Writing Technologies

Writing Technologies in the Renaissance

Jonathan Sawday

The social effects of this new form of mechanical labour were incalculable. Certainly, writers and intellectuals now had to be aware, as they need never have been before, of the importance of mechanism in a practical sense, to the generation and distribution of their ideas. Just as modern authors, in the digital age, have had to acquaint themselves with at least some vestigial idea of digital technology if they are to distribute their words and thoughts either in the traditional form of the book, or via the newer technologies of e-mail, the web page, or the blog, so Renaissance writers became more aware of mechanism as it impinged on their professional lives. The simple fact that, as their works passed through the press authors were often expected to attend the print shop in order to make corrections to the proof copies of their texts as they were thrown off the machines, introduced authors to the inky, mechanical world of mechanisms and their ever more skilful human servants.8 ‘Professors’ writes Eisenstein ‘came into closer contact with metal workers and mechanics’ and this inevitable proximity of intellectual and mechanical labour helped to bring about the redefinition of certain kinds of ‘work’.9

The print shop, too, represented a means of organizing work and labour that accorded in its outline with that idea of the ‘division of labour’ that can be associated with Adam Smith’s ideas in the later eighteenth century. In the world of manuscripts the many skills and tasks involved in producing a book, which included the raising, feeding, and then slaughtering of animals, the manufacture of vellum from their skins, the mixing of inks from organic and mineral sources which in turn had to be mined, collected, or harvested and then prepared, the process of copying, illuminating, binding and so on, were distributed widely through the community. Producing a manuscript book, in the pre-print era, mobilised a galaxy of seemingly unrelated skills and crafts. Printing, on the other hand, for all that it drew on an equally wide range of distributed tasks, tended to compress activity into a shop structure, which, in turn, involved workers pooling their skills under one roof. 10 Print brought people closer together, allowing them to learn from one another not only in communities of readers, but as producers of objects.

It was not, of course, that Europeans had never before had to work in conformity with a machine. The plough, after all, is a machine of sorts, though we more commonly refer to it, in its earlier forms, as a tool.11 But the ploughman’s work was solitary. Printing, on the other hand, in common with weaving and spinning, were gradually evolving into a ‘shop’ structure in Europe in the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.12 The fifteenth- and sixteenth-century print shop was a place of bustling group activity, where the workers had to learn to adapt their bodies and their minds to labour together, with their activity governed by the rhythm of the operation of the press itself. The turn of the mechanical screw, quite literally, dictated the pace of labour and hence the rapidity (as well as the quality) with which bibles, almanacs, pamphlets, technical treatises, as well as the more familiar literary and philosophical works of the period could be generated and distributed. As Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin have commented, those who, in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, were learning to work with moveable type had to develop an entirely new range of skills. Speed was a factor in this process: ‘to work really fast a compositor has to handle the letters without pausing or looking: he has to become an automaton, just like a modern typist at the keyboard’.13 What Michel Foucault has termed ‘the automatisim of habit’, by which the body is recomposed in conformity with some exterior force (whether the exigencies of military drill, the factory, or even the school conceived of as ‘a machine for learning’) had its roots in a mechanism designed to press a blank sheet of paper against an ink-covered surface, over and over again.14

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8. On author's attending (or failing to attend) the presses, see: H. S. Bennett, English Books and Readers 1475 - 1640 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), III. pp. 211- 212.

9. Eisenstein, Printing Press as an Agent of Change, p. 56.

10. Eisenstein, Printing Press as an Agent of Change, p. 55.

11. The European heavy plough, the carucca, was to transform agriculture in the middle ages. See Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 32.

12. On spinning and weaving in early-modern Europe, see Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 104 - 133.

13. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book trans. David Gerard (London and New York: Verso, 1997), p. 62.

14. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 135, 165.

  Writing Technologies in the Renaissance