Writing and Reading as Technology (12): Elizabeth Eisenstein on How the Printing Press Changed Books

Annotated image from De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (Latin, lit. “On the fabric of the human body in seven books”) is a set of books on human anatomy written by Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) and published in 1543. Eisenstein uses it as an example of how printing allowed new combinations of “exactly repeatable” images and text. Source: Wikipedia

I’m working my way through Elizabeth Eisenstein’s excellent The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, an abridged version of her two-volume The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe.

Here she is on how the shift to from scribal copying to printing prompted innovation in the design and useability of books:

Concern with surface appearance necessarily governed the handwork of the scribe. He was fully preoccupied trying to shape evenly spaced uniform letters in a pleasing symmetrical design.

An altogether different procedure was required to give directions to compositors. To do this, one had to mark up a manuscript while scrutinizing its contents. Every manuscript that came into the printer’s hands, thus, had to be reviewed in a new way – one which encouraged more editing, correcting, and collating than had the hand-copied text.

Within a generation the results of this review were being aimed in a new direction – away from fidelity to scribal conventions and toward serving the convenience of the reader. The highly competitive commercial character of the new mode of book production encouraged the relatively rapid adoption of any innovation that commended a given edition to purchasers.

Well before 1500, printers had begun to experiment with the use “of graduated types, running heads . . . footnotes . . . tables of contents . . . superior figures, cross references . . . and other devices available to the compositor” – all registering “the victory of the punch cutter over the scribe.”

Title pages became increasingly common, facilitating the production of book lists and catalogues, while acting as advertisements in themselves.

Hand-drawn illustrations were replaced by more easily duplicated woodcuts and engravings – an innovation which eventually helped to revolutionize technical literature by introducing “exactly repeatable pictorial statements” into all kinds of reference works. The fact that identical images, maps, and diagrams could be viewed simultaneously by scattered readers constituted a kind of communications revolution in itself.


Even though block print and letterpress may have originated as separate innovations and were initially used for diverse purposes (so that playing cards and saints’ images, for example, were being stamped from blocks at the same time that hand illumination continued to decorate many early printed books), the two techniques soon became intertwined. The use of typography for texts led to that of xylography for illustration, sealing the fate of the illuminator along with that of the scribe.

When considering how technical literature was affected by the shift from script to print, it seems reasonable to adopt George Sarton’s strategy of envisaging a “double invention; typography for the text, engraving for the images.” The fact that letters, numbers, and pictures were all subject to repeatability by the end of the fifteenth century needs more emphasis. That the printed book made possible new forms of interplay between these diverse elements is perhaps even more significant than the change undergone by picture, number, or letter alone.

Elizabeth EisensteinThe Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe

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