Febvre & Martin: The Coming of the Book

This is a classic from the Annales-school, published originally in 1958. It sets out to meticulously describe the impact of printing, based on empirical/archival research, combining the perspectives of technology, economy, culture, politics, sociology. It’s a bit dry, not only because of the Annales-style of socio-economic history, but also because a lot is well-known from later studies. Well, it’s a classic…

I am not enough of a book-historian to assess the actual importance of this book as I do not really know how much has been made even clearer or is refuted by the subsequent research in this field. But Febvre & Martin ask the right questions, the research is thorough, claims are backed-up by numbers (that is the real power of this work), and there are some sobering thoughts for those who’d like to believe that printing meant an immediate ‘revolution’ — with positive effects — for our ‘mentality’ and culture.

They write:

“(W)e hope to establish how and why the printed book was something more than a triumph of technical ingenuity, but was also one of the most potent agents at disposal of western civilization in bringing together the scattered ideas of representative thinkers.” p. 10


“We propose (…) to examine the influence and the practical significance of the printed book during the first 300 years of its existence.” p. 11

Compared to a McLuhan the quotability of this book is not very high. But this is an interesting thought:

“From time to time writers turned printer — to print their own works, see them through the press ensuring their accuracy and good appearance, supervise their distribution and so have a direct influence on the reading public. This was and always will be an ambition common to many intellectuals. At times of intellectual crisis and of conflicts over questions of conscience, when polemical literature flourishes, this will be particularly the case.” p. 143

The last chapter is entitled “The Book as a Force of Change”. From their research it becomes clear that there was a swift change (p. 249): about 20 million books (copies) were printed before 1500 (p. 248). Then they ask:

“What was the result of it? What kind of books did the public want from its printers and booksellers? To what extent did printing ensure a wider circulation for the traditional medieval texts? How much of that heritage did it preserve? In making a sharp break with in the material conditions of intellectual work did the press promote the growth of a new type of literature?” (p. 249)

A digest from this (long) chapter:

“One fact must not be lost sight of: the printer and the bookseller worked above all and from the beginning for profit.” (p. 249)

“(T)he immediate effect of printing was merely to further increase the circulation of those works which had already enjoyed success in manuscript, and often to consign less popular texts to oblivion.” (p. 249)

“By multiplying books by the hundred and then thousand, the press achieved both increased volume and at the same time more rigorous selection.” (p. 249)

(In the beginning, before 1500, most books (77%) were Latin, and the majority were religious books).

“The reading public was extended by the sheer number of books which reached wider and wider audiences with increasing ease.” (p. 252)

“Printing also made for a more exact knowledge of the Latin language and of the authors of classical antiquity.” (p. 252)

“At the same time we must also note that the Latin classics which were the greatest success for publishers undoubtedly continued to be those which had been most popular in the Middle Ages, those which had most frequently been adapted and translated into the vernacular.” (p. 253)

“It is fairly evident at the outset that printing brought about no sudden or radical transformation, and contemporary culture hardly seems at first to have changed, at least as regards its general characteristics. But selection soon became imperative as the decision had to be made which of the many thousands of medieval manuscript were worth printing. (…) (B)ooksellers were primarily concerned to make a profit (…) and consequently they sought out first and foremost those works which were of interest to the largest possible number of their contemporaries. Hence the introduction of printing was in this respect a stage on the road to our present society of mass consumption and of standardisation.” (p. 260)

But things change too:

“Contemporary writers who had their names attached to hundreds and thousands of copies of their work became conscious of their individual reputations. This (…) was also a sign of a new age when artists began to sign their works, and authorship takes on an altogether new significance. Rapidly, under the mounting flood of new books written for an ever increasing public, the heritage of the Middle Ages lost its hold.” (p. 261)

“(B)y the 16th century the printed book (…) played a central role in the diffusion of knowledge of classical literature (…) and later in the propagation of Reformation doctrines; it helped to fix the vernacular languages and encouraged the development of national literatures.” (p. 262)

“Book production in the first decades of the 16th century shows a clear line of development (…). Religious works were still preponderant, and in fact more were probably printed that in the 15th century, but with the overall increase in production the proportion of religious books decreased markedly, while the constantly growing quantity of classical works is striking.” (p. 264)

(Febvre & Martin remark that while national vernacular languages were born, it was the translators that “helped to preserve the homogeneity of European culture” — as research shows that many works were translated.) (p. 274)

“Latin as the international language did not decline fully until the 17th century. By then the establishment of national literatures everywhere had begun to split up the book market, a process which was encouraged by the development of effective political and religious censorship. Permanent divisions were established between the cultures of the different countries of Europe.” (p. 274)

“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 been said to have represented an obstacle to the acceptance of many new views.” (p. 278)

” 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 exerted upon it by the classical languages. Printing was not the only factor which acted to bring about this evolution. (…) The emergence or strengthening of centralising national monarchies in the 16th century favoured the trend toward a unified national language.” (p. 319)

“(T)here is no doubt that printing generally favoured the development of literature written in the vernacular. Printing thus helped to render the national languages increasingly sophisticated as modes of expression.” (p. 328)

A-and their final sentence:

“So, by encouraging publication in the national languages for economic reasons, the book trade was in the end fostering the development of those languages — and bringing about the decline of Latin. This was to be a fateful development. It marked, it is true, the origin of a culture belonging to the masses, but its consequences, once set in motion were incalculable. The unified Latin culture of Europe was finally dissolved by the rise of the vernacular languages which was consolidated by the printing press.” (p. 332)

A-ah: so the whole book was about the decline of Latin… ;-)

Febvre, Lucien and Martin, Henri-Jean, 1997. The Coming of the Book. The Impact of Printing 1450-1800. Translated by David Gerard. London: Verso. Translation of L’apparition du livre, 1958.

en,quotations,research,ubiscribe | October 3, 2008 | 12:25 | comments (1) |

1 Comment

  1. There is a case for Esperanto, a language designed, not to take the place of national languages, but to serve as an international language in the way Latin once did.

    Take a look at http://www.esperanto.net

    comment by Bill Chapman | 3 October 2008 | 15:09 |

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