Gutenberg's Europe: The Book and the Invention of Western Modernity by Frederic Barbier


Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Frederic Barbier’s book begins with an introduction into early media revolutions such as the Carolingian and then launches into the major foci of his text. He writes of pre-conditions for a new economy of the media which the book provided, the birth of a market for books, and then launches into what he sees as descriptive of the fifteenth century, an age of start-ups. Here he investigates the development and logic of innovation,  tells the story of Gutenberg and the invention of printing, and completes this section with descriptions  of the techniques and practices of the time, which  culminated in the invention of the graphosphere. The third and final section of this vast work explains how printing conquered the world, gives a close insight into the nature of text, and in a penultimate chapter investigates the media explosion: a new paradigm relating to production and reproduction, censorship, and governmental governance of printed works.

This is a monumental work made easier by a writer who knows how to structure an argument that will persuade the reader not to be overwhelmed by the mass of information but rather feel that each little sector fits snugly with what has gone before. There is sufficient depth here to satisfy the specialist, enough structure to allow the newcomer to remain on top of the major concepts, the whole of the work paced at an easy lope that is a thrill to read. I was captivated.

The author takes as his beginning point the argument that major transformations in society are always accompanied by parallel transformations in systems of social communication. Hence Barbier charts the developments in manuscript culture in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and shows how the need for written documents stimulated processes of change that led to Gutenberg. A vivid description of Gutenberg and his century is followed by an insightful interpretation of the ways that the Gutenberg revolution played out across the world even into the media of China and Korea. One cannot but be staggered by the wealth of detail that attaches to all parts of the book. Yet I remain troubled by that innocuous “always” as in “always accompanied by parallel transformations”.  It bothers me that a professional  writer would place his argument in jeopardy knowing that one counter-example could render his thesis faulty. Perhaps a faulty translation from French to English might be the reason for the aberration.

When discussing the change from oracy to literacy, from reading aloud to silent reading Barbier’s tale tears away a veil so that in a dramatic instant one realises that this is when the cloak of ignorance vanishes from the minds of so many people. Like a giant crack of lightning in some Miltonesque heaven comes the revealing flash that, if one can read silently, one can absorb old ideas and create new ones without mediation by a Pope, ruler or anybody else. We begin to see why the Papacy saw a threat in the activities of Wyclif and Luther. Barbier is not content to leave the arguments at that level. He investigates the practice of placing marks on paper to represent ideas. He invokes Plato and Aristotle in his masterly description of the semiotic triangle and shows how Western society benefited from the interactive fertilisation of the thoughts of Averroes , the principal thinker of the Arab-Muslim world, with those of Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and the like. According to Barbier, this pooling of masterly ideas, the seizure of Constantinople by the Crusaders (1204), and the reconquest of Spain (1212) together with the policies of Frederick II combined to open up Western thinking and bring it closer to its Platonic and Aristotelian heritage.

The book presents one of the best explanations of the shift in mind set that follows when it is realised that an idea representing an experience can be registered on a piece of paper as a mark, and that the meaning of that mark remains a constant. When marks are listed in clusters, to all intents and purposes we have a written script. When the content of a written script is then transferred into moveable type and reproduced in large numbers, we see the significance of Gutenberg’s achievement. When, in turn, the system of writing so formed is replaced by a system that relies on ‘virtual’ numbers or letters i.e. on a digital technology, as happens in the present day, the effect of Gutenberg’s invention on what was once a stagnating world but which is now bursting with life, is revealed for all to see.

This is a detailed, academically challenging book that every thinking person should read. The writer’s prose is never dry and stale but bubbles in enthusiasm as the tough concepts keep coming. A medium- sized book with no distinguishing marks, except that it is crammed with giant ideas. I loved it.


Gutenberg’s Europe: the Book and the Invention of Western Modernity


By Frederic Barbier


ISBN: 9780745672588

320pp; $39.95



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