There once was a view of history that argued, indeed assumed, that the best of our world developed in the West, especially in Western Europe and Britain. This history emphasized the progress of liberty and enlightenment, which led to (or was the result of) material and economic progress and the (benign) domination of the world by the West. For this Whig interpretation of history (outlined by Herbert Butterfield in the 1930s) to be persuasive, inconvenient or uncomfortable aspects of that history—slavery, imperialism, racism, sexism, economic exploitation—had to be ignored or explained away. The experiences of the twentieth century, from the trenches of the Great War, to the ovens of Auschwitz, to the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forced most historians to rethink this essentially optimistic view of human history, even in its strongholds in Britain and the United States. Indeed, that other optimistic, progressive historical tradition, Marxism, has also lost its appeal in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Only in the rarified world of a certain kind of intellectual history does this historiographical tradition sometimes reappear. Richard Abel attempts to revive this tradition in The Gutenberg Revolution: A History of Print Culture. To be fair, Abel does historians an important service by returning to an old argument about the importance of the printing press in the development of modern society. As he properly points out, this idea was brought to broad prominence by Elizabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change . Abel claims to go beyond Eisenstein by arguing, repeatedly, that printing led to an “epistemological revolution” by giving European intellectuals more texts and more consistent and comparable ones than had been available in the era of hand-copied manuscripts. He also expands the idea somewhat by speaking of “the collaborative efforts of several generations of a wide variety of translators, writers, thinkers, and book people scattered across Europe” (123).
These insights would be useful if they were not part of a book that feels very old fashioned. Abel moves across the centuries, discussing the weaknesses of medieval intellectual “renascences” in the Carolingian Era and in the High Middle Ages, focusing on the limited number of texts available and their limited diffusion. The Renaissance is of course an important moment, as printing allowed for the wide dispersal of the cultural legacy of antiquity to a wider group of intellectuals. Abel does not focus on the Reformation in Germany and elsewhere in Europe but does argue that Protestantism was central to the advance of knowledge and freedom in seventeenth-century Britain, which is the subject of the last chapter.
The focus on seventeenth-century Britain as the cradle of liberty and progress leads to some surprising passages. Abel praises, for example, English colonists for using new knowledge to “create a viable colonial empire” that was, as this reviewer follows the argument, good for the economic and cultural development of the world (148). Abel dismisses French and Spanish empires as overly focused on religion and, not surprisingly, makes no mention of the role of slavery in development of the European empires and capitalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Abel's stress on the superiority of Western intellectual development, propelled by the printing press, leads him to some simplistic dismissals of other civilizations. Sixteenth-century Islam failed to threaten Europe because of the “faltering and decaying inner core of Islamic culture itself. This cultural malaise was fostered by a rigid, closed, and inward-looking religious/political Weltanschauung” (88). Abel also argues that the “ameliorating cultural formulations then being framed in Europe [that] were soon transplanted into the New World” were good for Americans (102). In this argument, “bestial native religious beliefs and practices were eliminated,” and European slavery was an improvement over, or at least no worse than, subjugation before Columbus (102). These rather startling generalizations sound very much out of place in contemporary historical writing and seem to reflect an ignorance or rejection of recent scholarship in a range of fields.
Because it is marred by a desire to demonstrate the cultural and intellectual superiority of the West and in particular of Britain, this book fails, in this reviewer's view, to persuade the reader of the significance of printing and the role of “book people”—printers, publishers, and editors—in changing European culture. No one doubts the significance of books and all kinds of other printing in the Renaissance, in the Reformation, in the English and French political disputes of the seventeenth century, in the Enlightenment, and in the French Revolution. Historians of the stature of Eisenstein, Jonathan Israel, John Pocock, Robert Darnton, and many others have been broadening and deepening our understanding of these issues for decades. Unfortunately, The Gutenberg Revolution neither popularizes those advances nor develops them in new directions.