Development of the Printing Press:
Societal Impacts and Evolution of Rhetoric
Rhetoric always seems to be in a constant state of change, albeit a very gradual evolution over time. For example, rhetoric began as an oral tradition, transitioned to handwritten texts, moved to wood block printing, eventually utilized Gutenberg’s printing press, and is now adopting digitalization. Of all stages of development, however, the printing press is likely the most significant factor to consider when analyzing the evolution of rhetoric. Prior to the printing press, document creation consisted of almost entirely handwritten manuscripts. “Written by hand, the production of even a single page was an arduous and time consuming task. Books were expensive and only very popular texts of universal appeal were likely to be printed” (“End of Europe’s”). Essentially, rhetoric was inaccessible to the general public. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the mid-fifteenth century provided moveable-type that eliminated a great degree of labor and allowed for documents to be printed on a mass scale in far less time. Therein, written rhetoric became available to nearly everyone. The fields of education, science, and publishing were fundamentally and forever changed by Gutenberg’s innovation. The printing press revolutionized rhetoric by standardizing education, enabling scientific achievements, and developing a formal system of authorship.
Arguably, the most substantial societal result of the printing press was an increase in overall literacy and educational opportunities. With the development of the printing press, there was a complete shift in the way that information was distributed. Society evolved from that with an oral tradition to a more literary-focused culture. In essence, there was a complete transformation in accessibility to rhetoric. Rhetoric was previously a community experience; however, individuals engaged more commonly in silent and personal readings after printing developed. Education was forced to change with the introduction of the printing press as well. More students could be provided the opportunity for formal education as printed books cost far less than illuminated manuscripts. Schooling became more of an expectation post-printing press. Information became available to the masses like never before and resulted in literacy becoming much more of a necessity. Additionally, the printing press helped to foster reliability in academics. By standardizing knowledge, education in general was thereby standardized. “Printing drove the simplification of written language. Increasing literacy and the globalization of reading led to standardization in spelling and punctuation…” (Arcas and Fairhall 997). More or less, the development of the printing press enabled more individuals to read as well as gain formal educations. Through this innovation, rhetoric began to demand reliability and consistency like never before.
In terms of a strictly European analysis, the printing press worked to fundamentally change society’s style of argumentation. Emphasis shifted from emotional to empirical and quantifiable arguments. This is highly emphasized within the education system. For the most part, all students were provided the same texts with which to work, thus enabling progress to be achieved. Knowledge moved at a more rapid rate as individuals and professors could dependably build upon the works of their predecessors with less fear of inaccuracy. The printing press helped to eliminate confusion and inconsistencies that had previously existed. Education through provable scientific observation, experimentation, and written documentation took precedence through printing. In many ways, this is consistent with modern academics as well.
The printing press also directly helped to fuel the development of the scientific revolution. While early handwritten documents focused on imagery and aesthetic quality, printed texts were far more “wordy.” The significance of the text was its content, not appearance. This signaled a transition from an imaginative, artistic culture to an analytical one. Audience became less engaged with the metaphor and flowery language of the past; instead, they sought provable and scientific evidence. Oral tradition was dependent on captivating the audience with eloquent words and stylized delivery, whereas published texts did not have to rely on similar “smoke and mirrors” tactics. Facts could be more easily and effectively distributed through text. Rhetoric, therefore, had to adapt to these new societal needs. The logos of previous centuries evolved from law- and religious-mindedness to scientific approaches.
In conjunction with society’s desire for logical proofs, scientists began to take full advantage of the printing press. While many scientists had previously been left isolated, printing allowed their discoveries to be accessed by the masses. “It is difficult to imagine the Enlightenment and the scientific revolutions of the next centuries without this [printing press] technology, which allowed ideas to be disseminated quickly, broadly and reliably” (Arcas and Fairhall 997). One might argue that an increase in education also enabled this societal transition; perhaps a simultaneous or codependent relationship existed between the two. Regardless, the printing press provided science an opportunity to flourish. It effectively changed the style of rhetoric to be one of evidentiary support and analytics. In large part, modern rhetoric focuses on similar approaches as well.
One of the most significant impacts of the printing press was the concept of authorship. Whereas traditional, pre-printing documents focused more on the content of the document, the development of printing allowed for author and timeliness to become important. With the consistency of print, there was less risk in attaching an author’s name and date of publication to a text. For example, pre-printing press documents were recorded by hand from oral presentations or lectures. A great deal of inconsistency arose from this style of document creation; therefore, the true author was seemingly irrelevant. Often times, the recorder did not even list the original author. Until the printing press provided for identical replication of texts over time, there was little importance in authorship. “Prior to the invention of the printing press, authors necessarily relied upon manual copyists to reproduce their works, and this technological limitation had [substantial] consequences” (Cotter 325). In essence, the innovation of printing press worked to establish present-day, formal expectations of the rhetorical devices ethos and kairos.
Ethos describes the necessity of an author to be credible and knowledgeable in the subject matter, while kairos is indicative that an argument is only significant if approached during an appropriate and relevant time. Before the development of printing press, one had to rely on a personal experience at a lecture to assume ethos or kairos because early texts provided no such documentation. Modern rhetoric has evolved to become increasingly dependent on citation. Not only must the author be credible, but the sources that he or she has used must be as well. Without the printing press, such a clear consequence might never have been possible. Consistency in documentation was absolutely needed for the establishment of ethos and kairos; it provided the foundation for modern rhetoric that relies on fact-based, dependable logic.
In order to fully understand the consequences of Gutenberg’s printing press, one must also explore texts from that era. Two Medieval documents that seem to especially represent the effects of printing are Christine de Pizan’s “The Book of the City of Ladies” and Boethius’s “An Overview of the Structure of Rhetoric.” De Pizan’s piece is particularly reflective of changing societal moods in regards to education; it also deals with expectations of womanhood, though these elements are less applicable to effects of printing press. Her argument is that women are as equally entitled to formal education as men. Prior to increased literacy rates and dramatic growth in school admittance, de Pizan’s claims would be considered outlandish. She says, “[I] realize that women have accomplished many good things and that even if evil women have done evil…the benefits accrued and still accruing because of good women – particularly the wise and literary ones and those educated in the natural sciences – outweigh the evil” (544). De Pizan argues that men are not thinking reasonably when prohibiting female family members from receiving education. She relies a great deal on logos, or logical proofs, to persuade her audience; this is a rhetorical element perfected because of printing.
In the essay “An Overview of the Structure of Rhetoric,” Boethius metaphorically compares rhetoric to the scientific method. Being that post-print society was highly concerned with science and fact-based logic, this comparison fit quite well with society’s focus. Boethius describes how rhetoric is like a hypothesis, and involves five necessary components. Just as with the steps of the scientific method, a missing element of rhetoric prevents the whole process from working. Boethius explains this, “Rhetoric has five parts: invention, disposition, style, memory, and delivery. They are referred to as parts because if an orator lacks any one of them, then his use of [rhetoric] is imperfect” (489). Boethius’s entire argument is laid out logically, with each component of rhetoric building from the last. This organization is highly demonstrative of the printing press’s effect on society, as it resulted in a far more analytical culture.
Development of the printing press was likely the most substantial cause of revolutionizing rhetoric to date. Gutenberg’s printing press resulted in skyrocketed literacy rates, new education policies, significant scientific advancement, and importance of authorship. In many ways, it fundamentally changed the lives of everyone. Society had to approach the world in dramatic new ways. “When the itinerant thinker Johannes Gensfleich Gutenberg introduced his moveable-type printing press to Germany sometime in the mid-fifteenth century, he had little reason to foresee the remote consequences of his invention…” (Cotter 324). As contemporary society moves into an age of digitalization, it begs the question of whether or not computerized technology will be the next big development. Perhaps we are too connected to the revolution, just as Gutenberg was, that we are unable to see the true significance of digitalization. Interestingly enough, communication patterns and rhetoric styles are already showing signs of moderate change due to modern technology. Being that the results of the printing press can still be felt today, almost six centuries later, one can only wonder if our innovations will be nearly as significant.
Arcas, Blaise Aguera and Adrienne Fairhall. “Archaeology of Type.” Nature 411.6841 (2001): 997. EBSCO. Web. 23 Oct. 2010.
Boethius. “An Overview of the Structure of Rhetoric.” The Rhetorical Tradition. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 488-491. Print.
Cotter, Thomas. “Gutenberg’s Legacy: Copyright, Censorship, and Religious Pluralism.” California Law Review 91.2 (2003): 323-92. EBSCO. Web. 22 Oct. 2010.
De Pizan, Christine. “The Book of the City of Ladies.” The Rhetorical Tradition. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 544-551. Print.
“End of Europe’s Middle Ages: The Impact of the Printing Press.” Applied History. University of Calgary, 2000. Web. 23 Oct. 2010.