The Printing Revolution: Commercial Consequences

Just how much did the rise of printing change the Western world? Elizabeth Eisenstein spent most of her career attempting to answer that question. I’ve picked up her book The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, which is a judicious abridgment of the two-volume work that made her career. Over a series of articles I will be relaying and pondering the results of her scholarship.

This first essay deals with printing as a commercial phenomenon. (For simplicity’s sake, let’s let “printing” refer to a spate of inventions and conventions that came along roughly simultaneously, enabling copies of books to be produced en masse.) First, what made printing commercially viable in the first place? The primary advantage of printing over scribal reproduction is the reduction of man-hours needed to produce a large number of copies.

Imagine making copies before printing. Let’s say that a lord wanted to make ten copies of a lengthy narration of his most recent military victory, to be distributed to the villages in his domain. This is going to take quite a bit of effort time. One person making all ten copies would take far too long. So additional scribes need to be pulled in. But the first problem is that if they work separately, they can’t be used very efficiently. One scribe needs to copy the author’s original manuscript. Now there is one copy and two documents with which to make copies. So two scribes can use those to make two more. Now there are three copies and four documents for four scribes to make four more copies. Finally, three of the scribes will finish off the set. So, the great limitation here is that you can efficiently make only as many copies as you already have on hand. Also, any mistake made during one of the earlier rounds of copying will likely be transmitted to the next copy, along with new mistakes.

One way of circumventing this inefficiency is oral dictation. In this method, one scribe reads aloud from the original manuscript to ten other scribes who take down his dictation. This allows everyone to work at the same time, increasing efficiency. It also requires only a single original. But there are disadvantages as well. Oral dictation can result in sloppy work: mishearing, misspeaking, a scribe not knowing how to spell a word properly, or a momentary lapse in attention can all produce errors. Furthermore, this requires 11 people with the proper training to be in the same room at the same time. In many places that would be impossible. Even where it was possible, the copying prevents all those people from doing whatever they normally do. So, both individual copying and group dictation are quite labor-intensive; moreover, neither are guaranteed to deliver identical copies.

On the contrary, after the initial work invested to set up a book for printing, a publisher could easily produce many copies, all of which would be virtually identical. Even a small operation could be more efficient than scribes. A sufficiently motivated individual could learn how to do all the tasks required for printing and become a one-person shop. Two American cultural heroes, Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain, did just that.

The simple fact that printing was a commercial enterprise revolutionized Europe. In the Middle Ages, book production was usually not for profit; it was a religious or political undertaking. Monks made up the largest group of book producers, and their wage was usually reduced time in purgatory rather than monetary remuneration. In medieval book culture, commerce was largely restricted to providing materials for books or in selling them after they had been made. Thus, the shift from monk to printer was a shift in laboring for eternal rewards to temporal ones.

Of course, changing the locus of book production fundamentally altered the content of what was produced. In the Middle Ages, most books created were sponsored by the church or a secular lord. The universities also produced books but were often very tightly tied to ecclesiastical and secular authority. Now, books were made based on what would sell. The middle class could afford to have books made on subjects of interest to them. Some of the results were less than impressive. The early modern equivalent of the trashy paperback romance flourished in this new milieu. There was a renaissance (pardon the pun) of some fringe material, such as occultist and hermetic literature. Some of these new forms were more impressive. Publishers, much as they do today, abridged massive classics into more easily digestible (i.e., marketable) editions. They could also gather several small works on a similar topic and publish them together in one volume. Many publishers composed works themselves based on knowledge they had acquired while printing other books. The how-to manual came into vogue, with publishers offering step-by-step advice on mastering all manner of skills. More innovations that deal directly with scientific advancement will be discussed in a later article.

The most tangible expression of this new commercial enterprise was a new location in the town square: the printer’s shop. Within the larger shops, the master printer served as the CEO of an organization that linked him to a number of other professions. He negotiated with suppliers for materials, cultivated clients, directed assistants, and planned future projects. Printers often ended up as authors themselves, so they would often enlist expert consultants to ensure the quality of their materials. They had to coordinate the efforts of illustrators with the typographers to make sure diagrams and text appeared correctly.

A woodcut from Jost Amman, The Printer’s Workshop (1568), explaining the various people and activities involved in printing.

Any new, profitable industry is going to generate competition. Competition spurs innovation, especially in marketing. Printing for the first time allowed mass advertising, and the initial beneficiaries of these techniques were the publishers themselves. The publishers could print notices of new books or distribute catalogs of available titles. But most advertising did not occur through texts dedicated solely to marketing; rather, it occurred in the books themselves. Medieval scribes were reluctant to take credit for their work. It is unusual for a copy to identify the copyist. On the contrary, publishing houses developed seals, logos in the modern sense, and decorated their books with them. Perhaps the most important innovation is one modern readers take for granted: the title page. Title pages were unusual in the Middle Ages. Any given manuscript might contain multiple different works that happened to be copied together. The beginning of each work might be signified by a line of text announcing the beginning of the new work, or by special attention lavished on the opening line, or not at all. Printers began to compose elaborate, beautiful title pages in order to attract people to their work. The publisher’s name would be prominent. The title page of a classic work would often contain a boast like this, “now in the most carefully edited and accurately printed edition ever.”

Title page of a volume of Philipp Melanchthon’s sermons, with elaborate ornamentation and the printer’s name prominently displayed. The circle at the bottom may be the printer’s seal.

If printing was for the most part a commercial enterprise, and if (as later articles will show) it had significant effects on the intellectual, religious, and political state of Europe, we must conclude that the rise of printing is one of the first identifiable examples of world culture being influenced by “the market.” Along with the spice trade and the slave trade, printing began to tie Europe and even the New World together in a trans-national capitalist culture. Subject to far less effective regulation than ecclesiastical scribes and university professors, the new network of printers ensured that any information that could sell, would sell, no matter the consequences.


One comment on “The Printing Revolution: Commercial Consequences

  1. Bruce Buchanan

    All the best to your blog-venture.