I can’t take a history class, or literature class, or any sort of class dealing with human development, but be told the advent of the printing press was revolutionary. And I can look at everything it changed or allowed – the Reformation, literacy rates, genre, the standardization of language, the economy – and I will know that the entire world pivoted around this invention. But I won’t feel it.
We talk of the printing press as an engine – almost as the engine, the one driving the Renaissance, which drove the social movements after it, a great big locomotive of ideas and possibilities. But that role somehow places the press outside of the Renaissance, or of the culture: it changed it, drastically, but it didn’t belong to it. People used it for their own ends, and then popped it on the shelf for later use.
So, dreadfully, wrong; and I was dumb to think the press would ever settle for being a spectator. It was so much more.
Shakespeare, who often fixated on the idea of immortality through bearing children, saw in the printing press a parallel image. As children were copies of their parents, generation after generation, the printing press created better copies of books – which beforehand, would have been written by hand through generations of scribes. I loved that imagery in Sonnet XI, in the final line: “Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.”
Milton pulled the same move in his Aeropagitica, where he argued for agency and freedom of speech, “Till then Books were ever as freely admitted into the World as any other birth; the issue of the brain was no more stifl’d then the issue of the womb: no envious Juno sate cros-leg’d over the nativity of any mans intellectuall off spring.” Perhaps tied to the romance of Ad Fontes and classics, books become children, with an author for a father and the printing press (or whoever had the pleasure of writing it out by hand, poor soul) as mother.
|Image From here|
In the same way that roses are an image of affection and lilies of death, in the way we turn windows into metaphors and liken wisdom to a tree, the printing press made its way into language and imagery, subtle and fundamental. When a thing creeps its way into creative expression, it’s because people are identifying with it. This is, for me, where you feel the impact.
Milton, John. “Aeropagitica.” The John Milton Reading Room. n. ed. Dartmouth.com. n.d. Web. 20 Sep 2015.
Shakespeare. “Sonnet XI.” Shakespeare’s Sonnets. n. ed. n.d. Web. 20 Sep 2015. <www.shakespears-sonnets.com/sonnet/11>