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How printing caused nationalism

This is the first posting in what may or may not turn into a series on the general theme of the historic impact of the ever changing and evolving technology of communication, thoughts provoked by the talk that Michael Jennings gave at my home on the evening of Friday April 25th.

One of my fondest memories is of an earlier talk given by Sean Gabb in this same ongoing last-friday-of-the-month series, about the impact of the printing press. He described this not in the usual way, by telling the story of the printing press itself, and how it spread, and what it caused, but by describing how things were done before printing existed. He described how documents were copied before there were any printing presses to copy them, the central point being that such documents only lasted so long and it was all that the copyists could do to keep existing texts in continued existence. In such a world it was very hard for knowledge to grow. On the contrary, the only thing it could really do was shrink, which does a lot to explain why the Golden Age in those days tended to be placed in the past, rather than in the future as we now tend to prefer.

But another way to look at the arrival of printing is to look at it not just as a means of data storage, but also as a means of data transmission.

Consider. With any means of communication there are basically two problems to solve. First, you have to concoct the message in the first place. Second, you have to transmit it. Now, look at printing from these two points of view. Clearly, it does wondrous things to the first process, but equally clearly, a little compression aside, it contributes almost nothing to the second. Getting a book from Antwerp to Rome still depends on the speed of a donkey, just as it always did.

This simple fact had huge consequences for the way that printing impacted upon the wider culture. Suppose you are a hand-copier of texts. Basically, your product is loaded onto donkeys just as soon as you and your assistants can finish the things. Therefore, your product is spread thinly, as it were, all over the known world, in rather the way that fish food sprinkled only very slowly onto the water of your fish tank is spread all over. Reading is the shared experience of an international elite which is small, but widely dispersed.

Did I say “international”? Make that pre-national. Civilisation consists of one elite, who all tend to speak and read in the one international (make that “universal”) language (Latin), who together preside over and quarrel about a mass of relatively tiny geographical possessions, whose various peasantries speak God knows what barbarous dialectical variants of whatever language thrives in their vicinity. Learning literacy and learning Latin are the same thing. The peasants – by which I mean nearly everyone – aren’t involved. That’s the world without printing.

Enter printing. Suddenly – suddenly at any rate in terms of the long span of history – each printing press is thrashing out more products than the wretched transalpine donkeys can keep up with, or it is wanting to if only it can sell the damn things.

A printer starts out by thinking that he is merely speeding up an existing business, but soon he starts to look at the local market in a new way. To cut a long story short, what he does is: produce books in the local language. That way, he cuts out all those donkey journeys and opens up a huge market right on his own doorstep.

The unbreakable, impossible to un-imagine link between learning and learning Latin is broken. And before you know it, the printers produce their first Killer App. The Bible in the local language, or the vernacular as the scholars call it. The world is no longer one community, with a civilisation-spanning elite that communicates more with itself than with any mere locals; it is shattered into several dozen separate communities, in which the locals start seriously to communicate with each other, but not so much with foreigners. And each of these new nations interprets the Bible in its own distinct way. Words like “national”, and in due course our own hybrid word “inter-national”, start to make sense.

It’s a new world.

But – and it’s a big but – the details of the story of how printing changed history, as with the story of how any big new method of data storage and data transmission change history, is massively more complicated than the little story I’ve just told about hand-copied texts and donkeys. (This lady, for example, goes as far as saying that printing did not cause nationalism, which is taking the “it’s complicated” line way too far.) The stuff about texts and donkeys is true, but there was much more to it than that, and that simple principle took several centuries to work its way through our culture. But the fact that these effects can often be very complicated is itself too complicated to elaborate on in this posting.

I pretty much worked out all of the above for myself, that is to say I got it from no one writer or mentor. Therefore, not many links. But I did a google search with “Printing” and “Nationalism”. I got lots of stuff, as you can imagine, and the detestable Eric Hobsbawm loomed larger than I would like. This (produced by these people) looks more promising, and more directly relevant to what I’ve written.

22 comments to How printing caused nationalism

  • Sorry to go slightly off printing and nationalism, though it is about passports and our ever-loving state, but has anybody seen this article today about HMG putting biometric data into our new passports?

  • linsee

    Hugh Kenner, in a lecture I heard him give perhaps 25 years ago, noted that a major newspaper, I think in Toronto, invested in new printing presses that could cover the paper’s entire press run in an hour. Pretty soon they were looking around for something to use it for the other 23 hours a day, and diversified into printing comic books. Yes, a new technology often creates major social changes, but not necessarily the ones you think of first.

  • linsee

    Hugh Kenner, in a lecture I heard him give perhaps 25 years ago, noted that a major newspaper, I think in Toronto, invested in new printing presses that could cover the paper’s entire press run in an hour. Pretty soon they were looking around for something to use it for the other 23 hours a day, and diversified into printing comic books. Yes, a new technology often creates major social changes, but not necessarily the ones you think of first.

  • back40

    The concept that the printing of bibles fragmented the Holy Roman Empire is sound but there is more to it than local language versions. It is also that individuals could afford to possess books and so see for themselves what the Bible said. This broke the priestly monopoly, which was as much about power as religion, by diminishing their ability to spin the words to support political views and hold their power.

    And so, the reformation happened, and continued for the next 200 years. During that period the 30 years war took place which was partly about the clash of Catholicism and Protestantism but also about empire building as alliances crossed religious lines when convenient. Much of this was the result of population increase and transportation improvements which “shrunk” Europe in a sense. After the plague years in the middle of the 14th century, and dramatic population loss, there was a population rebound and significant reordering of property. Land speculators came into existence. Merchants and bankers as well as the nobility, founded on military might and serf labor, became important players due to their wealth.

    It is also worth noting that until the fall of Constantinople in the middle of the 15th century the Roman Empire still existed… and spoke Greek. Latin was an important language but Greek may have been even more important to scholarship.

    It may be that the rise of the middle classes after the plague years, aided by printing for sure, had more to do with breaking the previous pre-national aristocratic monopoly propped up by the Church and the divine right of kings and so contributing to reordering of empires into nations.

    An interesting language related contribution to the development of nations was increased standardization of language that came with printing. The issue is old. In Constantinople Attic Greek was used for printing though no one spoke it. Latin was also a dead language long before it ceased being used in print. Printing increased pressure to standardize as well as localize.

  • cj

    I also have read that the plague played a part in printing in that huge amounts of clothing were available and used to make paper (or a paper like material?) and thus provided an inexpensive and readily available resource. I believe I read this in one of Daniel Boorstin’s histories, although I’m too lazy to look up the reference right now. I believe Boorstin is a reliable source.

    For what it’s worth.

  • Byna

    I agree with your conclusion that the printing press helped Nationalism grow, but I disagree with your reason.

    Your are seeing this from the eyes of the elites. In their eyes, there was one Christendom. But as you stated, the elites were few and far between. In actuality, there wasn’t one Christendom, for the mass of the people thought no further than their own village.

    As the people became literate, their horizons expanded. Suddenly they could know about the village next door, and see that all of the nearby villages were like them. And so the peasants sense of identity grew to encompase everywhere that spoke and read the same language.

    This is the formation of Nationalism. The breaking of the village/tribal mindset of a feudal peasant.

    P.S. The “elites” are still trying to get back to a time when they ruled the world.

  • Chris Goodman

    I think we ought to be a careful about making extravagant claims such as “printing caused nationalism”. It is well known that we tend to confuse our interests with the world e.g. its all about biology (genes and neurons) history (politics and economics) philosophy (ideas and debates). All we can sensibly conclude is that what occurs is the consequence of various different factors. I think for example that biology (clans) and politics (wars) and philosophy (romanticism) are at least as important as the printing press in the development of nationalism.

  • Phil Bradley

    Interesting article! I think the impact of technology on history is under-estimated, mostly because historians generally know little about technology.

    It is interesting to speculate on the impact of the internet on the democratisation of information. Like many people (although suprising few in the big picture) I got much of my information on the Iraq war and now SARS from blogs.

    Anecdotally, one important early impact is dissemination of ‘right-wing’ libertarian-type views from people who feel that mainstream media does not adequately reflect their views.

    As a correlary to this, left-wing blogs are over-whelming awful – dull, repeating the same half-truths, and hardly ever funny. I find it extremely significant that the Left seems unable to exploit the new internet media. Whereas the Right has taken to it like a duck to water.

    Whether this reflects the profile of early adopters or represents a long term trend, its too early to say.

  • Phil Bradley

    Interesting article! I think the impact of technology on history is under-estimated, mostly because historians generally know little about technology.

    It is interesting to speculate on the impact of the internet on the democratisation of information. Like many people (although suprising few in the big picture) I got much of my information on the Iraq war and now SARS from blogs.

    Anecdotally, one important early impact is dissemination of ‘right-wing’ libertarian-type views from people who feel that mainstream media does not adequately reflect their views.

    As a correllary to this, left-wing blogs are over-whelming awful – dull, repeating the same half-truths, and hardly ever funny. I find it extremely significant that the Left seems unable to exploit the new internet media. Whereas the Right has taken to it like a duck to water.

    Whether this reflects the profile of early adopters or represents a long term trend, its too early to say.

  • Fred Boness

    And now we have the internet which takes publishing power from those who own the presses.

  • It could be said that printing expanded citizenship. A citizen, unlike a subject, is an active participant in the marketplace of political and cultural ideas. My Henderson Prize announcement for Gutenberg states this differently:

    “Gutenberg’s legacy was the first true form of mass media. The ordinary person could now pursue an intellectual life comparable to that of the noble, and could communicate personal ideas to an audience of such size matching or even exceeding that reachable by the State.”

  • And in the progression of things, the Internet too will at some future time become a tool of the untruthful elite. Let us until then make good use of it — and always maintain privacy and secure communications. Who knows what kind of communication could be possible if technological advance continues at speed.

  • Clio

    Add this to your reading list: Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. This is the UR text on the nexus between print and nationalism in the modern world. He is a historian of Indonesia (apropo of this site, British born, teaches in US) and has been enormously influential throughout the humanities these past 15 years. In a nutshell, he argues that not only are printing and literacy essential to the formation of national identity, they are part and parcel of the emergence of a common national language (a step in the nation-building process we tend to forget about, but should not). Also very good, Ernest Gellner’s On Nationalism.

    By the way, I heard that remark about historians not knowing much about technology and will be challenging you to a duel forthwith, Phil Bradley.

  • Crosbie Smith

    Yes, I like the parallel between printing and the internet. This is my chance to air my pet theory, which is that two great revolutions in human history were caused by communications technology, i.e.

    • the phonetic alphabet which, by enabling mass literacy, launched Greek and ultimately Western civilization.
    • the printing press, which launched the modern era.

    Does that overstate their importance? And, if not, is the internet a change of the same magnitude?

  • Hamilcar

    In reply to back40, who wrote:

    “It is also that individuals could afford to possess books and so see for themselves what the Bible said. This broke the priestly monopoly, which was as much about power as religion, by diminishing their ability to spin the words to support political views and hold their power.”

    Sorry, but you’re wrong. The “priestly monopoly” was not about power. First, before the invention of printing, there was no choice but to have a “monopoly”, as the original article points out; thus, there’s no need to invent conspiracy theories about the Church trying to keep people in the dark. Second, and related to this, is the fact that the Bible actually supports what the priests had been teaching while they had this “monopoly” on Bible reading – there was no “spinning” involved. It was the Protestants who, in breaking away from Rome, invented doctrines that deviated from Biblical teaching. It was actually Protestantism that was inspired by power, as the northern European nobles used it as an excuse to revolt politically.

  • K. A. Kaapro

    (a bit off subject)
    Hamilcar- although I agree with you in some respects on the what you say about doctrines, just because it was a forced monopoly does not mean sometimes they did not take advantage of that monopoly.
    The extent of these abuses always seem to be exaggerated or dismissed, but they did occur (even in the last century).
    I also reject the notion that the Roman Church was not worried about losing their monopoly position of the Bible by the mass publication of the Bible, or why wait until the 1960′s for allowing Roman Catholics to read the Bible for themselves? And why even need a Counter Reformation? There seems to be some discrepancy here. But, no one will dispute the fact that Protestants were political, but that fact doesn’t diminish the fact the Roman Church was even more political, and always has been. The Pope and politics are two inseparable concepts (By Pope, I mean the Pope of Rome, not Alexandria- the Pope of Alexandria has always prided himself with not being political- especially ever since being anathematized at the Council of Chalcedon)

    cj – I think it was in the Discoverers when Boorstin mentions that clothing from the Plague produced material for books, although I could be wrong.

  • Clio is claoser to the process of nationbuilding than most of the other comments. Given that nationalism is a phenomenon of the very late C18th and C19th, it is clear that the impact of the printing press was primarily in forming standardised language communities. Only in areas with a strong state did ‘national identity’ reinforcement through the dissemination of books, pamphlets and woodcuts etc.

    Printing reinforced ‘national identity’ in England, France, Sweden, the United provinces etc and spurred the grwoth of patriotism. All of these are precursors to nationalism, which is a different phenomenon and much more modern.

  • Where, exactly, can you find Purgatory, Marian devotion, salvation by faith plus works, and so on in the Bible?

  • back40

    ” The “priestly monopoly” was not about power. First, before the invention of printing, there was no choice but to have a “monopoly”, as the original article points out; thus, there’s no need to invent conspiracy theories about the Church trying to keep people in the dark.”

    It was about power and it wasn’t a conspiracy, it was common knowledge since revenues were tied to rank and rank was a matter of flattery and politics. The first son was heir, the second went to the military, the third went to the priesthood and the fourth went a viking. The history of Christianity is one of diverse sects subsumed by a power structure and then once again diverging, after the printing of the Gutenberg bible. Remember the Albigensian heresy? The Inquisition?

    “Second, and related to this, is the fact that the Bible actually supports what the priests had been teaching while they had this “monopoly” on Bible reading – there was no “spinning” involved.”

    Tell that to Martin Luther and the Anabaptists.

    “It was the Protestants who, in breaking away from Rome, invented doctrines that deviated from Biblical teaching. It was actually Protestantism that was inspired by power, as the northern European nobles used it as an excuse to revolt politically.”

    This ignores the Orthodox church among other obvious defects. Each Christian sect has its own understanding of Biblical text, as Jews do of the Pentateuch. Moslems also have sects, and we are seeing some of the dynamics of that division in the news these days. The whole concept of Midrash is that the words need interpretation and discussion. The inevitable result is difference of opinion, and wide availability of texts always leads to varied readings. The concept that there is an official reading of a text is a statement of power not scholarship or spirituality.

    Communication technologies always have the effect of fragmenting opinion except where there is censorship. It may be difficult to imagine but printing was once a “hot” form of communication that had the immediacy and diversity we now associate with blogs.

  • K. A. Kaapro

    Back40 – At last, somebody who recognizes the exsistence of the Orthodox church in a conversation.

  • Before we start writing off Latin and seeing the Insta-birth of national languages in printing you need to look more closely at the books printed in the first 250 years — and the languages they were printed in.

    If a printer wanted anything like a market he continued to produce most of his books in Latin or Greek — the vernaculars simply didn’t sell very well. Specialized books were typically written in Latin and only sometimes translated. Newton, for instance, produced the Principia in Latin (I think he even did a second edition before he bothered with an English version). He was looking for a wider market than the English readership could provide!

    The Bible was one of the ONLY books for which there was a wide demand in Europe in the vernacular. I don’t think there was a large market in printed romances, for instance, for at least 100 years – but I’m not an Early Modern specialist.

    By 1600 there was a market for romances in vernaculars and – what’s probably more interesting evidence – in translated vernaculars.

    So, yes, there’s LOT’S to commend the idea that the printing press had a lot to do with nationalism, etc., but it just flat IS more complicated than that.

  • Stephanie

    This thread reminded me of a book review that appeared in Reason magazine. I thought some of you might find it of interest.