The Printing Revolution: Miracle of the Standardized Text

In my first article on the printing revolution, I explored Elizabeth Eisenstein’s assertion that what rendered printing a powerful new commercial industry was the reduction of man-hours needed to produce a high volume of copies. Now I want to turn my focus to how printing transformed the intellectual culture of Europe. Between 1450 and 1650, the frontiers of every domain of knowledge were prodigiously enlarged. The early modern world advanced so rapidly, and so keenly recognized its own progress, that Europe became embarrassed at its medieval past. What was wrong with us then, asked its intellectuals, as if reminiscing on awkward, unfocused teen years. Printing, I believe, supplies a generous piece of the answer.

What printing gave European intellectuals must have seemed like nothing short of a miracle, the ability to proliferate standardized texts. This in turn allowed knowledge to be fixed, created, disseminated, corrected, and accumulated. In my next article I will detail all the consequences following from this one new ability, but in this article I want to make the case for just how significant and wonderful the standardized text was and is.

First of all, we are so familiar today with standardized texts that it may take some effort to imagine a world without them and how their appearance transformed that world. If we could transport ourselves back, say, into a classroom in the University of Oxford in the thirteenth century, we might be able to get a sense of the culture. Today the lesson is on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, and the magister asks everyone to look at the top of page 17. Except he doesn’t, because that command, commonplace in modern classrooms, is meaningless in medieval Oxford. In a world in which everything was copied by hand, there was never any guarantee that one copy of a text would look like another one. Scribes wrote in hands of various sizes. They also wrote on different materials, and on different-sized pieces of the same material. Some uniformity might have been introduced by scribes specializing on certain works, so that all the copies of Tobit made by Brother Paulus were somewhat similar, but that was by no means assured. In fact, rather than buying books, poor students often took whatever scrap paper they had and simply copied down the relevant portions from someone else’s text.

Good luck getting two identical hand-made copies of this page of a breviary from Chertsey Abbey, England (14th c.).

So instead our magister would have had to say something like, “Look at book 1, distinction 3, chapter 1, paragraph 2.” This bulky system was in part derived from the intellectual contents of the books themselves, as medieval theologians loved to mirror the highly ordered, hierarchical cosmos they imagined in their books as much as in their cathedrals. However, it also served the more practical purpose of allowing readers to locate a particular passage in a long, dense text. Older works would have had even fewer guideposts. Important works, such as Augustine’s City of God, were at some point divided into chapters and paragraphs for easier citation, but accuracy of citation varied considerably in the medieval period. It was not uncommon for medieval authors to cite a passage from a church father by saying, “toward the end of book 7,” or “near the beginning of his third catachetical oration,” or most simply, “somewhere.”

The difference printing made can be summed up in one word: edition. Today, if two people are reading from two copies of the same book, and they find that their words are different or that their pages don’t line up, the mystery is usually dissolved rather quickly by the discovery that they are holding different editions. This is itself remarkable. Manuscripts all differ from each other unpredictably and idiosyncratically. Editions differ from each other consistently, in that all copies of edition A should differ from edition B the same ways. Our word “edition” come from the Latin edare, to put forth; it was originally used to describe what was put forth from a printing press in one run. The printers labeled their editions so that both they and their readers would know exactly which text was which, and so they could advertise new editions.


Title page of 1516 Erasmus Greek New Testament

One consequence of this for scholars is that it is relatively easy to match fragments of published works to their editions. Even if a fragment is missing the title page, one merely needs to compare whatever portion is available to known editions, looking for a match. Because printed materials were usually dated, scholars working with print texts get to skip most of the haggling that consumes medieval scholars, reconstructing the chronological sequence of different versions (recensions) of a text.

The very existence of a standardized text, an edition, began to change the literary world. In this article, I will focus on how it began to change the book itself. I have already pointed out that books began to advertise explicitly their edition. That is a small but significant change. More noticeable is the addition of page numbers. Page numbers were useful to readers, keeping them from losing their place, to authors, allowing them to cite other books accurately, and to publishers, helping them put the sheets into the binding in the correct order. Page numbers also allowed a number of other innovations to become more popular and more useful. Both the table of contents and the index had existed before printing, but neither had been as common or useful as they were in printed books. The index with page numbers was especially welcome to intellectuals who were deluged with more books than ever before and had to compensate by reading more selectively. Page numbers also allowed for easier systems of cross-referencing, another innovation embraced by authors newly aware of the wide world of books.

Standardized texts also made it possible to reverse the tendency of the Middle Ages toward less and less accurate texts, each one copied from a copy. Now new books, newer additions, could actually become progressively more accurate. Whatever mistakes were found in a first edition could be discovered and pointed out to the publisher. In future editions the publisher could either issue an errata sheet (the easy way) or incorporate the changes (the good way). Sometimes this was abused. Erasmus’ first edition of the Greek New Testament was horribly error-ridden, pushed out as a rush job to beat a rival text. It still sold like teen vampire fiction and left the buyers coming back for subsequent editions.

One of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s most perceptive claims is that, as much as standardization offered advantages related to the text, it was even more beneficial to drawings, charts, and mathematical tables. Consider maps. Many maps from the Middle Ages eschewed any type of literal correspondence between their visual depictions and the topography of the land they represented. Many of them instead offered artistic representations of the world according to cosmological criteria. For example there is the map shown below, depicting Christ ruling over the cosmos. The heavenly bodies ring the world, which is centered on Jerusalem.

Reportedly ca. 1250, but I was unable to verify the source.

Any attempt to copy a map with this much complexity would require a talented and patient scribe. However, its figurative nature means that if the copyist didn’t get every little town or hill in quite the right spot, no real harm would be done. Literal maps, used for navigating at sea or for directing merchants along trade routes, needed to have objects in just the right place and on a usable scale. Copying maps by hand would inevitably result in a spate of slightly different maps. If copies were made from copies, the proportions could further degrade, and it might be impossible to tell which maps were accurate originals and which multi-generation copies. With printing, one expert had to make one perfect image, which could then be replicated just about perfectly until the equipment wore down or broke. This applied not just to maps, but to architectural diagrams, encyclopedias of flora and fauna, geometry textbooks, etc.

So, the next time you are in a classroom, or at book club, or at a training seminar, or holding a church hymnal, or anywhere that someone asks a room full of people all to look down at the same text, remember that your ability to do so is the result of technological marvels just short of the miraculous.