6 - The Impact of Printing Technology
6.1 Social impact of printing
Printing played an important role in changing the nature of learning within the society. It put books in the hands of ordinary people, to read and judge for themselves. According to Marshal McLuhan, print logic began to shape mental structures, imparting a sense of the world as a set of abstract ideas rather than immediate facts, a fixed point of view organizing all subject matter. And inevitably, as print logic changed mental structures, the social world was also changed by the increasing number of people whose minds were programmed by print logic. Rationalism, idealistic philosophy, consumerism, individualism, capitalism and nationalism are all, in McLuhan’s view - the inevitable consequences of movable type. “It’s quite easy,” McLuhan states flatly, “to test the universal effects of print on Western thought after the sixteenth century, simply by examining the most extraordinary developments in any art or science whatever.” (03)
Printing technology can well be termed as the mother of social uprising all over the world. The spread of the printing press facilitated the keen reader’s reach towards knowledge and enabled later generations to develop the intellectual achievements of earlier ones. Print, according to Baron John Edward Emerich Acton in his lecture On the Study of History, was convinced that “the work of the Renaissance would last, that what was written would be accessible to all, that such an occultation of knowledge and ideas as had depressed the Middle Ages would never recur, that not an idea would be lost”. (04)
Reading was looked down upon because it was considered rebellious and asocial. As people read more, they gained knowledge and developed a critical perspective. They started to analyze the books and texts, interpreted them creatively and formed their own opinions on texts, often, in ways different from what the author had intended. This was all an impact of print technology. Books, both ancient and modern, became available in great numbers; large public and private libraries also became quite popular. It opened the gates for a wide range of texts to become easily available.
Thus, previous methods of reading books started to decline; reading was no longer monopolized by the priests and aristocratic scholars. This led to the emergence of a new self reliant ilk of humans. Before the advent of print, reading was a group event, where one literate man would read out loud to a group of people. But, with print, literacy grew in leaps and bounds, whereby reading became a solitary pursuit.
(Paper cutting guillotine)
The invention of faster and cheaper printing techniques also changed the occupational structure of European cities. The much more labour-intensive occupation of the scribes naturally declined. The existing printers around Europe emerged as a new group of artisans for whom being literate was essential since they had to read a wide variety of material before printing it. They also had to stay on top of their game by reading the matter that their competitors came out with. Proof-reading became essential and rose as a new occupation. The increase in the amount of books available for distribution naturally led to a rise in the number of booksellers and librarians.
Eisenstein believes that, of all the new features introduced by the duplicative powers of print, preservation is possibly the most important: “To appreciate its importance, we need to recall the conditions that prevailed before texts could be set in type. No manuscript, however useful as a reference guide, could be preserved for long without undergoing corruption by copyists, and even this sort of “preservation” rested precariously on the shifting demands of local elites and a fluctuating incidence of trained scribal labour. Insofar as records were seen and used, they were vulnerable to wear and tear. Stored documents were vulnerable to moisture and vermin, theft and fire. However they might be collected or guarded within some great message centre, their ultimate dispersal and loss were inevitable. To be transmitted by writing from one generation to the next, information had to be conveyed by drifting texts and vanishing manuscripts.” (01)
6.2 Religion redefined
(Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis which led to the Protestant Reformation)
Initially almost all the books that were printed were religious in nature, as were most medieval books. The previously prevalent handwritten manuscripts and other literary works on palm leaves and other traditional rag papers were reproduced in print. This was done so that people would accept the new revolutionized book copying technique, which was initially met with hostility and suspicion. Eisenstein paints a picture of the existing attitude of the time:
“As soon as Gutenberg and Schoeffer had finished the last sheet of their monumental Bible, the financier of the firm, John Fust, set out with a dozen copies or so to see for himself how he could best reap the harvest of his patient investments. And where did he turn first of all to convert his Bibles into money? He went to the biggest university town in Europe, to Paris, where ten thousand or more students were filling the Sorbonne and the colleges. And what did he, to his bitter discomfiture find there? A well organized and powerful guild of the book trade… Alarmed at the appearance of an outsider with such an unheard of treasure of books; when he was found to be selling one Bible after another, they soon shouted for the police, giving their expert opinion that such a store of valuable books could be in one man’s possession through the help of the devil himself and Fust had to run for his life or his first business trip would have ended in a nasty bonfire.”
Books attempted to break the religious rigidity and make the false religious radicals obsolete. The extensive distribution of the Gutenberg Bible had a revolutionary impact because it decreased the power of the Catholic Church as the prime possessor and interpreter of God’s word. Although the bible was in circulation before Gutenberg created his printed version, a copy of the Bible was not accessible to commoners.
Before printing developed, the Church employed scribes and had complete control over the copying of manuscripts. But the new movable type mechanism replaced this age-old system. No longer could the clergy control or censor what was written. Imagine the quandary the Church was in when it saw that thousands of textual copies could be produced at a fraction of the cost and time involved in manuscript writing.
It’s no coincidence that the Protestant Reformation rattled Europe’s religious unity right at the time when printing technology began to spread far and wide. The clergy and government officials found that their word was not irrefutable anymore; their words began to be questioned and denied. Since printed matter was cheaply available to the masses, it allowed readers across all classes of society to study religious scriptures and political issues all by themselves. The ones who could not read felt left out and earnestly attempted to educate themselves. The power of the print shook the dictatorship of knowledge which had previously rested in the hands of the Church. The people were no longer misguided by having their thinking interceded by the religious and political authorities who tweaked recorded sayings based on their will and whims. (02)
The Muslim world, Arabic and Turkish empires in particular, staunchly opposed printing in the early modern period, though printing in Hebrew was sometimes permitted. These Muslim countries came to be regarded as a barrier to the channel of printing technology between China and the West.
According to an Imperial ambassador to Istanbul in the middle of the 16th century, it was a sin for the Turks to print religious books. In 1515, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I issued a decree under which the practice of printing was punishable by death. At the end of the century, Sultan Murad III permitted the sale of non-religious printed books in Arabic characters; however, a majority of books continued to be imported from Italy. (03)
6.3 Liberation of Europe
(The Renaissance Man – By Leonardo da Vinci)
Right from Dante’s highly acclaimed Divine Comedy in Italy to the evolution of the printing press in Germany, Europeans were responsible for landmark moments in human history. None of them would have thought that their work would challenge the Church’s hegemony and transcend all national barriers, freeing mankind from ‘medievalism’. The Renaissance brought back the glory days of Graeco-Roman civilization where intellectualism, self-reliance, inquisitive and moderately secular behaviour formed the core values around which society revolved. This period marked humanity’s social and intellectual liberation. The fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 was fortunate for Europe; the extinction of the old order gave an impetus to the forces of the new. As the Turks were predominately a warrior clan, several intellectuals fled the city before and after the siege, migrating particularly to Italy; the country which sparked the flame of the Renaissance. It’s ironic that the fall of an extended arm of the eastern European empire in Constantinople led to the resurgence of Western Europe through Florence.
The greatest achievements of the Renaissance were the discoveries of the new world and growth of human intellect accomplishments which were witnessed in various fields. Women empowerment in the upper echelons of the society led to increased participation in socio-political activism. This led to the rise of notable women thinkers like Cassandra Fedele, St Camilla Varano and poet Vittoria Colonna. Apart from intellectualism, the Renaissance also heralded a change in tastes of fashion and behavioural patterns; Europeans still hold the distinction of being the best on both turfs. Literature saw astounding progress as well which encouraged the development of local languages and deeper study of the Latin and Greek classics. Prominent authors like Shakespeare, Erasmus, Petrarch and Boccaccio came to the fore during the Renaissance; their writings are widely read to this very day. The strengthening of literature saw a corresponding rise of fine arts. Art started depicting real life unlike earlier when artists were forced to restrict their paintings to divine forms. Creative experiments were made and scientific temperament was applied thereby giving us reputed artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titani. According to author Rona Goffen (Renaissance Rivals), these artists were engaged in fierce competition against each other; by striving to be masters of the ancient world, they gave future generations art to cherish and celebrate.
However, the world would not have been transformed if scientific temperament hadn’t led to a rise in inventions and discoveries. This is the most notable contribution of the Renaissance. The scientific discoveries smade by Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus and later, by Newton challenged the authority of the Church. Old notions which had stifled mental growth for centuries were broken by these men’s achievements. The Church’s role diminished and monarchies across Europe were strengthened which led to the emergence of nation states like England, France, Austria and Prussia. England’s King Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. However the fall in religious virtue led to decline in morality and rise of materialism. Materialism further led to the strengthening of mercantile trade and commerce and later resulted in the discovery of new lands and, subsequently, colonialism. The social order underwent a sea of change, opportunistic behaviour led to an increase in cheating, robbery, murder and loot. In monarchies, the brutal and suppressive Machiavellianism brand of politics emerged. (01)
When one compares the centuries which preceded the Renaissance with the four centuries that culminated with the revival, one can estimate the magnitude of that Renaissance movement. The liberation and rise of European society makes it the biggest beneficiary of the Renaissance. Many other civilizations are still waiting for their own renaissance; the liberation from religious theology and despotic rule and advance towards rational thinking and free living. This phase marked the first step in the liberation of Europe from the stigma of medievalism; the next liberation would occur centuries later after the arrival of the Allied troops in Normandy during the Second World War.