521, he’d already become a “symbol of national resistance to an alien authority” more so than a mere theologian, which is unprecedented in a time when celebrities were an uncommon occurrence: his very name beneath the preface of any work lent the text “a seal of approval” that enhanced its allure ten-fold. One of Luther’s crucial goals, bringing education to all people—children, women, and men—explains his popularity among the working class, simultaneously and massively disrupting the “monopoly on literacy” that the church had held for so long.

Although “word separation” and punctuation weren’t “universal in Europe” until the 1100s; and although the “rule of silence” was unthinkable until an Oxford library adopted it in the 1400s, marking a shift in a long tradition of verbal textual dictation, we take both for granted today. What’s more, although ancient Greeks feared those who write instead of speak will lose their capacity for memory, we can hardly imagine a world without the written word. And yet, we have not ceased sounding the technological-fatalist alarm, only revised its tenor to fit the conditions of our time, chiefly by wondering where our use of the internet and other technology is carrying us, especially with regard to our capacities for memory and attention. But while we endure changing technologies and forms of thought, we may forget that the very resources enabling us to criticize these technologies were not always (and still are not) totally, unanimously accessible. Perhaps this, more than anything else, is the greatest achievement of the press and the people who changed its function.

Sources (Chronological in Order of Discussion):

Lyons, Martyn. A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World (Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Howard, Nicole. The Book: The Life Story of a Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

Pettegree, Andrew. The Book in the Renaissance (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010).

"How Revolutionary Was the Print Revolution?" AHR Forum, ed. Anthony Grafton, American Historical Review, 107 No. 1 (February 2002): pp. 84-128.

Ong, Walter. “Orality and Literacy: Writing Restructures Consciousness,” The Book History Reader, ed. Alistair McCleery and David Finkelstein (London and NY: Routledge, 2002).

Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains,” Atlantic Monthly, July-August 2008.

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