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Der Buchdruck in der fruhen Neuzeit: Eine historische Fallstudie uber die Durchsetzung neuer Informations- und Kommunikationstechnologien.

Michael Giesecke, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991). 944 pp. ISBN 3-518-58003-5. No price given.

The author of this book, based on modern information theory, agrees with Walter Ong: where the latter suggested that contrasts between electronic media and print have alerted us to earlier contrasts between communication media, his German colleague argues that until recently it was possible to describe typographic culture only in terms of its own logic, but that the introduction of electronic information systems affords us now a degree of objectivity in assessing the printing mode. Professor Giesecke stresses, however, a technological continuity between the two media, even in his terminology: he sees alphabetic writing in terms of a computer memory from which data can be retrieved, he talks of typographical data-processing and software, he sees the process of printing as running from written input to printed output, and a printed book is commonly referred to as a print-out.

The technology of printing which such terms imply is described in its various dimensions in a lengthy, but admirably clear chapter ii, whilst the two follwing chapters discuss the spread of this new technology first up to the death of Gutenberg, then for the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. Chapter v analyses the economic market established by the early printers, while chapter vi deals with the new types of knowledge and the new classes of reader for printing in the sixteenth century. A concluding chapter briefly states the shortcomings in how contemporaries saw themselves in these changes. By looking at Gutenberg's invention expressly from the vantage-point of late twentieth-century technology, Giesecke sees this invention in technological terms which reinforce the differences between print culture and the preceding manuscript culture of the Middle Ages. In this he stands close to Elizabeth Eisenstein, for whom the keyword was |revolution' rather than |evolution', whilst for Giesecke it is |discontinuity' as opposed to |continuity'. In a number of instances he certainly establishes his case -- as, for example, with his persuasive argument on the recovery of classical texts in early printing (pp. 313 ff.) or on the commercial aspects of printing (pp. 393 ff.). Even so, some opportunities are not seized. The role of printers in encouraging a standard language is disappointingly discussed (a comparison with the so-called |Dichtersprache' c. 1200 could have illuminated what was possible in writing and what printing could achieve), and no space is given to the success of printing in resolving the perpetual tug-of-war in any manuscript culture between ease and speed of writing and ease and speed of reading.

These two deficiences (even within the terms of Giesecke's argument for discontinuity) suggest that this problem cannot be discussed simply with an eye to what came later, but must also be seen with regard to what preceded Gutenberg. The author is, of course, aware of this and attempts to remedy the position by occasional references to the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages: he recognizes, for example, that criticisms made of printing often echo those made earlier of manuscript working (pp. 169-70), especially with regard to spreading vernacular versions of the Bible (pp. 175ff.). He tacitly concedes that these isolated references are not enough, however, by saying on the last page of text (p. 70 3) that the picture he has drawn of printing from the point of view of the twentieth century needs to be supplemented by a mediaeval perspective. The admission implies that this presentation of printing is an unbalanced one, considering it too much in the light of what is happening five centuries later and not enough in connection with what it replaced.

If this book is meant as a study of the reform of mediaeval communication structures (p. 25), this presupposes more of an analysis of these structures than is given here. To this analysis should belong a discussion of mediaeval literacy (lay and clerical), without which the rapid success of Gutenberg's invention is incomprehensible -- a discussion which would need to approach Grundmann's thesis more critically and be open to the late mediaeval extension of literacy to the field of the layman and the vernacular. Also called for would be an awareness of the first beginnings of pragmatic literacy in the closing centuries of the Middle Ages (a bone of contention between monastic and scholastic learning, but also present in the attitude to the book as a working tool, to teaching as a cash nexus, and detectable in the practical need for writing in chanceries, courts, towns). In cases like these, where due attention is not given to the Middle Ages, Giesecke is too ready, as was Eisenstein, to regard printing as a turning-point in history, not to be explained as in any way an extrapolation from the past (p. 189). In some respects he may be right (I have mentioned two examples above), but too often the case goes by default by the neglect of the mediaeval dimension.

This can be exemplified even in minor details. An argument deployed in the Kolnische Chronik in regard to printing (p. 160) is taken uncritically at its face value, whereas it could be shown that there is no absolute novelty in this, for the same argument was advanced in the sixth century by Caesarius of Arles in the context of manuscripts. Similarly, Ortolf Fuchsperger is quoted (p. 569) to the effect that what is heard is less reliable than what is seen, as part of an argument that full importance was attached to the visual dimension only as a result of printing, but Fuchsperger's argument in fact goes back at least as far as Isidore of Seville. Lack of space compels me to confine myself only to these examples.

Giesecke admits that his book is anachronistic, but sees the anachronism in his discussing the historical origins of a medium at a point when its dominance appears jeopardized. The anachronism lies deeper, however: in the attempt to account for these origins with only isolated regard for what the Middle Ages may have contributed to the new medium, at the very least in making it possible or desirable.
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Author:Green, D.H.
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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