Print and Cultural Change

The second great moment in the grand narrative of alphabetic literacy is the invention of the printing press. Robert Logan writes that
with the printing press we finally encounter a technology whose impact on the use of the alphabet is so great that it must be ranked in importance with the alphabet itself. For not only did the printing press greatly multiply access to alphabetic texts, it also, through the regularity it introduced, transformed the way in which the alphabetic text was placed on the page and was perceived by its readers. (177)
The issue of perception is essential to the narrative of alphabetic literacy. Logan and others claim that print magnified the changes brought about by the introduction of the alphabet. Because scribes often used variant spellings and irregular punctuation, readers of hand-copied texts often had to speak the texts in order to interpret them.

Even though many children of the growing merchant bourgeoisie in Italy, France, and Germany were taught to read by the fourteenth century, major collections of extended texts were rare outside the walls of cathedrals and monasteries. Print not only put many more books into circulation but it also brought regularity to spelling and conventions of punctuation, enabling rapid, silent reading. Logan quotes Harold Innis, who maintains that "the discovery of printing in the middle of the fifteenth century implied the beginning of a return to a type of civilization dominated by the eye rather than the ear" (186).

The University of Texas copy of the 42-line Gutenberg Bible, c1455.

But just as for the argument on the effects of alphabetic literacy on Greek culture, the concept of the visual in print literacy is a highly truncated one. With the regularity of uniform type, Logan argues that the "printed medium became transparent and hence its effects more abstract" (193). The ideal of print literacy is the conduit metaphor, where ideas flow directly from the mind of the author to the mind of the reader. Thus, again the argument for the turn to the visual paradoxically means the effacement of the visual. Unlike the development of the Phoenician alphabet and its subsequent adaptation by the Greeks, however, we know a great deal about the development and distribution of the printing press.

The earliest known portrait of Gutenberg, engraving on copper, 1584.

The central figure, of course, is Johannes Gensfleich, known as Johann Gutenberg from the name of the family estate--Zu Guten Bergen, "the good mountain." For many years scholars have debated Gutenberg's role in the invention of printing. Much of what we know of him comes from the legal records of Strasbourg and Mainz, where lawsuits in 1439 and 1455 make claims for loans and partnerships concerning Gutenberg's invention. Gutenberg was a goldsmith by trade, and his innovations came in the replica casting of moveable metal type, uniform in size, and in the mixing of an oil-based ink that would adhere to type. The result was a book with very high technical and aesthetic quality, with regular lines, justified margins, and beautiful type design.

Detail of the 42-line Gutenberg Bible, c1455.

There is little doubt that Gutenberg made major technical achievements in printing but many questions remain. To what extent was he a synthesizer of traditions of printing that had preceded him by centuries rather than an originator of printing? And how influential was the printing press in the major cultural and economic changes that were taking place during the Renaissance?

Major scholarly controversies have centered on these questions, which are too complex to summarize here. In brief, Gutenberg inherited two technologies that originated in China--paper and block printing. The process of making paper was invented in China by 200 A.D., following an even older technology of producing a paper-like material from the bark of mulberry trees. A battle in Central Asia fought in 751 A.D. between Arab-led armies and Chinese armies eventually led to the transmission of paper technology to Europe. Captured Chinese paper workers established a paper workshop in Samarqand and later in Baghdad (Hassan and Hill 191). A paper and book industry then flourished in Baghdad and spread to other parts of the Islamic world, including Morocco and Spain. When Toledo was captured by Christian forces in 1085, Europe gained access to the knowledge in paper books and the technology to make them. The paper makers of Baghdad also learned how to harness water power for the labor-intensive process of pounding fibers into pulp. In the thirteenth century, a paper industry grew up in Italy using water power, which spread to France in the fourteenth century and throughout Western Europe in the fifteenth century. Book historian Henri-Jean Martin observes that "The importance of this movement can hardly be exaggerated. Before paper became available, the hides of a veritable herd of young animals were required to make a single in-folio volume" (210).

Along with paper the Chinese developed several technologies for reproduction of images. A history of the Sui dynasty (581-617) written in the seventh century describes Taoists priests who printed charms as cures for illnesses. During the eighth century the Chinese had mastered block printing, which allowed images to be combined with text. During the eleventh century the Chinese used movable type made of baked clay, and Chinese and Koreans may have been printing with movable metal type as early as the twelfth century. To what extent these technologies were known in Europe is still debated, but various kinds of wood block printing was practiced in Europe by the time Gutenberg began experimenting with his press. Engraved wood blocks were employed primarily to print religious images, but blocks were also used to printing textiles, playing cards, pamphlets, tables, and secular images (Martin 212).

Gutenberg also benefited from new technologies of metalworking. This industry was flourishing in Europe with metals being extracted in large quantities to meet a strong demand. Metallurgists learned new techniques of making alloys and of casting metal copies. Gutenberg himself had a background in minting coins and manufacturing mirrors. From the larger perspective, therefore, Gutenberg's achievements represent more a stage in an evolution of a series of linked technologies rather than a distinct breakthrough.

The second and much more extensive controversy has been the debate over the historical impacts of printing. The expansion of the printing industry in the fifteenth century is phenomenal. By 1501, at least ten million copies (possibly double that number) of an estimated twenty-seven to thirty-five thousand publications had been printed. Like answering machines, VCRs, and email in the late twentieth century, printed books spread quickly through an emergent middle class. Logan claims that the printing press "unleash[ed] a powerful new force that completely transformed Western civilization, leaving in its wake the Renaissance, the rise of science, the Reformation, individualism, democracy, nationalism, the systematic exploitation of technology, and the Industrial Revolution--in short, the modern world" (183). The extravagance of Logan's claim is underscored by the facts that the Renaissance had been in progress in Italy for at least a century while the Industrial Revolution lie three centuries ahead.

Nevertheless, there were notable short-term impacts of printing, and one of the most important was the use of print by religious reformers to disseminate the translated Bible and their religious views. Martin Luther believe that all Christians should read from the Gospels daily in their own language. He advocated schooling so that children could read the Scriptures before age ten.

Title page from a 1520 printed sermon of Martin Luther.

But even with the success of the Reformation, the great majority of books published during the first century of print were in Latin. Latin remained the language of international scholarship, and its decline was slow. During the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits established schools that were the rivals of the Protestants, and they actively published Latin titles. Even after the energy of the Counter-Reformation was spent, the dominance of Latin still lingered. Some of the best records of early books come from the catalogues of the Frankfurt Fair, where new books were announced to Europe. Not until the 1680s did more German than Latin books appear (Febvre and Martin 232).

Furthermore, there is little evidence that the practices of literacy changed radically with the appearance of printed books. Roger Chartier notes: "In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the reading style implicit in a text, literary or not, was still often an oralization of the text, and the 'reader' was am implicit auditor of a read discourse" (9). Thus the great cognitive achievement asserted for print literacy--silent reading--occurred long after printed books became dominant.

Similar claims have been made for impact of print on science that are not borne out by the historical record. Logan writes that "the rapid dissemination of information and knowledge to a mass audience was one of the essential elements in the use of modern science" (194). But what was disseminated in the early decades of printing was hardly scientific by modern standards. The most popular "scientific" subject was astrology. Febvre and Martin observe that early books did not contribute much to scientific theory but they did draw attention to new technical advances in architecture, agriculture, and machinery. Febvre and Martin conclude that printing brought about no sudden or radical cultural transformation, which should be no surprise since booksellers were interested in making a profit and thus looked for books that would sell in the largest numbers (260).

Those who argue for a strong impact of print on science, such as Elizabeth Eisenstein, point out that the visually dependent sciences of botany, zoology, and anatomy flourished after accurate print images replaced scribal images intolerably degraded in copying. The first copperplate engravings, which later became important in printing, come in the middle of the fifteenth century about the same time as Gutenberg's press. For the sciences, engraving was as important a technology as moveable type. For example, Francesco Stelluti (1577-1652) was a member of the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome and an early observer of insects through microscopes. He combined the earliest illustration of a subject seen through a microscope with a Latin poem in praise of Pope Urban VIII.

Francesco Stelluti, Printed sheet inserted in manuscript miscellany of Stelluti's papers, Rome, 1625.

Logan credits alphabetic literacy with creating an environment where images and diagrams could thrive. At no point in his version of the rise of alphabetic literacy more confused. Illustrations had a long tradition in manuscripts, and they came to early books in woodcuts. Printers quickly learned to place woodblocks beside type and print a sheet with one pull of the press bar. Just two decades after Gutenberg's 42-line Bible, printers of the 1470s produced a library of illustrated books including The Golden Legend, The History of the Destruction of Troy, Aesops fables, and works by Boccaccio and Petrarch (Martin 229). Great artists worked as illustrators. The wood engravings of D¸rer, including his Apocalypse (1498), Great Passion (1498-1501), and Life of the Virgin (1502-1510), were issued first as prints and later in bound volumes.

Crucifixion by Albrecht Dürer, c 1498.
Three woodcut series were first gathered in one volume and printed with the Latin verses of Benedict Chelidonius in 1511.

In the early 1500s emblem books came into vogue. The Iconologie of Caesare Ripa published in 1539 is a dictionary of visual signs, describing the symbols for the virtues, vices, wisdom, justice, and other qualities. Both Protestants and Catholics used printed images for propaganda.

The forces allied with print during the fifteenth, sixteenthth, and seventeenth centuries are ambiguous, and distinctions between cause and effect are problematic. Much of what is claimed for print by the proponents of the alphabetic literacy is the heritage of Enlightenment rationality. If the cognitive effects of literacy are as profound as some proponents have claimed (for example, Goody and Watt maintain Aristotle's syllogistic reasoning was made possible by writing), then these effects should be manifest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, where the spread of mass literacy and the proliferation of cheap printed texts should have extended the benefits of print literacy.

The assumption of a cognitive gulf created by alphabetic literacy was effectively challenged by Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole, who studied the Vai in Liberia, a people who had developed literacy apart from schooling. Scribner and Cole found that while literacy produces differences in certain contexts, in the important dimension of logical thinking, literates and illiterates did not differ in performance. Many of the abilities claimed for literates could be attributed to schooling.

Scribner and Cole pointed the way for new concepts of literacy as pluralistic and socially situated. That the narrow view of literacy as alphabetic literacy had dominated so long into the twentieth century stems directly from the limited tools most people had for producing texts. Beginning in the nineteenth century people were exposed to many mass produced images and in the twentieth century broadcast audio and video, but most people until very recently had little opportunity to produce and distribute images or audio or video. With the advent of the World Wide Web in the mid 1990s, technologies of the visual can no longer be denied.