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The shift from an oral culture to a written culture was one of the fundamental changes in human interaction. However, Elizabeth Eisenstein presents an equally compelling transition in her study, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. The progression from a scribal culture to a printed culture had a profound and often underestimated effect on human evolution. Evidence supporting this theory can also be found in Protestant Reformations and Reading by Jean Francois Gilmont and The Nature of the Book by Adrian Johns.

The very obvious effect of the printing press is that the number of books circulating in society increased while the cost to produce an edition of a book decreased. This eventually gave people greater options and more affordability in selecting books. However, one must remember that in the beginning of the Print Revolution affordability meant little and the options were not significantly increased. When the printing press was first being used, extremely wealthy men purchased the vast majority of books. The cost of a book mattered little to these men, and often a book from a printing press was of lesser quality than a scribal copy. Scribes generally used durable parchment; the paper used in the presses was more susceptible to tearing and rotting. Also, printing houses initially produced copies of books that were already available in hand-written versions. While the advantage of the printing press was very apparent in the reduction of man-hours needed to produce many copies of a book, the advantage to these noblemen purchasers was not quite so obvious. There was a benefit to the buyer in the lower cost of a printed book, but major benefit was found in the static and uniform nature of printed books, in the ideas known as fixity and standardization.

Fixity is the basic theory that once words have been transferred into text, the information does not change, i.e., it remains fixed. Fixity did exist somewhat in written texts. A written copy of Plato’s Republic would present the same ideas to whoever read that copy. This was a marked difference from an oral presentation of those ideas. An oral retelling of a work is subject to many detracting factors. The presenter of the information might forget part of the work, unconsciously emphasize certain parts, or even retell the information with a determined bias. Written texts were an obvious step above orally retelling an idea. However, scribes spent weeks copying books, page after page. They made many mistakes and occasionally rewrote small portions of a text. With each copy of a text, more mistakes and rewrites were introduced. This meant that a written version of Plato’s Republic from 500 A.D. could be very different from a written version from 1300 A.D. With the introduction of the printing press, fixity became a much more powerful notion.

The printing press did not eliminate textual drift, but it did allow for better comparison among editions. If a printing house produces 500 copies of a book, then all books in that edition will be the same. The printer might have made several mistakes, which was a common occurrence. However, he could produce a batch of errata sheets, which corrected the known mistakes, and ship those to his booksellers. A text might change from edition to edition, but these changes were much easier to track. The printing press also increased fixity over a long span of time. If a printing house produced 1000 perfect first editions of a book, there will be many copies of this edition left when the second edition was printed. Any mistakes would be found easily and corrected through the use of errata sheets. The printing press basically increased the number of original copies of a text from one or two copies to several hundred copies. Along with this greater degree of fixity, the press introduced a new method of intellectual communication. If a book was popular, scholars from all across Europe could read an exact or very similar edition of the book and then discuss the book. This is the root of standardization.

Standardization is the logical but significant extension of fixity. This idea was particularly important when dealing with technical information or in the university context. Standardization is the basic idea that a certain edition of a book became the commonly accepted standard for that book. A scholar in Antwerp could read the standard edition of a book and make notes on very specific aspects of the book and even cite page numbers. He could then converse through letters with other scholars, and all participants in the discussion would have the exact same version of the book. The notion of identical copies of a book is almost nonexistent before the printing press. As the printing press technology for text was being perfected, the technology for printing images also became more practical. This meant that charts and diagrams could be included with the text. Standardization also relieved the some of the burden of authenticating texts. If a certain edition of a book was distributed widely and agreed to be of good quality, then a scholar could spend all of his time trying to learn from and improve upon the theories in that book. Standardization allowed complex ideas to be disseminated to many hundreds people throughout Europe with each printing of that standard edition. This in turn gave scholars more time focus on future technologies and future ideas. While there were several distinct factors behind the intellectual movements of the 16th and 17th centuries, it can be argued effectively that the printing press was their primary catalyst.

The Scientific Revolution and the Protestant Reformation were the notable intellectual movements of the 16th and 17th centuries. Both of these movements were focused on the spreading of information. The Scientific Revolution dealt with spreading and improving technical theories. The Protestant Reformation had as its goal the spreading of the Bible in vernacular and criticism of the Catholic Church. Each movement was aided by the printing press in a specific manner.

The Protestant Reformation was beginning to gain some power in the early 16th century. This rise in popularity is based on a chain of events. The bourgeoisie was coming into power, and they were often not well-educated people, meaning the universal scholar’s language of Latin was not effective in communicating with them. Around this time, booksellers were looking for ways to improve their sales, and they realized that printing books in the vernacular would be a good method of doing so. The bourgeoisie were also becoming influential members of society, but one needed to be friendly with the Church in order to rise past certain levels of influence. The Reformers wanted to put vernacular Bibles into the hands of the people, and the people wanted the vernacular Bibles. The printing press allowed both sides to have what they desired. The conflict between the Protestants and Catholics came to down to a battle of “the Bible of the ear and the Bible of the eye, between the church of orality and the church of print.” This debate is closely related to the idea of fixity. The Reformers wanted each individual to read the Bible and have a personal relationship with the text. The Catholics wanted the Bible to be kept away from the masses and only interpreted by those who were trained to interpret the word of God. Eventually the Reformation was victorious in many areas, because of two aspects of the printing press. First, the reformers could print many copies of the Bible in the vernacular for little cost. Second, the text of the Bible had a quality that no priest could have: fixity. The people heard different priests give contradictory sermons and saw priests commit acts in direct violation of the word of God. The priests varied and were unreliable. However, their personal Bibles, the word of God, remained fixed. They could search for answers and often find them in their reliable, unchanging texts.

The Scientific Revolution had very different goals from the Reformation and used notably different aspects of the printing press to accomplish them. Many historians even believe that the printing press hindered the advancement of new ideas, because the majority of scientific papers of this time were published by “pseudoscientists and quacks.” The professional scientists often wrote in Latin and withheld their works from print. When a legitimate scientific work did make it to the press, it was rarely popular among the laypeople. Thus it is clear that the ability of the printing press to quickly and cheaply spread information is not the helpful facet of its workings. However, the effect of standardization was felt all over Europe. The basic idea of juxtaposing texts was a new innovation became a significant method of study. Scholars could compare representations of opposing views and be confident that drawing conclusions from the comparison of those two texts would be valid and “worthwhile.” The scholars did not need to spend time worrying about the accuracy or tracking down scribal mistakes. They were free to develop new theories and discount old theories. The properties of fixity and standardization made these comparisons possible and in turn fueled the scientific development of that period.

Modern society is just now beginning to evolve past the methods and ideas invented in the 16th and 17th centuries. Society had reached a point that it could not surpass. The scribal culture could only take humanity so far. As long as we depended on humans copying manuscripts by hand, our technology was almost limited to what an individual could develop in a lifetime. We had little accurate text from history, and therefore out future could not escape our human tendency to forget the past. The printing press changed all of this. Fixity brought us a way to remember the past, and standardization showed us a method to develop the future.

Sources: The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe Elizabeth Eisenstein; Protestant Reformations and Reading Jean Francois Gilmont; The Nature of the Book Adrian Johns; lecture notes from Media Studies 372 from Professor Brian Kassof, University of Virginia.

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