Febvre and Martin on the Coming of the Book

French historians Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin write about the social impact of the coming of printing and the culture of the book.

About the year 1450 some rather unusual ‘manuscripts’ made their appearance in the northern regions of Western Europe. Although not very different in appearance from traditional manuscripts, they were ‘impressed’ on paper, sometimes on vellum, with the mechanical aid of a printing press which used moveable type. The process was simple. But it was the object of considerable curiosity and fascination. In fact, these new books were to cause profound changes not only in the habits of thought but also in the working conditions of secular and religious scholars, the great readers of the time. The changes (we won’t say revolution) soon broke the bounds of this original audience and made considerable impact on the world outside. ….

The book is a relative newcomer in western society. It began its career in the mid-15th century, and its future is no longer certain, threatened as it is by new inventions based on different principles. … . It came into being several decades before the enlargement of [the] world [by] the great sea voyages [which] led to the seizure of great continents previously unknown to Europeans. Printing began achieving results before the progressive development of a new perception of space gave western man a system of perspective which as conformed to his needs over the past 500 years … . [T]he printed book was something more than a triumph of technical ingenuity, but was also one of the most potent agents at the disposal of western civilisation in bringing together the scattered ideas of representative thinkers. It rendered vital service to research by immediately transmitting results from one researcher to another; and speedily and conveniently, without laborious effort or unsupportable cost, it assembled permanently the works of the most sublime creative spirits in all fields … . By so doing, it gave their ideas a new lease of life and endowed them with unparalleled strength and vigour. They came to have a new kind of coherence and, by the same token, an incomparable power for both transformation and propagation. Fresh concepts crossed whole regions of the globe in the very shortest time, wherever language did not deny them access. The book created new habits of thought not only within the small circle of the learned, but far beyond, in the intellectual life of all who used their minds. In short we are hoping to prove that the printed book was one of the most effective means of mastery over the whole world. …

The end of one epoch is the beginning of another. An elite society gave way to a mass society. Printing found itself inevitably drawn to a further profound transformation. New needs and a new clientele. Therefore mechanisation replaced the old hand press. Therefore, the antagonism developed between craftsman and mechanic, between old-style printing shop and modern mass production. A series of new inventions quickly followed which did much to increase what we might call the virulence of the press. Slowly the machine found its way into what was soon to become the book industry. …

[T]he story is about something other than the history of a technique. It has to do with the effect on European culture of a new means of communicating ideas within a society that was essentially aristocratic, a society that accepted and was long to accept a culture and a tradition of learning which was restricted to certain social groups. … An elite which, apart from the aristocracy of blood, included those who had moneyed wealth, political position or prestigious intellectual reputations. How did the printed book facilitate the rule and the activity of these men? …

Some 30,000-35,000 different editions printed between 1450 and 1500 have survived, representing 10,000-15,000 different texts, and if we were to take into account those which have not survived, the figures would perhaps be much larger. Assuming an average print run to be no greater than 500, then about 20 million books were printed before 1500, an impressive total even by 20th-century standards, and even more so when we remember that the Europe of that day was far less populous than now. There were certainly fewer than100 million inhabitants in the countries where printing developed, and of them only a minority could read.

A few figures may help at the outset by giving us a general picture of the situation. A high proportion of books printed before 1500 (i.e. of the books referred to as incunabula) are in Latin – about 77 per cent. About 7 per cent are in Italian, 4-6 per cent in German, 4-5 per cent in French and just over 1 per cent in Flemish. Religious works are easily predominant among the books of this period, making up 45 percent of the whole, with classical, medieval and contemporary literatures coming to just over 30 per cent, law just over 10 per cent, and books on scientific subjects about 10-per cent. So the majority, or very nearly, of books were religious and among them of course were many editions of the Scriptures. …

Although printing certainly helped scholars in some fields, on the whole it could not be said to have hastened the acceptance of new ideas or knowledge. In fact, by popularising long cherished beliefs, strengthening traditional prejudices and giving authority to seductive fallacies, it could even be said to have represented an obstacle to the acceptance of many new views. Even after new discoveries were made they tended to be ignored and reliance continued to be placed in conventional authorities. This is perhaps most strikingly revealed by a study of general attitudes in the 16th century towards the geographical discoveries and the imperial conquests outside Europe which were to have a profound influence on daily life, an influence whose significance and cause the public was slow to appreciate.

For a long time the outcome of the Portuguese voyages of exploration was kept secret; outside an exclusive circle no-one had any knowledge of the new discoveries. In fact, public interest in exploration seems only to have been roused by Christopher Columbus’ famous letter in which he describes his first voyage. Without doubt, news of this voyage provoked quite extensive public interest since this letter was printed [279] simultaneously in Barcelona, Rome, Basel and Paris in 1493. … All this indicates that the geographic discoveries and the imperial conquests of Spain and Portugal did not pass unnoticed. But let there be no mistake: beyond a comparatively small circle of scholars, merchants and courtiers they were of no great interest outside the Iberian peninsula until about 1550. …

[P]rinting … helped mould our modern European languages. Until the beginning of the 16th century the national languages of Western Europe, which had developed as written languages at different dates in different countries, had continued to evolve, following closely the development of the spoken language. For this reason, the French of the Chansons de Geste, for example, in the 12th century differs greatly from that written by Villon in the 15th. In the 16th century such developments began to cease to take place, and by 17th century languages in Europe had generally assumed their modern forms. At the same time, some written languages of the Middle Ages disappeared or were henceforth used more and more rarely for written as opposed to spoken communication. Provencal is one instance, Irish another. Finally, Latin was used less frequently and little by little it became a dead language.

There thus took place a process of unification and consolidation which established fairly large territories throughout which a single language was written. Within these territories the languages which are still today the languages of each nation more or less rapidly attained their definitive development. Spelling also became fixed. It came to correspond less and less with pronunciation and was sometimes complicated by the influence exercised upon it by the classical languages. Printing was not the only factor which acted to bring about this evolution. The Chancelleries had long made attempts to obtain general acceptance for usages which in many cases became those of the literary language. The emergence or strengthening of centralising national monarchies in the 16th century favoured the trend towards a unified national language. The policies of the Kings of France and Spain were particularly clearly directed towards this end. But printing certainly exercised a far profounder influence on the development of the national languages than any other factor. …

Luther, with the aid of the press, played a decisive role in the development of the German language. Wishing, as he said, ‘to be understood at the same time by the people of both Upper and Lower Germany’, he tried to impose on the language he was forging a set of principles which would enable him to attain this goal. The wide diffusion of his works, and in particular of his Bible, made it possible for him to become the legislator of the German language. …

The standardisation of grammar and vocabulary is even more important than spelling in establishing a language that can be readily understood by one and all, and Luther made efforts to rid himself of his own native dialect, that of Lower Saxony. Having lived most of his life in Thuringia and Saxony, the language as refined in the Chancellery of Saxony naturally appealed to him as the most perfect model and provided much of his inspiration. … Thus Luther fashioned a language which was in all respects closer to modern German than the language of most of his contemporaries. The literary qualities of his works, their massive sales and the almost sacred character which was given to his translation of the Old and New Testaments by the faithful, all tended to make his language a model width was generally adopted. … His vocabulary imposed itself so imperiously that few printers dared to alter it in the smallest detail. …

Starting in the second quarter of the century, grammars of the German language, a subject which had previously been scarcely studied at all, began to appear.


Febvre, Lucien and Henri-Jean Martin. 1976. The Coming of the Book. London: Verso, pp.9-13, 248-249, 278-279, 319-323. || Amazon || WorldCat


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