There are many claims by scholars that printing and capitalism created the public sphere and that the public sphere enabled democracy. I don’t think that wrong, but they didn’t spring full blown from Pallas Athena’s brow either, they came from somewhere. So where did they come from?
One way in which CPs dispersed power was by a massive expansion of access to printed material. There are several reasons for this.
- CPs changed the idea of whom books were for. The CPs believed (and still do) that everyone needed access to God’s Word, not just elites. That meant that universal literacy was required, including the poor and women. Books also had to be inexpensive and available in languages that all the people could read. In the vernacular, not in a foreign language or in a classical language no longer in everyday use.
- CPs expected people to make their own choices in religion because they believed that people were saved by true faith in God, not by membership in a group or by sacraments, important though both are. Therefore, each individual had to decide which faith to follow for himself.
Printed materials were used extensively in this work, which forced other, competing groups to also use printed materials. This competition is one of the reasons for the rise in mass printing. That this had a catalytic effect may be shown by the movement of Europe’s printing centers. Before the Reformation, most printing was done in Italy, obviously Protestantism made little headway there, neither did mass literacy nor did an early public sphere arise. In England, however, before the Reformation, there was little printing, but CPs used printing to mobilize ordinary people, and the elites responded in kind. Thus came newspapers, printed debates, and an early public sphere. Also rooted in that is the modern world’s adoption of English as our lingua franca, I think, with all the advantages that gives to those of us for whom it is our native language. Even in continental Europe with all the damage from the religious wars, Protestant areas produce more books and export more printed material, both per capita.
In the West, the development of CP movements also predicted many of the major advancements in the quantity and techniques of printing. For example, CP Bible and tract societies helped spark a nineteenth century printing explosion. Their drive to print mass quantities of inexpensive texts preceded major technological innovations and helped spur technological and organizational transformations in printing, binding, and distribution that created markets and facilitated later adoption by commercial printers. Before this printing explosion, commercial publishers generally fought mass printing to keep prices high, even in Great Britain. Thus although markets and technology are important, they are not sufficient to explain the timing or locations of major increases in printing.
This becomes even clearer outside Europe.
First, religion influenced whether elites valued printing. Christians, Jews, and Mahayana Buddhists adopted printing without CP competition (none were primarily monastic, and all had long, nonpoetic religious texts that are difficult to memorize). However, Muslim, Hindu, Theravada Buddhist, and other societies in Asia and North Africa were exposed to printed books and printing presses by Chinese, Mongols, Jews, Asian Christians, Catholic missionaries, and European trading companies for hundreds of years before they printed any books.
By 1700, Europeans had created fonts for most major Asian languages, and in fact, the Portuguese had even given the Moghul Emperor a press and fonts in the early 1600s. It went unused. Although the major Asian economies were as big, or bigger than the European ones. We can see from this that there were no intrinsic factors holding them back, it was purely a choice they made.
To most elites, printing seemed ugly, it spread books to those “not qualified to interpret them,” and it undermined elite status/control. Jews, Eastern Christians, and trade companies only printed materials for their own consumption (mostly in “foreign” languages), and Catholics printed few texts (not mass propaganda). This limited printing activity did not threaten local elites’ ability to control public discourse or overwhelm their ability to respond orally or with manuscripts. Thus, Muslim, Hindu, and Theravada Buddhist elites resisted change.
[…] CPs printed so many vernacular texts that it forced elite response. For example, within 32 years of importing a press to India in 1800, three British missionaries printed more than 212,000 copies of books in 40 languages and, along with other missionaries, created the fonts and paper that dominated South Asian printing for much of the nineteenth century.
Conversionary Protestants also had much to do with the consequences of printing. If the availability of printing was enough to cause mass literacy, newspapers, and the public sphere, they should have developed in Asia as much as 600 years before they did in Europe. However, they didn’t, they remained dormant until the CPs arrived in the nineteenth century.
It’s important, I think, to note that CPs are not necessary to sustain a print revolution. That is a function of a market. But they were a crucial catalyst in developing that market.