the gutenberg game

I just finished the excellent The Printing Press As An Agent of Change, by Elizabeth Eisenstein, and wanted to get down a few notes about it so I do not forget them.

There’s a good summary here, and two good (though old) interviews here and here.

  • Many historians don’t think the printing press was that important; Eisenstein obviously disagrees.
  • Eisenstein thinks McLuhan had good ideas, but thinks he was a bad historian (which seem reasonable to me).
  • Before the printing press in 1450, everything was spectacularly different. To wit:
    • Books were so rare as to be nonexistent – a scholar had to travel to the books, not the other way around
    • Books were copied by hand, by scribes. This lead to endless mistakes and slow-burning corruption of information – especially tables of data for, say, astronomy.
    • Images could not be recreated reliably – so no maps, no anatomy drawings, etc.
  • Early print culture had problems with incorrect versions of books (Aristotle, say) being published. This would sometimes last for several generations before the data could be corrected.
  • Luther’s 95 Theses were, of course, spread by print – but Luther did not publish them himself.
  • The Catholic Church did not want laypeople reading the Bible, period – the Protestant Church wanted people reading the Bible in their own languages. You can draw a large number of conclusions about the overall cultures of Protestant vs Catholic countries from this statement, many of which will probably be exaggerated – but it is still a profound difference.
  • Other religious heresies lasted longer, got to more people, and generally had more impact after print than before print
  • Printing, specifically reading the Bible in the vernacular may have led directly to witch hunts.
  • The previous European “Renaissances” failed because they lacked printing. The Italian Renaissance worked because of printing.
  • Early print shops were hubs of knowledge, technical skill, and information exchange – sometimes associated with universities, sometimes not – but generally bringing together smart and forward-thinking people.
  • Being able to spread and compare knowledge very quickly had a massive impact on the early modern world.