A Discussion on Eisenstein's Views on the Revolution Brought by the Gutenberg Printing Press of the 1440's

Categories: Printing Press

The Gutenberg Printing Press of the 1440’s, through the combination of three innovations, cumulatively led to the mass production of books, maps, pamphlets and more. This stark contrast to copyists and scribes is said to have “revolutionized print, early modern culture and more – Elizabeth Eisenstein being the main proponent. However, others such as Adrian Johns doubt the validity of the claim, arguing that no new features were introduced by printing.? This essay will discuss this debate that pervades the literature on print, first discussing the parameters of the term ‘revolution’.

Next it will focus on the attributes and flaws of Eisenstein’s argument, which ultimately overstates the role of print. It willthen moveto discuss Johns’published work, concluding that it rather underplays the impact of print. It then seeks to move the debate forward to the understudied effect of print on the economic sector of consumption, in particularly books, and concludes that the printing press was not a ‘revolution’ in the more traditionally accepted way – but wasperhaps revolutionary in changing economic dynamics as it helped to irreversibly change the market of non-essential consumer goods.

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Firstly, I will discuss the parameters of ‘revolution’. Surprisingly, even Eisenstein barely considers the parameter of the phrase, using it as arguably a blanket’ term to merely imply change. Therefore it was necessary to look elsewhere for definitions of ‘revolution.’ Aside from the political definitions and connotation, Dale Yoder puts forward that a cultural revolution is an abrupt ‘change in the social processes underlying and supporting the fundamental structural elements of society: the political, economic, religious and other institutions.

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This is certainly a workable definition but it is not necessary that a revolution adhere to all of the above parameters. Thus I will define a revolution in this cultural context as -a marked change to a fundamental structure of society and it is necessary that the previous order be not returned to. However, unlike a political revolution, a cultural, economic or social revolution does not happen with the same immediacy, as say a military coup. Alteration to fundamental structures of society takes longer thus we should be more lenient with the timeframes applied to “revolution in conjunction to printing.

Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979) has been one of the most influential works in the field of the ‘print revolution’, partlybecause her work has been vigorously debated, particularly by Adrian Johns. “Eisenstein’s collection of work, though extensive, largely argues that the advent of print altered institutions, traditions, occupations, and fostered new ways of thinking and expression in Western Europe during the late fifteenth century, which created what she calls a ‘Print Culture.’ Eisenstein even goes as far to state that he printing press gave rise to the Renaissance, Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution. Despite such grandiose claims, there is certainly a basis for the argument. Firstly, the scale of the development of Gutenberg’s printing press is undeniable -in Italy alone, print shops had been established in seventy-seven cities and towns by 1500. At the end of the following century, 151 locations in Italy had seen printing activities, with a total of nearly three thousand printers known to be active?

This increased access to many texts for all sections of society, including the non-elites, for whom this development also increased literacy rates. Moreover, the production of cheap ephemeral print emerged, such as broadsheets and single imaged allowed non-elite access to print also.For elites there was increased access to a wider range of books and this also had a profound impact upon schooling as students were able to own their own books, which led to the development of textual criticism. Additionally, in terms of the Reformation, Luther and other reformers utilized the print to distribute their ideas in the form of pamphlets, vernacular bibles and catechistic texts, that would not have been as accessible or widespread without the technological innovation – although the Catholic Church was a lot slower to adopt print. The broader access to texts transcended traditional class boundaries, to a certain extent, and thus can be considered revolutionary as it quickly altered the fundamental social structure about who hadthe access knowledge.

However, ultimately, Eisenstein overstates the role of the printing press. For example, she arguesthat print played a dominant role in facilitating the Scientific Revolution. Although innovative ideas were more widely disseminated, letter writing between academics in what is called the ‘communication networks’ was still the dominant form of communication, of which print played no role.1oPrint only became important in publishing these works.

Secondly, Eisenstein does little to address the restriction upon printing which somewhat negates its revolutionary status. There was still considerable censorship placed upon published materials – both secular and religious. Secular censorship focused on treasonous or seditious material, whilst religious censorship existed in both Protestant and Catholic territories, but was more institutional in the Catholic world with the Creation of Index of Prohibited Books (1559).’ Despite some illegal titles being smuggled into cities, this was a selective and expensive process. Therefore, for the most part, the types of text were unaltered and print just increased the quantity of material published. Although it changed who had access to knowledge, it did not always change the knowledge itself thus cannot be considered revolutionary in this sense.

Additionally, and most crucially, Eisenstein’s work has methodological failings. A considerable amount of her work is based upon secondary literature rather than books of the period – which is a fact fiercely critiqued by Johns. Methodologically this means there is a distinct lack of specific empirical evidence, which in turn creates an issue with her use of causality. Some of her bold statements could therefore theoretically just be a correlation, rather than directly consequential of the printing press. Equally, this is a challenge with the topic more broadly; it is hard to establish a direct causal link, for example – was the French Revolution a clear result of the Enlightenment and was the Enlightenment a direct result of the ‘revolution’ that was the printing press? It seems more like a convenient narrative, rather than an effective analysis.

Conversely, Johnssomewhat controversially argues that no new features were introduced by printing and that there was little difference between copyists and printers – that it was merely a change in pace. Johns sees Eisenstein’s theory as being more about the profession than about the early modern period itself,’ and wholly disagrees that it changed the intellectual and cultural landscape of Europe as Eisenstein does. Whilst this is too reductive and dismissive, Johns offers valid criticism and alternatives. He rather believes that printing needs to be studied more form a local perspective and that we should rather look at how communities came to understand and use the new function of print, rather than aggrandizing positivist narratives of ‘revolution.’ This approach could well be joined with the work of historians such as Carlo Ginzburg, who pushes for a more social orientated, micro-history. Maybe it is better to ask a question such as – did non-elites recognize the magnitude of this development?

Lastly I’d like to consider a somewhat understudied aspect of the revolutionary nature of the impact of the printing press – the economic consequences. It is frequently cited how print led to a dramatic increase in books and that books eventually became commonplace in availability, in both the elite and eventually non-elite households. But is rarely evaluated beyond this. In 1500 there was an estimated twenty million books in circulation in Europe and by 1600, 150-200 million. Although the figures are somewhat imprecise, due to evidence of print runs being fragmentary, and the number of books being firstly concentrated on elite and middling classes, and secondly dependent on location, the sheer increase cannot be denied. Thus further study into the economic impact is justified.

Moving forward to discuss the new type financing that emerged, even though manuscript production was not eradicated, books were ultimately the first non-essential item that was mass-produced, and this was changed which has never been reversed.  This in turn created a new form of financing. Raymond de Roover has even argued that financing books had similar problems to modern financing of commodities – the problem of attracting capital because ‘to commit oneself to a print run meant putting up substantial money in advance, which could only be retrieved after the book was sold. This putting up of such capital took more financing than many could afford, especially with more widely circulated texts and it is also argued that it even helped play a role in the launching of banking. Lisa Jardin has gone as far to argue that by the early sixteenth century, ‘books were bought and sold as freely…as loaves of bread. Although a clear exaggeration, it is valid comment when thinking about the change in pace of the market for book. The key here is the market; the necessity of capital the printing press demanded forced an economic move to financing and investment in the mass production of a non-essential item that depended on basic economic theories of supply and demand – a theory thatwas built upon and now dominates the market of non-essential items.

Secondly, the printing press was a revolutionary force in the development of consumerism. Print signaled the move away from the patron-client relationship and towards books being produced due to their popularity; larger runs were printed for controversial or best selling items and books were also reprinted if they were in demand. For example, 1,123,000 copies of Virgil’s Aeneid were printed between 1469 and 1599, when normal runs of books would be range in the two hundred to three hundred area. Moreover, printed books became the first mass produced object collected by European elites. Although a typical lower class household would not be able to afford the still expensive books, smaller, cheaper version were produced which did become available to the average early modern European.22Prints of books then thus pandered to the demand of the market – books became a commodity. This somewhat altered the dynamics of consumption, out of every income some would go towards non-essential items; books were often at the heart of this, especially religious texts. Admittedly, however, there were similar developments elsewhere in the area of consumption based on the non-essential goods market. Innovation in print is rarely seen as cause of this development, but rather usually accredited to proto-industrialization or trade expansion. However, print was an important part of this development as books were the first mass-produced consumer item that transcended class boundaries, which is indicative of it revolutionary nature.

To recant, whilst the printing press may not have played the dominant role in giving rise to the Renaissance, Reformation, and the Enlightenment as Eisenstein puts forward, it did create significant cultural change and had irreversible impact, which speaks to its somewhat revolutionary nature. At the very least, the printing press was a catalyst for the exchange of information over a broader audience that still continues today. Adrian John’s however, despite his many valid criticisms of Eisenstein’s work, belittles its impact too much and denies effect it had on the changing intellectual and cultural landscape. However this bilateral exchange of ideas and criticism has too long pervaded the study of the printing press. Instead we should look to other analytical frameworks; I put forward the idea that the printing press gave rise to one of the most important non-essential mass-produced items – books. This not only created a form of consumerism within the literary world at least, but also introduced new forms of financing to the market economy. Evidently, there needs to be more research into the relationship between the printing press and changes in the early modern economy, but it at least offers a different paradigm of study. If we consider the economic impacts, print can be considered not a “revolution’ but a revolutionary force due its swift, large and irreversible changes.


  1. De Roover, Raymond, “New Facets on the Financing and Marketing of Early Modern Books”, Bulletin of the Business Historical Society, Vol.27, No.4, (1953), p.222
  2. Eisenstein, E., “An Unacknowledged Revolution Revisited.” American Historical Review. 107(2002), pp.88106
  3. Eisenstein, E., The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979)
  4. Eisenstein, E., The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (1983)
  5. Holborn, Louise W., Printing and the Growth of a Protestant Movement in Germany from 1517 to 1524, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Jun., 1942), pp. 123-137
  6. Jardin, Lisa, Worldy Goods A New History of the Renaissance, (Macmillan, 1996) Johns, Adrian, How to acknowledge a Revolution’, American Historical Review debate: How Revolutionary Was the Print Revolution’, American Historical Review, vol.107, (2002)
  7. Knights M. and McShane, A. ‘From Pen to Print – A Revolution in Communications?’ in B.
  8. Kumin (ed.), The European World 1500-1800: An introduction to Early Modern History’ (Routledge, 2009)
  9. McCabe, Ina Baghdiantz, A History of Global Consumption: 1500-1800, (Routledge, 2005)
  10. Swinburne, Algernon Charles, The Influence of the Roman Censorship on the Morals of the People, (New York 1964)
  11. Yoder, D., “Current Definitions of Revolution”. American Journal of Sociology 32.3 (1926), pp.433–441.

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A Discussion on Eisenstein's Views on the Revolution Brought by the Gutenberg Printing Press of the 1440's. (2021, Sep 11). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-discussion-on-eisenstein-s-views-on-the-revolution-brought-by-the-gutenberg-printing-press-of-the-1440-s-essay

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