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The Printing Revolution in Early Modern…

The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (1983)

by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein

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Really enjoyed this, and I see why it became a must-read for the digerati. The book is fueled by the frustration that, on the one hand, historians say that printing led to immense changes in Europea's culture, and on the other hand, ignore the specifics of printing's impact in more detailed histories of the Reformation, later Renaissance, and scientific revolution. What makes it so thought provoking is that she has a real sensibility to network effects (avant la lettre), understanding how books and printed matter provided the material for a different sorts of interaction, and wider networks of interaction, between people in the Republic of Letters. This approach or point-of-view is what is generalizable to thinking about the impact of the Internet. Of course I also loved the details on the strategies of the earliest publisher/printers, including Platinus (his prints now on show at Singapore's National Museum) and Peter Schoeffer. (Is it a sign??) ( )
  Katong | Apr 16, 2012 |
An excellent introduction to Eisenstein's work. The argument is well-reinforced, but she is not always clear in her organizational choices. The conclusion is a good summation of the points in the work overall. As a librarian and early modern scholar I am certainly going to read the full-length work. When I picked this book up I wasn't aware that I was buying the abridged version (I didn't realize there was an abridged version!). At different points Eisenstein does refer to the larger work, but never quite sounds elitist or pedantic. She does, however, make it clear that the larger work includes content that assumes a different knowledge base than this work. Eisenstein's work is a seminal text and as such can feel like old news. However, she contributed to much of the current discussion of early modern printing and its impact.
There are a number of included illustrations, all of engraved illustrations from early modern texts. While Eisenstein does discuss them, she does not offer a structure for "reading" images which would be helpful to readers unfamiliar with early modern uses of images. The lack of quotation attribution is frustrating, but it a direct result of the book's abridgment for a more popular audience. Some quotes are introduced in the text.
I would recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of the book, the history of printing, early modern Europe, or related topics. Eisenstein links the printing press to the concept of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and early developments in natural philosophy/science. At times she seems almost wishy-washy in her desire to avoid binary oppositions (or dead-end semantic/pedantic debates). This ambivalence, however, is not uncharacteristic of literary and historical scholarship of the last 30 years. A tolerance for questions rather than answers will assist readers of this work. ( )
  rheaphine | Oct 24, 2010 |
Starts out strong, becomes decreasingly interesting. Awfully abstract, although certainly not as bad as McLuhan or Innis. ( )
  jaygheiser | Jul 23, 2008 |
It sometimes felt like a long slog to get through this book, but I did actually like it. Since I was reading it in preparation for Rare Book School, I did sort of feel that the second part was overkill. Eisenstein had already made most of her points in the first part, and the second just expanded on (and on) those points. But the points themselves are interesting. She details the ways printing had profound effects on (and was in turn affected by) several pivotal movements in Western civilization, including the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the rise of modern science. Very fascinating.

But what intrigued me the most was that it was frequently difficult to remember that this book was published in 1983. It so often seems as if Eisenstein must be writing from the perspective of current trends in information studies, sparked by online networked information and communication. Though early in the book, she observes that it's difficult to study the change in mentalities of the already literate elite as text shifted from manuscripts to print, since there's nothing analogous in present times. Can we say yet whether we now have such an analogy?

I'm very glad to have read this book. But, I must admit, I'm also glad that this abridged edition was assigned and not Eisenstein's original two volume work. ( )
  LBrary | Jun 8, 2008 |
“The Printing Revolution: an interdisciplinary approach to a transition period”

Erin Royal

LIS 636

Library, Information and Society

Dr. Rodriguez–Buckingham

Hattiesburg, Mississippi

University of Southern Mississippi

Spring 2005

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge:
Cambridge Press. (1983).

Canto Paperback ISBN: 0-521-44770-4

This paperback edition is the abridged version of Eisenstein’s original monograph, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. It includes a 300 pages and a subject index. The subject index is arranged alphabetically. While the book does have a table of contents (vii), it does not have a list of plates or illustrations though it has many black and white visual aids. The book contains a “selected reading” section of English source material used to compile the book, though full citations can only be found in the unabridged work. The monograph has two parts, eight chapters, and a preface. The paperback is small and lightweight. It has a color illustration of an early European printing shop on the cover.
The preface and chapters address the obstacles to understanding and labeling the shift from scribal culture to print culture among literate people. In the preface, Eisenstein mentions her interest in this area was sparked by the utter lack of resources that described the cultural, social, religious and political ramifications of the shift from scribes to printing presses. She notes that many scholars reference the communication shift and recognize that it greatly changed culture without ever describing how. She also acknowledges the support of institutions that funded her study. She received research grants from the Andrew W. Melon Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the National Endowments for the Humanities. Part I of the book describes “emergence of print culture in the West” (vii). This part describes how the print revolution changed culture and created a new literate elite culture. Part II explores the interaction of the printing revolution with other concurrent, cultural developments. This chapter raises questions about the nature of modernity and the proper labeling of historical periods in Europe. Chapter one, “An unacknowledged revolution,” bemoans the paucity of published work dealing with the cultural effects of the shift to printing. Eisenstein notes that much historical documentation exists for the field of printing, but none of these works studies the general effects of this cultural shift on people. She makes the distinction by noting that, “it is one thing to show that standardization was a consequence of printing…another to decide how laws, languages, or mental constructs were affected by more uniform texts,” (5). “Defining the Initial Shift,” Eisenstein’s second chapter, clarifies the author’s concepts of what the printing revolution was. Rather than focus on chronology of print-related inventions, she mentions all of the text and page conventions that came into being in the 1500s. The advent of printing also created more distribution outlets, she argues, and made self-instruction more possible. The latter eventually revolutionized scholarship and pedagogy. “Some Features of Print Culture” (chapter three), illuminates some special features of early print literature. In it, Eisenstein also demonstrates how those characteristics influenced historical, cultural, social, and psychological development. The chapter makes use of subtitles to distinguish between topical trains of thought. In Chapter four, “The Expanding Republic of Letters,” Eisenstein asserts that a “new literary culture” is brought into being by the advent of printing (93). The chapter goes on to describe this elite circle of readers, writers, and scholars. She also describes the multifarious tasks that were eventually encompassed in the regular activities of a print shop. Eisenstein also notes the great boom in reproduction and distribution of ancient works, especially those related to the occult. She also notes that while the new print culture was awash with many reproductions of Biblical texts, pornography had high distribution figures as well. The fifth chapter describes historians’ struggle to periodize the modern age in Europe. She notes that scholars usually attempt to study the Renaissance period from a broad view, but this is backwards. Eisenstein prefers to focus on the cultural influence of a specific, tangible event like the printing revolution to learn more about the dynamic culture of early modern Europe. She also points out that the printing revolution is not like most revolutions in history, since it made many copies of the information and traditions of scribal culture and distributed them more widely rather than throwing them away or destroying them. In “Western Christendom Disrupted: resetting the stage for the reformation,” Eisenstein addresses the great affect of the printing revolution on the Reformation. The chapter gives details on how the Catholic Church and the anti-papists each used print shops to distribute their views. It also discusses the Catholic Church’s attempt to censor Galileo and other scholars. “The Book of Nature Transformed: printing and the rise of modern science,” Chapter seven, addresses the degree to which the scientific community of the day used the new mass medium. The author notes that while scientific findings were not among the most popular printed materials of the day, the new ability to use records from diverse sources at the same time for comparison revolutionized fields like astronomy, geometry, anatomy, geography and zoology. Also, the ability to publicize lectures and meetings and distribute one’s scientific findings for the criticism of others lead to the scholarly debate process of publication and peer review that is the basis of scientific fact-making today. She also illustrates how conventions like figure numbers, linking text, and diagrams changed the way science was taught and recorded. Eisenstein’s eighth chapter concludes that searching for the characteristics of “modernity” is futile since modernity is continual and therefore always in flux. Instead of the previous approach, she gives general clues to the cultural ripples created by the advent of printing and points to the printing revolution as a huge social change, rather than merely an effect of the Renaissance. Eisenstein also notes that she hopes other scholars will follow in her research path and describe the phases of the communication transition more thoroughly and explain the shift of influence from printing shops in Venice to printing shops in Amsterdam.


This edition is nicely adapted from Eisenstein’s unabridged work to better match the needs of its audience: graduate students and professionals in history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and information science. The subject index allows easy keyword searching by using alphabetical order. This helps readers locate specific topics within the text. The table of contents gives an effective rendering of the book’s organization. However, there are no lists of figures, illustrations, or plates, etc. I find it annoying that a book with so many plates, illustrations, and figures does not present lists and page numbers of them. The author states that “selected readings” are presented instead of a cumulative bibliography, because this book is tailored to readers who will not read foreign languages. I disagree with her appraisal of the audience’s possible foreign language skills. Many people, while not fluent in a language, can read foreign documents well enough to use them as reference materials. Also, most graduate students and professionals in the Liberal Arts or Education have had classes in some foreign language. It would have been more helpful it she had included a cumulative, subject bibliography. The book is a manageable size and the illustrated cover is quite attractive. The preface of the book mentions the fact that Eisenstein’s work was funded by prestigious institutions like the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Andrew Melon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The fact that she received funding awards from such well-known institutions suggests that her research is highly valued by the scholarly community. In Chapter one, it is apparent that Eisenstein’s work is significant because no other scholar has actually attempted to measure the effects of the printing revolution on the culture of literate elites. She is also the first scholar to put effort into explaining the print revolution involves a move from scribal culture to print culture, not from oral culture to print culture. In Chapter two, she defines the shift from scribal culture to print culture in terms of new page conventions that were introduced in the 1500s. She not only gives intriguing evidence for the beginning of many print traditions, but she also asks questions about the resulting culture shift that accompanied the printing revolution. Her suggestions, in Chapter two, that scholarship and pedagogy were greatly changed by the introduction of educational material that one did not have to hand copy or dictate from an instructor. “Some Features of Print Culture,” Chapter three, describes several aspects of early printing culture. She finds ingenious ways to link the changes in information storage, transfer, and packaging to larger social behaviors. She makes the reader question how increased standardization would have changed most facets of everyday life. It is helpful that the author separates the discussions in Chapter three into topical lines and delineates the subdivision with subtitles in italics. In Chapter four, “The Expanding Republic of Letters,” Eisenstein uses diverse lines of evidence to illustrate her conception of the literate elite culture that was the result of a printing revolution. She deftly describes how these new “men of letters” were different from the lower class “hearing public” (98). In Chapter five, she presents a simple, but brilliant paradigm shift to the study of modern history. Rather than study the Renaissance as a movement comprised of loose and diverse characteristics, Eisenstein wisely studies a specific, measurable phenomenon: the printing revolution. Eisenstein’s approach makes a lot of sense. The effects of the printing revolution are tangible and measurable, this makes them much easier to observe and interpret clearly. Chapter six is especially interesting because it explores the integration of the printing revolution and the Protestant Reformation. It also gives significant details regarding how Christians harnessed mass media to distribute their opinions and fight battles over doctorine. Chapter seven is fascinating, because it explores the relationship between science and the printing age. In this chapter especially, Eisenstein includes spectacular figures and illustrations from early printed science texts. She brilliantly notices the effect standardized diagrams and captions had only early scholarship and skillfully demonstrates this effect to her readers. Another amazing idea Eisenstein asserts is that all branches of knowledge were greatly expanded in the centuries that followed printing, because centuries of records from distant lands were now accessible all at once, in the same place. She points out to her readers the importance of being able to compare a variety of works on the same topic at the same time. In Chapter eight, Eisenstein comes to the wise conclusion that searching for characteristics of “modernity” or the Renaissance is an ineffective way to study the changes that occurred during that time period. She gives good advice for further research topics in the study of the printing revolution.


Most academic libraries would benefit from purchasing The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe because it is useful to a wide variety of patrons with different academic and historic interests. Eisenstein’s book could be used for research papers or for supplemental reading by graduate students. Professionals in history, psychology, sociology, communication, and information science would also use the book for research or enjoyment, because it deals with the history of information sources and the perpetuation of specific ideas that greatly shaped our modern culture. Graduate students and professionals in historical archaeology, cultural anthropology, and Biblical studies will also get a lot out of this book, since it demonstrates and describes the draft and editing features of both scribal and print culture. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the topic and the expertly holistic manner in which it was covered, I recommend this book as an assigned text for an Honors College colloquium class (or other similar class taught in an interdisciplinary nature). This book would be excellent for a colloquium class, not only because it covers a major social change from many different disciplines, but also because it challenges readers to think creatively. I would not recommend that a public library purchase this book unless the collections most used by regular patrons are related to history and social sciences. I do not recommend this book for high school or grade school libraries. In most cases, Eisenstein’s book would be of little interest to most high school students and possibly a little over their heads as well.
  redclover | Apr 15, 2007 |
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I do ingenuously confess that in attempting this history of Printing I have undertaken a task much too great for my abilities the extent of which I did not so well perceive at first.
Joseph Ames, June 7, 1749
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In the late fifteenth century, the reproduction of written materials began to move from the copyist’s desk to the printing workshop.
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2nd reprint of 1983 first edition = abridgement of 1979 2 vol CUP "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change"  Tall 8°. Stiff paper wrappers xiv 297 pages. Wide margins. Pencil signature & bookplate of Gavin Bridson neatly inside front cover.    Bibliography has pencil notes in margins . NO marks on main textblock.

Bought Oct 2010 £13.30
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0521607744, Paperback)

What difference did printing make? Although the importance of the advent of printing for the Western world has long been recognized, it was Elizabeth Eisenstein in her monumental, two-volume work, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, who provided the first full-scale treatment of the subject. This illustrated and abridged edition provides a stimulating survey of the communications revolution of the fifteenth century. After summarizing the initial changes, and introducing the establishment of printing shops, it considers how printing effected three major cultural movements: the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the rise of modern science. First Edition Hb (1984) 0-521-25858-8 First Edition Pb (1984) 0-521-27735-3

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:19 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Although the importance of the advent of printing for the Western world has long been recognized, it was Elizabeth Eisenstein, in her monumental, two-volume work, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, who provided the first fullscale treatment of the subject. This illustrated and abridged edition gives a stimulating survey of the communications revolution of the fifteenth century. After summarizing the initial changes introduced by the establishment of printing shops, it goes on to discuss how printing affected three major cultural movements: the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the rise of modern science. This new edition includes a new essay discussing recent controversies provoked by the first edition and reaffirms the thesis that the advent of printing entailed a communications revolution. Fully-illustrated and annotated, the book argues that the cumulative processes set in motion with the advent of printing are likely to persist despite the recent development of new communications technologies.… (more)

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