A Brief Summary of The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, by Elizabeth Eisenstein
In her book, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Elizabeth Eisenstein contends that without the invention of the printing press in Europe there would not have been a Renaissance. This single, overlooked development caused tremendous political, intellectual, commercial, social, and economic changes that brought a new era of thought to Europe. The significance of the printing press should not be overlooked, however, I think that the Renaissance would still have developed even without the invention of the printing press.
Oral Culture to Print
Eisenstein argues that the press brought changes to every facet of life. With more books and letters, the press transformed the minds of people who could read into critical thinkers and scholars. Europe moved from being an oral culture, that of passing stories by word of mouth, to a print culture where books contained information so that people would not have to keep stories in memory. Due to the printing press, education changed as well. A scholar could read and learn on his/her own accord, instead of waiting for a teacher to pass on the information. Books became the method of learning and if one wanted to learn more then all he or she needed to do was read. This meant that books had to become means of well-supported and academically acceptable information.
Eisenstein also contends that the advent of the printing press brought a standardization to the languages in Europe. With more books being printed in each of the languages, the people of each region were able to understand others nearby, as a hybrid generic version of their language was being published in books. With better communication among local regions, states began to form and nationalism became commonplace. This also led to widespread reform in politics and religion. People could now read the Bible for themselves and interpret the verse for themselves, forcing religious institutions to change and combat growing animosity.
Growth in Societal Awareness
The invention and spread of the printing press had an impressive impact on European society. It helped breakdown communication barriers and spread ideas, and forced old-age institutions to change. However, the Renaissance does not owe its development solely to the advent of the printing press. The spread of the Renaissance era is rooted in the institutions of the northern states of Italy. Within these northern states, such as Florence, Venice, and Rome, political, economic, and social systems were destined to give birth to the Renaissance.
Nationalism & Cultural Development
After a series of plagues and the beginning of a relatively peaceful time period, the northern regions of Italy began to experience great economic wealth. Merchant guilds, with varying power, sprang up in every city, but with an increasingly competitiveness for wealth and status. As a sign of power, nobles and wealthy merchants began to erect monuments, have artists paint, and financed researchers. I believe that this competitiveness and desire to be frivolous by accomplishing great feats in the name of the city and for the people, is the founding principle behind the Renaissance. This rich strive to compete put artists versus artists, architect versus architect, even scholar versus scholar. The competition to show-off status created a frenzy to accomplish more in every aspect of life, whether it be science, art, geography, architecture, religion or politics, etc. To gain prestige in early modern Europe was to do something or create something that would awe the public, and today this same societal institution is upheld in our nation. Artists, musicians, businessmen, politicians, etc. all vie for prestige and power and to leave their mark on society.
The accomplishments of one man or group of individuals is enough to motivate another to take on another feat. The outstanding monuments in Florence alone are enough to inspire more artists to paint, architects to design stronger buildings, and scholars to seek a better understanding of science. In the past, the Crusades and the “Dark Age” were times of constant turmoil, plague, and economic dysfunction and thus could not house this reciprocal increase of societal change that defines the Renaissance. Though marked with violence, the early modern era still saw a change of the view of human life. People began to believe in themselves as individuals, because the social and economic institutions of northern Italy gave merit to those whom gained prestige i.e. the de Medici family. Also, people could now believe that they are capable of surviving harsh times, such as the Crusades and Bubonic plague.
This new belief in self-worth and the individual created the Renaissance. It motivated people to create, learn, love, and change their lives to step out of the harsh realities of the world. Although the printing press changed the methods of the way people receive information, it did not create the Renaissance as Eisenstein has duly argued. The Renaissance began, because of a new desire to better human life and was spurred on by a rich competitiveness to between people who desired to put their names in history.