Writing Technologies in the Renaissance1

Jonathan Sawday

In the final years of the fifteenth century, following the adoption of the mechanical press, the development of re-distributable type, and the use of high quality paper and oil-based inks, it was now possible to produce and distribute in virtually identical copies, texts and images. A fundamental product of the replicative capacities of the mechanical printing press was its capacity to produce ‘uniform spatio-temporal images’. 2 In this respect, we can think of the printed book as a form of memory appliance. It represented a means of storing and recovering complex information and ideas. Of course, printed texts could become corrupted or be reproduced from inferior originals. But print had the effect of ‘freezing’ an idea or a design at one stage of its evolution, which, in turn, made it easier to transmit technical information from one locality to another, or even, though time, from one generation to the next.3 Improvement, the process by which a design or an idea could be re-worked so that it became more efficient, or re-designed entirely and applied to an entirely different task, paradoxically, rested on that quality of fixity that seemed so unique to print.

The importance of print to the growth of scientific and intellectual culture in Europe in the sixteenth century has been comprehensively explored over the past few years.4 Perhaps surprisingly, its importance to technological culture has been less widely appreciated. Printing was, after all, the application of mechanism to the task of generating texts, and hence disseminating ideas. But it was also an offshoot of advances in metallurgy and the development of metal industries, particularly in southern Germany, in the early fifteenth century.5 We can, though, only speculate as to the extent to which the enormous growth in the circulation of printed material in both Europe and the ‘New World’ of the Americas (a printing press had been established in Mexico City as early as 1533), even within populations that were largely illiterate, fostered an interest in the mechanical culture which was both generated by, and helped in turn to foster the spread of the mechanical presses.6 Walter Ong, however, following Marshall McLuhan, has indicated some of the shifts in mentalités attributable to the advent of the printing press. For Ong, the printing press heralded the primacy of sight over hearing, the development of indexes and (later) dictionaries, the sense of a book being ‘less like an utterance and more like a thing’, the exploitation of ‘typographic space’ to generate meaning as in a poem such as George Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’, or space as a marker of silence or absence as in the instance of the famous blank page in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759 – 1767). Even the development of the idea of the ‘point of view’, personal privacy, private ownership, and the sense of closure associated with literary texts, have been attributed to the advent of printing as a mechanical undertaking.7

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

Authors were by no means aloof from this mechanical process. Indeed, they had to learn to accommodate themselves to the ‘timetable’ or ‘schedule’ that was a further manifestation of mechanical culture. A common complaint of authors, in the first decades of print, was that the printers and their servants were working too quickly or ‘hedelynge [headlong] and in hast’ as one author complained in 1509, suggesting that it was only with some difficulty that authors adapted themselves to the new pace set by the mechanisms of print, if, indeed, they have ever succeeded.15 In the case of the print shop, the production of books was now working to a faster pace, since no printer would have wished the machines to stand idle, waiting for copy or emendations and corrections to the proofs.16 That bane of authors and publishers alike, the deadline (and with it the familiar litany of excuses for missing deadlines, or producing poor copy), was an aspect of mechanical culture that can be thought of as an offshoot of the development of print technology. The idea that a book should be finished on a particular date, rather than when the author judged that the labour was at an end, was an entirely new facet of intellectual work, as was the calculation of the exact rate at which a given work could be printed.17 Speed, together with accuracy, would become new markers of ‘efficiency’, which would, in the course of time, become a key term in the deployment of machinery. Even one hundred years after the first appearance of the mechanical printing press, the efficiency of this device still had the capacity to astonish those who observed it in operation: ‘it would appear to be incredible if experience did not prove it to be true’, wrote an anonymous French writer some time before 1572, ‘that four or five workers can produce in one day as much excellent script as three or for thousand of the best scribes of the whole world by this most excellent art of printing’.18 Of course, this was an exaggeration. As the bibliographer D. F. McKenzie has argued, the output of the early-modern print shop was certainly much lower than was once imagined by print historians.19 Nevertheless, for all that it is easy to exaggerate the volume of print production when compared to the production of texts by non-mechanical methods, there arises a complaint on the part of authors unknown in the world of the manuscript: that their works had been marred or spoilt by the haste of the printers, anxious to keep their machines running at higher capacity. A Jacobean divine, Samuel Hieron, gives us a taste of the quickened pace of intellectual labour. In the preface to his collected sermons (published in 1614) Hieron explains that he lives ‘farre from the presse, and it requireth much time, to convey sheetes to and fro, betwixt the compositors and me’ and asks the reader to excuse the errors that have crept into his work due to the ‘hast of the printer, and my remoteness from the citie’.20

But it was, in the end, the output of the print shops – the printed book itself – which was the true signifier of the arrival of mechanical culture. As Marshall McLuhan has famously argued, ‘every aspect of Western mechanical culture was shaped by print technology’ and he continued:

Printing, remember, was the first mechanization of a complex handicraft; by creating an analytic sequence of step-by-step processes, it became the blue-print of all mechanization to follow. The most important quality of print is its repeatability; it is a visual statement that can be reproduced indefinitely, and repeatability is the root of the mechanical principle that has transformed the world since Gutenberg. Typography, by producing the first uniformly repeatable commodity, also created Henry Ford, the first assembly line and the first mass production. Movable type was archetype and prototype for all subsequent industrial development. Without phonetic literacy and the printing press, modern industrialism would be impossible. It is necessary to recognize literacy as typographic technology, shaping not only production and marketing procedures but all other areas of life, from education to city planning.21

One might quibble with many elements of McLuhan’s analysis here.22 Yet, there is a truth to McLuhan’s observations when we come to consider the idea of ‘repeatability’ which would, in time, give rise to the production lines of twentieth-century Detroit, Dagenham, or Tokyo. Print was indeed a ‘mechanism of repeatability’ as McLuhan has (elsewhere) written. In introducing the idea of repetition, both as an activity, and as an output in the form of the printed book itself, work, as well as intellectual culture, was transformed by mechanical process.23 Quite simply, in virtually no other aspect of life, other than perhaps in the case of artefacts produced with the help of the highly skilled craft of working with the mechanical rotary motion of the potter’s wheel, had it ever been possible to contemplate the production of any human artefact in considerable quantities of near uniform design, appearance, size, and quality prior to the advent of the printing press.

1. This essay offers a condensed version of some of the ideas pursued at more length in Jonathan Sawday, Engines of the Imagination: Renaissance Culture and the Rise of the Machine (New York and London: Routledge, 2007) chs.1 and 3.

2. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 81.

3. See Eugene S. Ferguson, Engineering and the Mind's Eye (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 107 - 113; Thomas J. Misa, Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), pp. 26 - 28.

4. As well as the work of Eisenstein and Bennett (see below), see Mark U. Edwards, Jr., Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994); Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (London: HarperCollins, 1997); Peter Murray Jones, 'Medicine and Science' in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain (Vol. 3), ed. by Lotte Hellinga and J. B. Trapp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 433 - 448; Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), pp. 149 - 196; Ian Green, Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

5. Lotte Hellinga, 'Printing' in Hellinga and Trapp (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, p. 69.

6. On the spread of the printing presses and the diffusion of books, see Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, 'Paperwolds: Imagining the Renaissance Computer' in Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 1.

7.See Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Routledge, 1982), pp. 115 - 129.

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.

15. Bennett, English Books and Readers, I, p. 218.

16. Bennett, English Books and Readers, III, p. 204.

17. On printing rates, see Bennett, English Books and Readers, II, p. 290. But note the forms of book production introduced in Paris in thirteenth century, which amounted to an industrialisation of the tasks of copying manuscripts. See Christopher de Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (London: Phaidon Press, 1994), pp. 130-132.

18. Anon, Plaidorie pour la reformation de l'imprimerie (Paris, 1572), fol. 3 r-v, quoted in Henry Heller, Labour, Science and Technology in France 1500 - 1620 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 25.

19. See D. F. McKenzie, Making Meaning: "Printers of the Mind" and other Essays ed. By Peter D. McDonald and Michael F. Suarez, S. J. (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), pp. 18 - 56.

20. Samuel Hieron, All the sermons of Samuel Hieron minister of Gods Word, at Modbury in Deuon heretofore sunderly published, now diligently reuised, and collected together into one volume (London, 1614), sig.2.

21. Marshall McLuhan, 'The Playboy Interview' Playboy Magazine (March 1969). [accessed 12 August 2005].

22. For a comprehensive critique of McLuhan's ideas, see Eisenstein, Printing Press as an Agent of Change, pp. 16 - 17.

23. Marshall McLuhan, The Guttenberg Galaxy: The making of Typographic Man (Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1962), p. 141.