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The Printing Press and the Cultural Emancipation of Early-Modern Europe, 1450-1800

The Printing Press and the Cultural Emancipation of Early-Modern Europe, 1450-1800 Merriam-Webster’s English dictionary defines emancipation as the, “… [freedom] from restraint, control, or the power of another, and [freedom] from any controlling influence. ” The cultural emancipation that began in early-modern Europe prior to the Renaissance had a deep effect on the lives of its constituents. The printing press, invented in 1455 by Johannes Gutenberg, presented the public with a new forum for book production as the very first method of mass publication.

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Previously, should multiple copies be printed, each would have to be transcribed by hand, a task which would be both labour-intensive, and take place over a large stretch of time. Due to both of these factors, the cost of purchasing a manuscript was astronomical, and limited to the privileged few who pertained to the upper-class, possessing small fortunes which could be spent frivolously. Prior to Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention, individuals were taught by religious leaders and could seek no information on their own.

The printing machine led to an increase in the number of books and decreased the price of them dramatically. There was a large demand for books but they were constructed very slowly by virtue of the fact that they were made by hand. The new efficient production method made the books accessible to common people for the first time. This accessibility quickly led to an increased number of literate and more educated individuals. These books became the wheel for the vehicle of cultural expression and emancipation from the choke hold of the church and state.

The printing press has been the main influence on an information revolution that has created drastic change in the lives of all individuals involved. It has given people the opportunity to spread their opinions and read about those of others, changing the landscape of mass communication, which has acted as a catalyst to the introducing and spread of new culture that is defined by the ideology of the majority. The history of the printing press is rooted in central Europe but has origins in the Far East as well. Printing presses were known in China but were not used, despite their efficiency.

While it was invented over three decades prior to Gutenberg’s metal printing press, the benefit of the new system was not as evident as there are thousands of Chinese characters, a far stretch from the simple 26-character modern alphabet used in European languages. While Gutenberg began by using wooden blocks to produce text, he transitioned to metal typography or letterpress printing in 1430 after moving to Strasbourg. The metal lettering could allow for quicker reproduction since one mold would need to be produced and replication would become less difficult.

The new printing presses, despite Gutenberg’s attempts to conceal them spread through Europe quickly. The books were being printed on cheap paper and no longer cost a fortune. Before the new printing presses, Cambridge’s publishing house owned a total of 122 books in its library. Each of these books cost the same as a small farm home or a vineyard. By 1499 publishing houses were developed in more than 2500 locations in Europe allowed for an ease of publication that had never been seen up-to-date. The landscape for literacy has evolved quickly.

As mentioned in an article on the cultural effect of the printing press, “Fifteen million books had been flung into a world where scholars would travel miles to visit a library stocked with twenty hand-written volumes. ” While the number of volumes released to the public is debated by scholars, as mentioned in the article itself, it is the effect of this increase in volume of books that is the truly staggering observable change. With a population hungry for knowledge, the new books were eagerly accepted and literacy rates began on a path of steady increase in most regions of Europe between the 16th and 19th centuries.

As stated in the following article, “The impact of Gutenberg’s printing press in Europe was comparable to the development of writing, the invention of the alphabet or the Internet, as far as its effects on society. ” Literacy and adequate literature are the keys to the social and cultural emancipation of a population and literacy serves as a stepping stone which leads to a series of cascading mechanisms which activate a transformation in a society. The increase in readership following the invention of the Gutenberg press created an adequate setting for the introduction of a social movement.

Literacy was essential to the comprehension of complex ideas in text and to develop and organize systems within which the scholarly and political organizations of the day and their members could function dexterously. The printing press did not immediately produce an explosion of democratization, but it laid the stepping stones for universal education and eventually the first newspaper. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the printing press was using inexpensive printing material and established the premises for widespread schooling.

Governments were given the opportunity to educate entire populations and took complete advantage of the technological printing press break through. Mass literacy was quickly acknowledged as a powerful instrument available to governments and education became a priority for many. Governments pushed for literacy in the hope to create populations that were more identifiable with the government rather than local communities. They wanted groups that could respond to a central system of governance that would participate in industries and trades.

Their actions, however, generated a population with critical political resources. They gathered the government’s strengths and weaknesses and came to their own conclusions about the world. Literacy generated more conscientious people who demanded rights and privileges from their government. The goals that the government had attempted to reach were in stark contrast with the reality of the situation. The printing press gave way to scientific journals, critical readings, and essays. Individuals were now able to voice their opinions and beliefs within a written context.

It allowed people to construct their social realities with their own definitions of gender, race and class taking power away from the authorities, which previously possessed it, and giving it to the working class. Individuals, before the increase in literacy which was realized by mass communication, relied solely on what was taught to them by authoritative leaders and religious figures. Now, they had more education on the main principles and access to what then seemed like innumerable sources for debate within their social circles.

With this, the individuals found themselves relating to each other more than the central power educating them and came together to contest their power. In contrast, illiteracy was not only the incapability of reading and writing but formed the difference between those that are culturally deprived and those that are culturally rich. As literacy rates grew exponentially, it allowed for new forms of expression between neighbors, friends, and acquaintances and unified them.

This rapidly spread quality information throughout the proletariat and petite bourgeoisie, adapting not only culture, but also blurring the lines between the supposed rich and poor, making information a new form of currency in the middle class. Literacy rate increases have been described often and in many revolutions as the underlying cause of their uprisings. With the promulgation of troubling information regarding the current legislation, many important actors in cultural revolutions have been spurred to coalesce in the battle against the repressive conditions instilled by their governments.

Three major revolutions – the English, the French, and Russian – took place when the literacy rate was higher than ordinary. The English revolution, for example, took place when the number of persons within the population that were literate had exceeded one third, a number than far exceeded its previous levels. In the English revolution, the people were capable of not only revoking the power of the government through their unification, they managed to execute their king.

With the literature passed around regarding the practices of the monarchy, though biased, it served to unify the people in their ideology and changed the political atmosphere of the country as a whole leading to a tremendous cultural change in the form of an experimental period of government. Replacing the monarchy of King Charles I was a period known as the “Commonwealth” which emphasized the unification of the people. This change in the pattern of human activity created a new culture where class was less prominent and the commoners set the grounds for social action.

Governments are extremely aware of the disadvantages of information equality and the threats it poses and mass literacy was even considered a danger in the eighteenth century by authority figures. They understood its meaning at its consequences if it was implemented into the population. Bernard Mandeville was of the most active critics on this topic and argued it thoroughly in ‘Essay on Charity and Charity-Schools’. He argued that the public needed to remain ignorant to stay happy with their lives as laborers, with little information on how to make their lives better, they would be less inclines to challenge or make demands of the government.

Literacy and education in the eighteenth century were associated with social mobility. Literacy was viewed as a threat to social order and stability, and a threat to the church and state. The spread of information has the capability to lead to social reforms and emancipations and, as mentioned, has done so in the past. A literate population has the potential to oppose and abbreviate the term of a government, and most importantly to reform its practices.

Mass communication of literature empowers individuals and populations and is the creator of a basis for freedom, liberation, and cultural emancipation. With the invention of the printing press, more than one cultural phenomenon took place. The mass publication of books, the spread of information to the working classes, the creation of a middle class, and the replacement of government and church power with unity of the population against totalitarian regimes are all results of Gutenberg’s letterpress printing.

By cutting costs, increasing accessibility, and implementing a better education system, the privilege of literacy was no longer exclusive to the upper class, and allowed for a more aware and responsive population. “The immense and revolutionary change which it [the invention of printing] brought about can be summarized in one sentence: Until that time every book was a manuscript. ” Without a final publication of a manuscript, and a transformation into a piece of literature, it is nothing and cannot survive.

Just as that statement is explained in the quote, without the spread of an idea, it can never become an ideology. With the spread of information, ignorant bliss was replaced with informed activism and exoneration from government and church control. The unification of the people that resulted from the mass publication by printing presses is an indicator that when given the opportunity to spread opinions and choose their path, entire populations can design their own living conditions. Cultural change and emancipation is gradual but with the right tools it can leave lasting impressions. **

Bibliography 1. ) Comitini, Patricia. Vocational Philanthropy and British Women’s Writing, 1790-1810. London: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. , 2005. 2. ) Einstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. 3. ) “Emancipated. ” Def. 1-3. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 10th ed. 2002. 4. ) Freire, Paulo, and Donaldo Pereira Macedo. Literacy: Reading the Word & the World. Oxford: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1987. 5. Jones, Idris D. The English Revolution: An Introduction to English History, 1603-1714. London: W. Heinemann, 1952. 6. ) Kreis, Steven, The Printing Press. 13 May 2004. The History Guide. 20 Feb. 2008. www. historyguide. org/intellect/press/html. 7. ) Midlarsky, Manus I. Inequality, Democracy, and Economic Development. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 8. ) Oxford Review of Education. The Cultural Origins of Popular Literacy in England 1500-1850. Lacqueur, Thomas. Vol. 2, No. 3. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. , 1976. Pp. 255-275. ***


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