Since the invention of printing around 1450, printed materials have become such accepted media for the transmission of information and knowledge that they are taken for granted. The primary characteristics of print, such as mass reproduction, fixity, and uniformity of contents, have been ascribed to the print revolution. For example, the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein argues in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe (1979) for a new mentality that print culture created as seen in printing’s role in shaping the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution.
In The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, Adrian Johns tests some of these arguments about the new characteristics of print. His method is to delve into the creation of print culture, primarily in London from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. He examines the complete world of the book that encompassed authors, printers, booksellers, and readers. His purpose is to investigate how the characteristics that are ascribed to printing, especially stability and credibility, came into being. His work demonstrates that trust in the knowledge that printed material conveyed was difficult to achieve. This credibility was especially significant when it coincided with the transmission of scientific knowledge. In contrast to Eisenstein’s thesis, his research reveals that for at least three centuries after the invention of printing, the credibility of printed books and other materials was extremely fragile. The Nature of the Book examines how mechanisms were devised to achieve the primary features of fixity and credibility that are primary features upon which print culture depends.
Johns first studies the interlinking “domains” where books were printed, sold, read and discussed. Stationers, the primary agents in producing and selling books, were engaged to overlapping degrees in printing, selling, publishing, and editing. Although an author might endeavor to interact with the stationer, in practical terms a book was published under the stationer’s name, and the stationer held the rights to the “copy.” Authorship was secondary, and an author had little control over editorial changes and care in proofing a text. For the reader, issues about trust in printed works focused on stationers, encompassing printers and booksellers.
Piracy also contributed to the unstable credibility of printed works. Johns points out that while printing history has regarded piracy as a peripheral problem based on isolated individual cases, in fact piracy, including unauthorized editions and abridgments, permeated the printed book trade in London and by extension throughout provincial centers in Great Britain. Johns demonstrates that piracy was a phenomenon that went beyond legal definitions into “the far more amorphous territory of civility.” For almost any printed work in early modern England, it was difficult to assign credit or blame. Thus, the literary contents of a printed book carried no automatic assumption of authenticity or credibility.
The remaining chapters look at ways that the literary and scientific community addressed the problems of fixity and credibility in printed books and materials. In doing so from around 1500 to 1800, they managed to invest printed materials with the authority that has come to be assumed about the medium of print.
Because their very livelihood depended on the credibility of their products, the Stationers’ Company provided the primary impetus for achieving trust in printed publications in early modern England. Their activities were conducted in a veritable castle known as Stationers’ Hall in London. Johns’s discussion “breaches the walls of this institution” to reveal how the Stationers’ Company created representations of themselves and the printed materials that they produced as trustworthy. They maintained an internal order through their register, which recorded individual stationers’ rights to hold “copy” for a particular work. Disputes arising about these matters were settled in the stationers’ court. Stationers also promoted trust by cultivating the aura of propriety in their business dealings and by reinforcing their corporate character with ceremonial displays.
Two other mechanisms for achieving credibility in printed works brought printing and the Stationers’ Company into the political arena. Licensing, which had overtones of censorship, was used through the politically tumultuous seventeenth century; it ended in 1695. Royal privileges were granted to individuals. Even more than licensing, which arose...
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