Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Benjamin and the Printing Press

Recently I've been exchanging e-mails with an 8th-grader named Benjamin, who asked my help on his school project:

I am working on a National History Day project about the Gutenberg Printing Press’s effects on economics, education, and religion. National History Day is an annual competition with this year’s theme being “Revolution, Reaction and Reform in History.” The participants have a choice of different ways of representing their topic; I have chosen to create a website. In general, I am looking for responses that link back to the overall theme of “Revolution, Reaction and Reform in History.”

He then went on to ask various questions, some of which I can answer quite easily, but some of which many others out there in the blog-o-sphere have a great deal more expertise, so I thought I would post his questions, my responses, and invite others to add more in the comments section. Benjamin, there are many Professors Awesome out there, and I'm hoping many of them will chime in to make your website great!


1. What were the key economic advancements caused by the printing press?
2. Did the Gutenberg printing press put scribes/monks out of work, the same way the industrial revolution later did to other trades. Was this the beginning of
machine taking over man, so to speak?
3. For the following three questions, I am especially looking at the role of the
Author. Specifically, what were the jobs/ businesses…
a) lost due to the printing press? How did this affect the world?
b) created by the printing press? How did this affect the world?
c) enhanced by the printing press? How did this affect the
4. How did the rise of newspapers affect Europe?

It's hard to really put a finger on the key economic advancements caused by the printing press -- obviously, there were so many, and an uncountable number of those created indirectly by rising literacy and education.

The printing press didn't exactly put monks or scribes out of work. Monks support their calling in a lot of different ways, so it isn't like the printing press put them out of business. In fact, even today at the Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert some monks still continue as scribes, though in a new technological medium. Also, you have to remember that the printing press is essentially only useful for mass production -- just think of all the things you handwrite every single day. I think it's more fair to say that the printing press transformed the job of the scribe.

Nor would I say that the printing press heralded the beginning of machine taking over for man -- far from it! In order to get something into print, we have to intervene in any number of ways, from editing, to setting type, etc. So, fewer people were needed to produce more books, right? But instead of that leading to fewer people working on producing books, this simply made books more affordable and drove up the demand for books. Don't believe me? Just think of all the people today whose main job it is to produce print texts today. According to the American Library Association, there are over 340,000 paid librarians and staffers in America alone. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us there there are more than a quarter of a million writers and editors in America alone. So, just in America alone, we have well over half a million people whose sole job is to produce and maintain texts -- once we add in the myriad other jobs (publishing, distributing, manufacturing presses, maintaining presses, etc), I'm pretty confident that the number in the US alone would run over a million. That means that across the world, MILLIONS of people find their primary occupation in producing and maintaining texts. The printing press didn't really put scribes out of work; it created a huge market for mass-produced texts.

1. Were there any key educational reforms by the printing press? I know that literacy rates sky rocketed, but what were the effects of that? Also, how did the printing press effect educational institutes, such as Universities?
2. Would you say the printing press was a/the major cause to the starting of the Renaissance? Why or why not? If not, what was its relationship to the Renaissance?
3. Was there a concept of intellectual property/ copyright before the printing press and how did it change?
4. How did the education of the lower class affect post-medieval life?
5. Where there any negative educational responses or reforms? If so, what were they?

Way back at the end of the 9th Century, King Alfred the Great pushed an ambitious universal literacy project, but even that project was only intended to foster universal literacy in aristocratic men. The printing press made books so affordable that literacy could expand out through the culture. Some of the ideas we take for granted (such as democracy) rely on a broad number of literate people.

Others might disagree with this, but I would suggest that the immediate effect of the printing press on universities was smaller than we might think. Universities continued for a long time to be centers of religious training, and so already had the financial backing of the Church to provide libraries. Some of the biggest costs of a university education (land, support for instructors, time off from money-making enterprises by students) weren't really affected by the printing press, so a university education continued to be the purview of the clergy and the upper class (or at least the upper-middle) until the 20th century. The idea that a university education should be available to everyone regardless of social class is a pretty recent one. That being said, like secondary education (high school), mass university education is only really possible because of the printing press.

When the Renaissance begins, and what it means, is really at the center of your question. A lot of medieval scholars (myself included) reject the term "Renaissance" since it means "re-birth," and seems to suggest that the intellectual life of Europe in the Middle Ages was dead. As I like to point out to my students, in the Middle Ages philosophy was a spectator sport, and a lot of the stifling uniformity of the Roman Empire disappeared allowing for greater innovation. Guys like me call the period after the Middle Ages the "Early Modern" period. Some people mark the beginning of the Italian Early Modern period as starting with the 14th century, before the printing press, but I really think the printing press is both the pinnacle of medieval technology, and the end of it. Certainly early modern literature begins with the printing press, because certain new genres (such as the novel) really only come into vogue because of the press.

1. How much did the Printing press affect the spread/start (of) the Reformation?
2. How badly was the church hurt/ changed by the Reformation?
3. Did the printing press have any other effects on Christianity? Did it change any other religions, or the concept of religion?

Although there were proto-Reformation forces around long before the printing press (such as the Lollards), it is hard for me to see how they could have had more than temporary success without the printing press. For example, the Lollard Bible was banned in 1407, but banning a book that has to be copied by hand is way easier than banning one that can be mass produced. As for how badly the Church was hurt, that's a touchy question. For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia says "Incalculable harm was thereby wrought from the religious standpoint," whereas Reformation Day is a religious holiday among many protestants, who obviously think it is a great thing. My own opinion* is that the Reformation is just another expression of tensions that have existed in the Church since Peter and Paul feuded, and as such both Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians are blessed by it since iron sharpens iron.

We're getting away from the issue of the printing press a bit, though. Naturally, the printing press has had other effects. The Bible is the bestselling book in history (this may be one of the reason the New York Times bestseller list does not include religious bookstores; otherwise, the number one book would never change). Recently, the Roman Catholic Church mades some changes in the Roman Missal -- detailed changes in wording that are only possible after the invention of the printing press.

1. What was the standard of medieval literature (prior to the Gutenberg printing press) in terms of length, quality, content, and messages conveyed and how did that change with the Gutenberg printing press?
2. I learned through my studies that the Black Death killed off so many people, that the remaining people had to come up with innovative ways of doing tasks like bookmaking, hence the printing press. Were there any other ways that the Black Death influenced the printing press?
3. I also learned that during the Black Death the Pope advocated self-flagellation that spread chaos and disease. The Pope later recanted his support for this, thus causing people to doubt the power of the Christian church, which helped to fuel the Reformation. Where there any other connections between the Black Death and the printing press?
4. Where there any disadvantages of a scribe/monk for making books other than the speed and cost of their writing?
5. Do you know of any other people knowledgeable about my topic who I could interview? Could I have their contact information?
6. Do you have any other materials (websites, book titles, databases, videos, photos, recordings, etc.) that you can recommend to me? In the website I am making on my printing press project I am hoping to incorporate the digital materials for all of the previously mentioned.

I've heard this argument before about the Black Death leading to the printing press, but I'm not sure what to make of it. Because so many monks died, the argument goes, there were fewer scribes, driving up the cost of books and leading to inventions such as the press. I'm skeptical of that argument, since the death of so many non-monks also would mean that there would be less demand for books as well. Of course, the Black Death did not kill people off evenly (it isn't like the Angel of Death lined everyone in Europe up and went "live, live, die, live, live, die, live, live, die..." like some morbid game of duck-duck-goose), so if I saw some research showing that a greater number of monks had died, I might buy it. Right now I'm not knowledgeable enough to say anything more than that I'm skeptical of these claims.

One thing I'd like to point out abou the length and content issues of the printing press is that (as I previously mentioned) it opened up the possibility of affordable pleasure reading. Novels, for example, don't really exist before the printing press**, because who has the money for such a thing? Long texts tended to have their roots in oral recitation, but the rise of the printing press led to a fall in oral poetry (and I suspect also poetry in general). You can probably name dozens of living novelists off the top of your head, but how many living composers of epic poetry can you name? Every time an epic poem or saga suddenly appears on the bestseller lists, it is a new translation of a pre-modern poem, not an original composition.

Oh yes, and about the disadvantages to being a scribe -- as someone who has copied medieval manuscripts, I can tell you that it really makes your hand ache. I've done all sorts of hard farm work and come back from the job bloodied and bruised, and that doesn't happen when you're a scribe, but my hand locks up in a claw position after a few days of writing, and it hurts like the dickens. I doubt this led to the rise of the printing press, but since you asked about the disadvantages, I thought I'd throw that in there.

As for other people and websites, I'd like to throw that out to the blog-o-sphere. Many of my colleagues out there are much more knowledgeable than I am on one element of this or another, so I invite them in the comments below to suggest their own books, articles, and websites that might help you with your project.

Good luck!

*Full disclosure: I'm a non-denomination Christian who is currently a member of a PCA Presbyterian church.
** Some will argue that this-or-that early text is the first novel, but I don't really see anything pre-printing press that I think counts, and even if someone could find an example or two, these would be oddities.


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