Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, a scholar who helped shape our understanding of the printing revolution in 15th century Europe, passed away on January 31 at the age of 92.
A historian of early modern Europe, she taught mainly at American University and the University of Michigan. While Marshall McLuhan and others popularized the notion of what we now call the Gutenberg Revolution, it was Eisenstein who aimed her wide-ranging scholarly eye on the subject. In her 1979 opus, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe, she supported her underlying thesis with exhaustive archival evidence. The two-volume work has had a significant influence in the fields of book history and print culture and scholars continue to critically engage with her ideas, a testament to her lasting influence.
In honor of Eisenstein’s life and work, here are two papers that can serve as introductions to her ground-breaking contributions.
In Past & Present, Eisenstein summed up her thesis:
The advent of printing was, quite literally, an epoch-making event. The shift from script to print revolutionized Western culture. It altered the way things changed and the way they stayed the same. It affected all forms of survival and revival.
She argued that the revolutionary transition from a culture of manuscripts to a culture of print had a fundamental influence on the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of the Scientific Revolution.
Eisenstein revisited her thesis in the American Historical Review, noting that “everyone seemed to agree that the consequences of the advent of printing were of great importance” but “all stopped short of telling us just what those consequences were.” She suggested that “to offer a full account far exceeded the capacities of any one individual. But even though the task could not be completed, I thought it should at least be begun. A beginning is what I attempted to provide.”
And what a beginning it was.