Impact of the invention of printing
Samuel Hartlib, who was exiled in Britain and enthusiastic about social and cultural reforms, wrote in 1641 that “the art of printing will so spread knowledge that the common people, knowing their own rights and liberties, will not be governed by way of oppression”. For both churchmen and governments, it was concerning that print allowed readers, eventually including those from all classes of society, to study religious texts and politically sensitive issues by themselves, instead of thinking mediated by the religious and political authorities.
It took a long long time for print to penetrate Russia and the Orthodox Christian world, a region (including modern Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria) where reading ability was largely restricted to the clergy. In 1564, a White Russian brought a press to Moscow, and soon after that his workshop was destroyed by a mob.
In the Muslim world, printing, especially in Arabic or Turkish was strongly opposed throughout the early modern period (printing in Hebrew was sometimes permitted). Indeed, the Muslim countries have been regarded as a barrier to the passage of printing from China to the West. According to an imperial ambassador to Istanbul in the middle of the sixteenth century, it was a sin for the Turks to print religious books. In 1515, Sultan Selim I issued a decree under which the practice of printing would be punishable by death. At the end of the century, Sultan Murad III permitted the sale of non-religious printed books in Arabic characters, yet the majority were imported from Italy.
Jews were banned from German printing guilds; as a result Hebrew printing sprang up in Italy, beginning in 1470 in Rome, then spreading to other towns. Local rulers had the authority to grant or revoke licenses to publish Hebrew books.
It was thought that the introduction of the printing medium ‘would strengthen religion and enhance the power of monarchs.’ The majority of books were of religious nature with the church and crown regulating the content. The consequences of printing wrong material were extreme. Meyrowitz used the example of William Carter who, in 1584, printed a pro-Catholic pamphlet in Protestant-dominated England. The consequence of his action was hanging.
The widespread distribution of the Bible ‘had a revolutionary impact, because it decreased the power of the Catholic Church as the prime possessor and interpretor of God’s word.
Print gave a broader range of readers access to knowledge and enabled later generations to build on the intellectual achievements of earlier ones. Print, according to Acton in his lecture On the Study of History (1895), gave “assurance that the work of the Renaissance would last, that what was written would be accessible to all, that such an occultation of knowledge and ideas as had depressed the Middle Ages would never recur, that not an idea would be lost”.
Print was instrumental in changing the nature of reading within society.
Elizabeth Eisenstein identifies two long term effects of the invention of printing. She claims that print created a sustained and uniform reference for knowledge as well as allowing for comparison between incompatible views. (Eisenstein in Briggs and Burke, 2002: p21)
Asa Briggs and Peter Burke identify five kinds of reading that developed in relation to the introduction of print:
1. Critical reading: due to the fact that texts finally became accessible to the general population, critical reading emerged because people were given the option to form their own opinions on texts.
2. Dangerous Reading: reading was seen as a dangerous pursuit because it was considered rebellious and unsociable. This was especially in the case of women because reading could stir up dangerous emotions like love. There was also the concern that if women could read, they could read love notes.
3. Creative reading: Printing allowed people to read texts and interpret them creatively, often in very different ways than the author intended.
4. Extensive Reading: Print allowed for a wide range of texts to become available, thus, previous methods of intensive reading of texts from start to finish, began to change. With texts being readily available, people began reading on particular topics or chapters, allowing for much more extensive reading on a wider range of topics.
5. Private reading: This is linked to the rise of individualism. Before print, reading was often a group event, where one person would read to a group of people. With print, literacy rose as did availability of texts, thus reading became a solitary pursuit.
“While the invention of printing has been discussed conventionally in terms of its value for spreading ideas, it’s even greater contribution is its furthering of the long-developing shift in the relationship between space and discourse”.
The proliferation of media that Ong is discussing in relation to the introduction of the printing press, to the death of an oral culture and that this new culture had more of an emphasis on the visual rather than in an auditory medium. As such the printing press gave birth to a more accessible and widely available source of knowledge in the sense that it broke down the boundaries between the possessors of knowledge and the masses. The narrative or discourse now existed in what would become indirectly through time, the global village.
The invention of printing also changed the occupational structure of European cities. Printers emerged as a new group of artisans for whom literacy was essential, although the much more labour-intensive occupation of the scribe naturally declined. Proof-correcting arose as a new occupation, while a rise in the amount of booksellers and librarians naturally followed the explosion in the numbers of books.
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