Memory and the Printing Press

You probably know that Gutenberg invented the printing press. You probably know it was pretty important. You may have heard some stuff about everyone being able to finally read the Bible without a priest handy. But here's a point you might not be familiar with: The printing press changed why, and consequently what, we remember.

Before the printing press, memory was the main store of human knowledge. Scholars had to go to find books, often traveling around from one scriptoria to another. They couldn’t buy books. Individuals did not have libraries. The ability to remember was integral to the social accumulation of knowledge.

Thus, for centuries humans had built ways to remember out of pure necessity. Because knowledge wasn’t fixed, remembering content was the only way to access it. Things had to be known in a deep, accessible way as Elizabeth Eisenstein argues in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change:

As learning by reading took on new importance, the role played by mnemonic aids was diminished. Rhyme and cadence were no longer required to preserve certain formulas and recipes. The nature of the collective memory was transformed.

In the Church, for example, Eisenstein talks of a multimedia approach to remembering the bible. As a manuscript, it was not widely available, not even to many church representatives; the stories of the bible were often pictorially represented in the churches themselves. Use of images, both physically and mentally, was critical to storing knowledge in memory: they were used as a tool to allow one to create extensive “memory palaces” enabling the retention of knowledge.

Not only did printing eliminate many functions previously performed by stone figures over portals and stained glass in windows, but it also affected less tangible images by eliminating the need for placing figures and objects in imaginary niches located in memory theatres.

Thus, in an age before the printing press, bits of knowledge were associated with other bits of knowledge not because they complemented each other, or allowed for insights, but merely so they could be retained.

…the heavy reliance on memory training and speech arts, combined with the absence of uniform conventions for dating and placing [meant that] classical images were more likely to be placed in niches in ‘memory theatres’ than to be assigned a permanent location in a fixed past.

In our post on memory palaces, we used the analogy of a cow and a steak. To continue with the analogy used there, imagining that your partner asks you to pick up steak for dinner. To increase your chances of remembering the request, you envision a cow sitting on the front porch. When you mind-walk through your palace, you see this giant cow sitting there, perhaps waving at you (so unlike a cow!), causing you to think, ‘Why is that cow there–oh yeah, pick up steak for dinner’.

Before the printing press, it wasn’t just about picking up dinner. It was all of our knowledge. Euclid's Elements and Aristotle's Politics. The works of St. Augustine and Seneca. These works were shared most often orally, passing from memory to memory. Thus memory was not as much about remembering in the ages of scribes, as it was about preserving.

Consequently, knowledge was far less shared, and then only to those who could understand it and recall it.

To be preserved intact, techniques had to be entrusted to a select group of initiates who were instructed not only in special skills but also in the ‘mysteries’ associated with them. Special symbols, rituals, and incantations performed the necessary function of organizing data, laying out schedules, and preserving techniques in easily memorized forms.

Anyone who's played the game “Telephone” knows the problem: As knowledge is passed on, over and over, it gets transformed, sometimes distorted. This needed to be guarded against, and sometimes couldn't be. As there was no accessible reference library for knowledge, older texts were prized because they were closer to the originals.

Not only could more be learned from retrieving an early manuscript than from procuring a recent copy but the finding of lost texts was the chief means of achieving a breakthrough in almost any field.

Almost incomprehensible today, “Energies were expended on the retrieval of ancient texts because they held the promise of finding so much that still seemed new and untried.” Only by finding older texts could scholars hope to discover the original, unaltered sources of knowledge.

With the advent of the printing press, images and words became something else. Because they were now repeatable, they became fixed. No longer individual interpretations designed for memory access, they became part of the collective.

The effects of this were significant.

Difficulties engendered by diverse Greek and Arabic expressions, by medieval Latin abbreviations, by confusion between Roman letters and numbers, by neologisms, copyists’ errors and the like were so successfully overcome that modern scholars are frequently absent-minded about the limitations on progress in the mathematical sciences which scribal procedures imposed. … By the seventeenth century, Nature’s language was being emancipated from the old confusion of tongues. Diverse names for flora and fauna became less confusing when placed beneath identical pictures. Constellations and landmasses could be located without recourse to uncertain etymologies, once placed on uniform maps and globes. … The development of neutral pictorial and mathematical vocabularies made possible a large-scale pooling of talents for analyzing data, and led to the eventual achievement of a consensus that cut across all the old frontiers.

A key component of this was that apprentices and new scholars could consult books and didn’t have to exclusively rely on the memories of their superiors.

An updated technical literature enabled young men in certain fields of study to circumvent master-disciple relationships and to surpass their elders at the same time. Isaac Newton was still in his twenties when he mastered available mathematical treatises, beginning with Euclid and ending with an updated edition of Descartes. In climbing ‘on the shoulders of giants’ he was not re-enacting the experience of twelfth-century scholars for whom the retrieval of Euclid’s theorems had been a major feat.

Before the printing press, a scholar could spend his lifetime looking for a copy of Euclid’s Elements and never find them, thus having to rely on how the text was encoded in the memories of the scholars he encountered.

After the printing press, memory became less critical to knowledge. And knowledge became more widely dispersed as the reliance on memory being required for interpretation and understanding diminished. And with that, the collective power of the human mind was multiplied.

If you liked this post, check out our series on memory, starting with the advantages of our faulty memory, and continuing to the first part on our memory's frequent errors.