Thursday, March 20, 2008

Before the Printing Press

In class the other day, a student asked a question that reminded me that most people don't understand the profound impact of the printing press on language and culture. Sometimes, as a medieval scholar interested in the material text, I forget that -- so here's a little bit on why the printing press is important.

The pinnacle of medieval technology is Johannes Gutenberg's development of the movable type printing press in the 1450's. This was the single most important technological development of the Second Millennium, and its impact was so great that many would argue it marks the end of the Middle Ages. I would mark that as the symbolic end of medieval literature.

The printing press changed us in ways that we should bear in mind when we read medieval literature or think about medieval culture. Let me just talk about three areas: education, religion, and literacy.


If you've gone to school you're neither wealthy nor a priest, you can thank Gutenberg. King Alfred the Great is known as a great patron of education because he had a program of universal literacy ... for noble men only, though. Why? Our modern assumption is that Alfred might have been some sort of bigot, The Man trying to keep down women and the poor. Is that fair, though?

Consider the economics of the situation before the printing press, though. Books had to be copied by hand. I've copied (transcribed) medieval manuscripts by hand, and I can tell you it is miserable and time-consuming. If I spend a day copying a manuscript, by evening my hand is siezed up like a claw. Even a short manuscript can take days. The effort it would take to provide primers for every child in the medieval world to read would overwhelm every scriptorum for decades. Books were difficult to come by, and therefore were expensive, which explains why only the wealthy (who could afford them) or clergy (who had the institutional financial support of the Church) tended to have access.

Imagine for a moment that a wormhole opened in space/time, and enough elementary school primers for every medieval child were dropped right in front of Charlemagne, who then made sure they were distributed. Let's say that every child learns to read -- then what? What will those children read? Unless the press that printed those primers also dropped through space/time, other books would still be expensive. Even considering that universal literacy would allow more people to be scribes, not everyone can be a scribe. Once those primers wore out from over-use, you'd probably be back to the former situation in a century or so.

Universal education is an ideal, but it is also a luxury provided to us by the printing press. Medieval people were not uneducated because they were stupid or repressed; they were uneducated because it was impossible to educate everyone.*


I can't tell you how many papers I get from students writing about how everyone in the Middle Ages was Catholic because the Church would burn you at the stake if you weren't, or because people were superstitious. First of all, let's remember that there happened to be plenty of non-Christians around (such as Muslims and Jews) who, by default, weren't Catholic -- and second, what those students mean by "Catholic" isn't even something that was around in the Middle Ages -- because of the printing press.

I'm going to be dealing only with the Western Church here, because I don't think those students mean Catholic in the sense of Eastern Rite vs. Western Rite, but rather Catholic vs. Protestant. What does it mean, ultimately, to be a protestant?

At root is the idea that the Church, or at least the hierarchy of Rome, has a special responsibility in helping people interpret the Bible. Protestantism suggests that the ideal instead is that individuals should interpret the Bible for themselves.

Here's how the myth runs: The evil men of the monolithic Catholic hierarchy, in order to maintain their power, repressed the people by holding a monopoly over the Bible. They could simply say, "God doesn't like what you are doing," and you had no chance to disagree because you had no real direct access to Scripture. Today, however, as red-blooded Americans, we aren't about to listen to some foreigners tell us how to read the Bible (or even to read it at all).

This myth, though, forgets what life was like before the printing press. Sure, it is a nice ideal for everyone to read the Bible -- but what if you can't read? Or what if you can read, but you can't read much, or you can't afford the whole Bible? What then?

In that case, you have to rely on prayer books or psalters (which, if you owned only one book in the Middle Ages, is probably what you owned), and rely on experts with access to more information than you have -- i.e., the Church. In other words, people basically did what we do today regarding issues that the average person simply doesn't have the education or finances to personally investigate. For example, I don't know that the Periodic Table of Elements is accurate, nor do I have the lab equipment to investigate it. Instead, I rely on experts to interpret the chemical universe for me.

When the printing press comes along, it isn't surprising that the first book printed was the Bible. Nor is it surprising that Martin Luther came along in the first generation to be born after the printing press. Suddenly, anyone who could read could have access to the whole Bible; indeed, they could theoretically own any of the commentaries of the Church Fathers. Protestantism as we understand it today simply wasn't possible without the printing press.**


It would seem that we've already covered "literacy" in education, but in this case I mean something beyond just functional literacy. Before the printing press, the general assumption was that most people couldn't read, so anything that was written down would be read aloud to illiterate people. People simply didn't read silently -- Saints Jerome and Ambrose were considered astounding geniuses because they could read silently. Even in monasteries, scribes would presumably subvocalize as they copied.

What does this mean for literature? It mitigates in favor of poetry and against prose, in favor of short, episodic texts and against long ones. Poetry is "better" because it sounds better, whereas prose reads easier to the eye than the ear. Ever notice there's no such thing as the medieval novel? Who's going to read an entire novel aloud? Even the earliest writings we consider proto-novels (such as Don Quixote or The Tale of Genji) aren't merely broken up into chapters -- they are broken up into episodes.

Still not convinced that the printing press changed the way we view literacy? Just try reading this blog post aloud. This post presumes that it will be read silently. I've bolded some topic headings -- how do you read boldness? In other places, I have parenthetical comments that aren't part of the flow of the sentence, or footnotes that cannot be read as part of the sentence. Ever know someone who liked to put "air quotes" up with their fingers when they are talking? That action doesn't make sense if you're talking to an illiterate person; it assumes that the person you are talking to can visual the text as words on a page requiring punctuation. Note also that I've not fully explained what "air quotes" are -- I've assumed that if someone doesn't know what they are, they can click on the link to see them demonstrated.

The upshot of this post is simply to remind folks that medieval people understood reading differently than we do. They came at it with a whole different set of assumptions, and those assumptions colored the way they viewed their world, just as our assumptions color the way we view our own. If you keep that in mind, you should start to perceive rich nuances in medieval writings that you might have missed before.

*I'm leaving out here, of course, vocational training of the sort guilds provided. That is a form of education, but it's not the type of education we're talking about here. You don't need to be literate to be a blacksmith or carpenter.
** Yes, I know I'm glossing over Lollardy, but I can't see any way that Lollards could have become as numerous as Protestants without the printing press.


  1. Nice post... the Canterbury Tales jumps out at me as one of those novel length episodic collections.

    I suppose what makes Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain such a big landmark is that it is at the intersection of the development of chronicles, medieval oral traditions, and the novel. Of course Arthurian poetry is still very strong even when influenced by Geoffrey.

  2. Anonymous1:29 PM

    Thank you very much for writing this up, Sir. This article has been extremely helpful for me in writing my research paper. Not only is your information well organized and informative, it is easy to read and easy to cite. Much thanks!

    --- A High School Student

  3. Anonymous1:31 PM

    Well writ! I just read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, and enjoyed his evaluation of artistic abstraction through the creation of the written word. The printing press changed the nature of how information was spread not the reception of said information. The human capacity to learn has not changed; it is the means by which we pass on information that has.
    Thanks Again!

  4. Anonymous8:04 PM

    Thank you so much! I am currently doing a history day project on The Gutenberg Printing Press. This will be one of my resources. It shows how important it is to the world. Thanks you!

  5. Anonymous9:18 PM

    well..clearly i believe that you are a catholic..because in truth and in fact,the catholics were trying to control the masses with the Bible..nevertheless you have presented some informative information

  6. Anonymous7:02 PM

    Did you know that 1 person in 50,000 could read and write back then?

  7. nice article..
    definitely this post is help to understand the profound impact of the printing press.
    we are also doing a printing press in dubai.
    anyways thank you for your post

  8. your friend10:18 AM

    thanks bro this helped me with a project

  9. hehehehehehe10:19 AM

    haiiii peeps

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