Assignment 3 – print culture v. manuscript culture

Due 8 Feb 2010 at 2pm via bSpace.  Please limit your responses to 200 words.

In another article, Elizabeth Eisenstein wrote “my concern has been to understand the difference between print and manuscript so as to comprehend the nature of the fifteenth-century change.”

From what you have read and what we have discussed in class, do you think that Elizabeth Eisenstein’s chapter in the reader underestimates the achievements of “manuscript culture”?

After reading Eisenstein’s chapter on the effects of printing, I do believe that she somewhat underestimates the organizational structure of manuscripts that were developed from codices long before printing, but at the same time she does acknowledge the different trends, that most people believed printing to have invented, actually did exist in manuscript culture. In class, we learned that the invention of codices introduced organizational tools such as margins, footnotes, indexes, and pagination that were a huge step up from scrolls. However, Eisenstein says “the preparation of each index was in itself an exercise in textual analysis—one which was applied to many works which had never been indexed before” (70). Although she meant to emphasize new processes of organizing lists alphabetically, this statement ignores the fact that scribes before printing dealt with issues of indexing and organization as well. In fact, the article ignores that manuscripts held any type of organizational system. In addition, the preservative power of printing is overrated because most printing was done on paper, which definitely has a shorter life than the parchment and vellum that manuscripts were written on. Printing had the ability to protect the words better, but the materials they were printed on was not progressive in terms of preservation. –Summer

Elizabeth Eistenstein carefully examines the broader implications of print in many circumstances. Implicit in this examination of the advancement of print are an underestimation of the achievements of “manuscript culture”.

Eistenstein underestimates authorship within manuscript culture. She finds that as manuscripts were copied, compiled, and commented upon, “original composition” and authorship itself were lost. (Eistenstein, 85) She over emphasizes the importance of who the author was, when to medieval society the lack of an author or an apparent historical lineage was insignificant compared to the text itself.

Eistenstein focuses a great deal on the inaccuracies afforded and increased by manuscript culture. But she also finds that print itself accelerates the “process of corruption” (74). While she claims that the acceleration of this process (one she cites occurs between 1480 and 1526) allows for the readers to catch degradation, she overestimates the rate and importance of error in manuscript culture.

Eistenstein also faults manuscript culture for their deep knowledge of a single or few texts, rather than the broad knowledge possible with print. She finds comparative knowledge more useful. While this admittedly ushered in the possibility of the age of enlightenment, the general loss of deep knowledge is not something to be applauded. I am sure none of us today, after so many years of print culture, can recite a single text like the scribes of yore.  Eistenstein underestimates deep understanding and familiarity, and ultimately, the achievements of manuscript culture itself.” – Nicola

Yes, I think Eisenstein has underestimated the achievements of the manuscript culture.  The manuscript culture brought about important changes prior to the invention of print.  Its contributions changed the very structure of the book because it introduced random access, pagination, footnotes, and was indexical.  The codex in the pre-print period already had some of the elements of printed books, i.e. subdivisions, cross-references, alphabetical order, and indexes.  Even though, indexes and alphabetical order was established in the manuscript culture, Eisenstein argues that it only really gained importance and use after the advent of the printing (p. 66).  Eisenstein acknowledges that manuscript culture did have some significance, but she quickly reestablishes print culture’s superiority.  Eisenstein argues that print culture spread about “accurate knowledge of the sources of Western though”, while manuscript culture had spread about “inaccurate knowledge” (p. 48).  Print was superior because of the standardization of information; each book was exactly the same, so it was easy to point out inaccuracies; while with manuscripts each scribe might have their own spin on the same story.  She also credits standardization with encouraging the emergence of an idiosyncratic self because it was easy to point out traits not shared by everybody (p. 56). -Janet

Although Elizabeth Einstein attributes some revolutionary aspects of print culture to manuscript culture, she underestimates the significance of these aspects in manuscript culture. She claims that cataloguing, indexing, “rationalizing, and codifying” were “trends that could not be really launched until after printing.”[1] She explains that efforts during medieval times were so unorganized and variant that only certain readers could successfully use them. However, as Prof. Duguid discussed in lecture, manuscript culture, with scrolls and the codex, already included pages, indexes, page numbers, chapters, cross referencing, and book titles. Printing may have standardized these achievements but it did not “reorder the thought of all readers” because many were already familiar with organization tools. Einstein also discusses the way printing allowed for different types of books to be mass published and distributed[2], changing the way readers learned. Yet, large libraries were deemed important early in manuscript culture, allowing those who owned them to go from “intensive reading to extensive reading”[3]. Aristotle and Plato collected books, although Socrates argued books held no space for dialogue, texts were translated from other languages, and people were encouraged to read all “good” books, even if they were not the bible.[4] Scribal copying and manuscript culture encouraged literacy and a need for knowledge outside of religion or myths.

[1] Einstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press. 1983, Pg. 69

[2] Einstein, pg. 44

[3] Prof. Duguid, History of Information. “Manusciprt Culture” 2/4/10

[4] Trithemius, Johannes. “In Praise of Scribes.” Coronado Press. 1974.


Eisenstein addresses many manuscript’s shortcomings in comparison to print, notably issues of distribution, lack of collaboration, and emergence into a scholastic community. However, she does not address the social and cultural preconditions needed prior to printing. These preconditions were the emergence of codex and the support of religious social groups, prominently the integration of “the book” into Christian culture. As was covered in lecture, the foundation for the university institution started within monastery libraries, and monk scribes laid the indexical and nonlinear framework. Could this framework be the seed or source calling on the demand of print? In other words, was manuscript a technological precondition for print? Einstein’s article does not necessarily underestimate manuscript culture, but her analysis more so explains the transition into print—noting advantages of print upon the collaborative and scholastic community. In comparison, Professor Duguid’s lecture emphasized the social and cultural aspect of manuscript, which was necessary for the emergence of print. Despite these differences, I don’t think it is so much a question of print culture vs. manuscript culture, but more so of how the discourse and epistemology of relevant economical, political, and spiritual interests brought forth the writing 2.0 revolution. –Joel

No, I think that Elizabeth Eisenstein’s chapter takes a detailed look at each of the technological and social advances throughout the cultural shift towards a “manuscript culture.”  Compared to our other readings, this chapter seemed to take a much more detailed look at the many stages that writing and printing went through and how each step may have changed society. For example, Eisentstein comments on how the increased number of books on the shelves “obviously increased opportunities to consult and compare different texts” (Eisenstein p. 44). The cross referencing of manuscripts allowed for the translation and increased production of Aristotelian, Alexandrian and Arabic texts. Eisenstein then comments on how this influx of new, foreign material caused a heightened awareness of what was considered occult, scribal lore.  Unlike the other readings, this chapter helped me better understand the importance  of the scribes and printers of the 16th century and their role in changing the “manuscript cultre.” For example, Eisenstein highlights how the printers of the 16th century “might serve not only as publisher and bookseller, but also as indexer-abridger-translator-lexicographer-chronicler” and the resulting positive and negative social changes  (Eisenstein p. 60).  The rest of this chapter deals with similar comparing and contrasting of the many shifts during the change towards a “manuscript culture,” leaving me with a better understanding of the 16th century, not an underestimation. –Eric

Though manuscripts served as the steppingstones for the printing press, and eventually, the electronic age to develop, I agree with Eisenstein when she claims that the manual process of storing information before the 16th century spread nothing but inaccuracies and confusion.

The “Manuscript Culture” is characterized by the use of manuscripts to store and preserve information. Up until the dawn of the Printing Age – the one that Eisenstein describes as the ‘Unacknowledged Revolution’ – people manually copied texts with nothing but their pen and hands. In particular, monks did this kind of work. They copied mostly religious texts that were used in monasteries.

Thus, it comes to no surprise that because these manuscripts were manually produced, they were also vulnerable to human error. Eisenstein is keen to point out that there are instances where monks who blind-copy manuscripts recorded information that contradicted what was being taught in monasteries. She also points out that Egyptian hieroglyphics “contributed more to mystification than to enlightenment” because they were not completely standardized. She goes on to point out that other important forms of textual information such as calendars, dictionaries, maps, charts, and other reference guides were also prone to error (p.46 – 52). This, she argues, may have led to a lot of confusion and arbitrary knowledge in society.

Though I appreciate that the Manuscript Culture opened doors to different ways of storing information, I still agree with Eisenstein’s sentiments. After all, spreading false information is worse than spreading no information at all. – Christian

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