Journal Thesis: The Rise of Literate Society

The Rise of Literate Society
A picture of an early print office in western society. Credit:

My first class on Wednesday mornings is Communication Systems with Dr. Brewin. (and for reference its not studying smartphones, more of the conveying and power of rhetoric in media). This past Wednesday, I pathetically fell behind for it’s 10:00 AM start. Luckily, only arriving a minute past start time (still a capital offense in some classes), my professor opened up with a point I had made nearly a week ago. Last Friday we were studying the differences between oral and literate societies and cultures. I will go into that prompt further in another journal perhaps, but, briefly summarizing, an oral society is more conservative than a literate; they derive opinions and facts from tradition, experience, and faithful trust. For example, an oral society would trust the word of a chief, monarch, or religious-head more because there is a more personal relationship with them, but spread that over a continent and such brings corruption. A literate society, however, is more black and white, what has been recorded and re-searchable, and what may be in accordance with the law. A literate society will have much more speed and room for civilized advancements. To simplify this, draw a circle on a white-board. The literate would describe it as a ‘circle’, whilst the oral would say something like ‘plate’ or ‘moon’.

The statement I made from last week that I previously noted, was concerning the conflict of which erupted when the Native Americans, an Oral society, were met by a literate society from Europe. I went into how the conflict broke because the conservative mind-frame was unwilling to go off of the words of a literate foreigner. i.e The Native may have said something similar to, “I can’t trust your word or written document because I don’t know you.” A literate to literate would have studied, and held according meetings to gain knowledge on the document they were possibly going to agree to. An oral society would have wanted to engage, and learn from one another, in order to gain the trust and understanding of one another. In a way, an oral society is arguably more easily persuaded, but also could be argued to be less corrupt ironically. So, because of this, I held that this was the reason for misunderstanding that lead to refusal to cooperate together and lead to major wars and massacres throughout history.

Europe was already advanced into a literate culture, but we can not forget that they were once simply oral as well. There were few writing even in the time of Socrates, who did not believe or trust literate. His apprentice, Plato, however, wrote wholesomely his wisdom and also Socrates’ teachings as well. He was not only a philosopher, but a scribe of sorts, and from there on we saw the rise of scribes and scholars after the era of Greek philosophers charming an enlightened way of free-thinking in civilization. But, Plato wrote in a dialogue meant to be interpreted. Now, to beg the question, why would a philosopher with the desire to spread knowledge do this in such a cryptic, secretive way? Well, to put it short, his mentor Socrates was beheaded for “poisoning the minds of the youth”. With this, we already see the European society becoming literate, but being tightly restricted by the edifice and monarchs.

Johannes Gutenburg
A picture of Johannes Gutenburg, inventor of the Western Press. Credit: The Crown College

To give setting to our actual main points, in the 1450’s, in a land known as ‘Mainz’ (now Germany) there was a goldsmith who would create an invention that would change the face of literate society and even, eventually, divide it in two. About this time, Latin was the most widely used language in Europe, but very few were considered literate. There were, in fact, three to be specific: the heads of the Catholic church, the monarch, and the scribes and scholars of those. Europe had become a primarily Latin continent ruled by Latin-literate Kings who were then beneath the church. Here we have a once-oral culture that is now considered literate, and is on the brink of progression, but is halted due to its inability to create printed documents. The people, however, were a blend of orals and literates. In order to ‘read’ they had to listen to what a man n a platform had to say, and it was taken as gospel.

The edifice controlled what religion had to say, and the common-folk were simply left to believe and not dispute. They had written copies of their holy book, created by scribes hired by the church in order to branch the church out further across Europe. These scribes were also biblical scholars. monks, priests, and scribes would spend hours of every day hand-writing copies of religious books. The men writing these books were constantly and consistently writing and studying the biblical doctrines until they could write it by memory. With this, their own views and ideas come about, they would discuss and debate, which may have possibly lead to biasedness when transcribing these holy books. Although the hand-written copies allowed doctrine to be spread faster than rumor, it had a very similar fault known as “drift”, or “textual drift” in this case. When something would be repeatedly written down, no matter how tedious, but never subject from human error or the tiniest of mistakes or changes. This term came along in 1979 from Elizabeth Eisenstein with her book “The Printing Press As An Agent of Change”.

Guternberg Printing Press
A Gutenberg printing press. Credit: asme.og

Now back-peddle gain to the 1450’s. Constantinople was the richest and most commerce-filled, christian city in the modern world. This is where Catholicism held their religious scribes to do their work and study.  It is, then, when it was later attacked and taken over by the Islamic Turks. The Islamic law enforced a withdrawal from catholic society and forced these scribes and scholars to flee from, what is now, Istanbul. The scholars and scribes of the holy books were sent to flee, scattered, all over Europe and elsewhere. Catching on? This, what seemed like a fracture in christian history, was actually a blessing in disguise. It sent their ideas, wisdom, and discoveries from their years as scribes to be taught to any who would listen. Constantinople was a ‘hub’ of sorts for Christian Greek-orthodox scholars who were just scattered across a rapidly advancing continent. At some point in this new wave of christian-thinking, a number of these scholars or scribes ran into our Germanic Goldsmith mentioned previously, but was known as Johannes Gutenberg. This meeting ignited a new wave of literacy combined with protestant thinking.

Gutenberg, as we all know, invented the printing press and was credited with one of “three inventions that set off the modern world.” a notable description given from Franz Bacon which were that of the printing press, the compass, and gunpowder. At this point, with the creation of print and the birth of modern-media, democracy was on the rise among many other factors now. Before, democratic ideas were rare in government; something that was seen as more philosophy from a city-state, Athens, and not regarded as an actual functioning form of government.

With the new printing press, knowledge and ideas were being spread rapidly. It was known as the “enlightenment” or the “renaissance” have you. It was the gateway, the ‘rebirth’ of a new era in human history. With the press, Europe began to see a rapid increase in literacy. Common-folk began to think for themselves, and scratch the surface to developing opinions that may not have corresponded with their rulers. It allowed for people to begin researching, studying like scholars, and debate with or build off of one another. Sir Isaac Newton remarked on this new development in society, in a quote I had hardly understood before this class, “If you think I can see farther, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Meaning, Newton is referencing his work is built from the discoveries and studies of those before him. The printing press allowed anyone to be a scholar. It increased knowledge, and social and environmental awareness, but it also lead to a conflict.

Thomas Carlyle of the Victorian era would argue that the reason behind democracy not catching on in popularity after Athens would be due to the lack of print for a literate society. Carlyle remarked in his studies, “Without printing, there is no democracy.”  The press invited a democratic way of thinking. The press invited a protestant way of thinking; why? Because it set all social classes on equal grounds. Immediately a bad response is made from the Roman-Catholic church and the British monarchy; the illegalization of free printing. This was the socially wealthy’s way of ‘nippin’ it in the butt’; they wanted to cut it before it became a problem, but it was already a tidal wave of issues for the edifice. The common-folk knew of the press even before the monarchs. Many scholars and scribes from Constantinople had been excommunicated when they did not return to Rome, but instead, taught their own understanding of the biblical texts and literacy.

In 1831, a man named Victor Hugo released a book set in Paris, shortly after print had erupted into society. Paris, 1482, was the setting for Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. There is a section of this book my professor pulled out into context to an idea I had not stumbled upon. In the novel, one of our characters points towards a book and then points towards a cathedral. He then states the words, “This will destroy that.” The book will destroy the edifice. Democracy will destroy the monarchy. Protestant Idealism will destroy the social control the Roman Catholic church held over Europe. The press, would divide Europe. We know have free-thinking people in modern society. People are reading. The commoners of Europe are writing and learning; they are becoming literate. Suddenly, for the first time in European history since the early Greeks, there was no longer a need for a monarch or head of church to derive what is gospel or law and what is not, leaving the common-folk to only be left to believe them.

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame"
A photograph of the book by Victor Hugo. Credit:

Continuing with such, we now have the explosion of democratic-protestant thinking at the discovery of the new world. Roman Catholicism leaders and monarchies are far from happy. Once, they held power of literacy over a controlled oral society. With that gone, they are now on equal ground. One could argue the separation is now wealth, but with literature booming, the print is the wealth, and everyone has access to it. It was not controlled, not yet at least. They must seek control over the printing press in order to retain their control. But even this, inevitably lead to separation between the powerful British Monarch and the Catholic church, as we have King James printing his own translation of the bible, outside from the Roman-Catholic church in Rome. The two superpowers were separating, but both longed to regain control of society.

At this point, protestant thinking has spread across the continent and even into the new world. With this, the conflict between protestants, Catholics, and eventually the Church of England erupts. Protestants and Catholics are printing and reprinting their teachings as the other seeks them out and burns them; no one still has control of the media. The British Monarch seeks this control passionately; the control of the media and the ideologies of which it spreads to the public. This is exactly the problem with government in today’s society. When you govern or rule a literate society, you are governing a free-thinking society of independent people separated from constricted views of the Dark Ages. In monarchies, or controlled elections, one can seemingly only point out wealth separating the two clauses, but, as previously inferred, the true separation is who controls what’s being printed; the control of the media and its devices. This is what the British monarchy established. After the ban from the Catholic church, the monarchy took control of all presses. They stationed the main ones for use in Cambridge, Oxford, and Amsterdam. Now, under decree from the monarchy, whom controlled the printing press, it was illegal to print or have access to the print without permission from the crown. This is what the British had established, complete control over English/Latin literacy and print. Then suddenly, Britain has all control over literate society. Then immediately after, they have won both wars they were fiercely entwined in and are now considered the world’s first national superpower. They held control over the major new media source of the western world. As the monarchy of England utilized this more and more against the Pope’s wishes, one could argue this held strength and pull towards when the British decided to separate from the Catholic church. After all, how am I supposed to believe that it was merely only a king wanting divorce that lead to a tremendous culture change for the most powerful nation in the west? Remember “BREXIT”, this held just as massive of an impact if not more. Limiting human history to this history is false, but as is technological determinism, but I will get to that after these last two points.

Colonial Prints for Printing Press
The letters used for Colonial Printers. Credit:

We have early colonial America now. The printing press is a commonly used technology, but strictly controlled by the British government and the Roman-Catholic church. The year is now 1638 when Jose Glover set sail for America. With him, he has five kids, his wife, a few technicians, and what would be the first printing press in America, but it would not be Jose Glover to bring the press. The British-man would not survive the voyage. Instead, Mrs. Glover, who’s real name was never discovered was credited with bringing the power of print-media to colonial society. There, the press underwent ownership to her children and descendants. (Liendhart) Eventually it underwent an update by an engineer after being hired to do so by a man named Benjamin Franklin. A replica was then built. There later were roughly five known printing presses made in colonial America. All except the ownership of Mrs. Glover’s were illegal in the eyes of British Parliament. One of which, was used to create the propagandous pamphlet, “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine. (HISTORY) And thus, the American revolution was underway.

So, to wrap this all up, because of the invention of the printing press, the world was sent spinning in a new direction. A technological advancement was valued as having the same exact impact as gunpowder and the compass. Elizabeth Eisenstein would argue that the printing press caused the changes I have so meticulously written which inevitably lead to America’s, and even France’s revolutions.

But here’s where I throw my final curve ball at you reader, that entire theory is technological determinism. The definition of that is the quality of someone making historical context too simple, narrowing it down to technological advancements alone setting it in motion. Now why would I argue so strongly for this in such a long journal, because I had p[previously just stated it to be false, right? The title of this thus reads, “The Rise of Literate Society”, when it should be entitled “The rise of Western Literate Society”. When looking at the big picture, we must refrain from western bias, which is what would lead to the determinism of the printing press in history. Here’s why: China and Korea had already had print technology hundreds of years before Europe. Gutenberg’s printing press was, in fact, not the first. (Briggs & Burke). So here’s my final two questions, or food for thought, of which I will go into in another following Journal: Why did the western world have such a massive impact when the press was invented, but the eastern societies of Asia did not? And, why did something like radio have that impact on all societies? Radio and print, both technologies, both sparking inventions in modern society, but held different reactions, why? Thus begins one of the largest debates in Media/Communication Studies: is technological determinism a proper way of seeing things, or is it too limited of a perspective on society.

Cited Works:

Briggs, A. & Peter Burke. (2005) A Social History of the Media. Pg. 2-23. From Gutenburg to the Internet. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Eisenstein, E. (1979). The Printing Press As An Agent of Change.  Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. Editors. (November 13, 2009). Thomas Paine Publishes Common Sense.  History. A&E Television Networks.

Hugo, V. (1973). The Hunchback of Notre Dame. London: New York: Dutton, Dent.

Liendhardt, J.H. (1997) First U.S Press. No. 733. University of Houston.


The Rise of Literate Society

Written & Edited by Devyn Lyon

January 25, 2019.


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