Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Print, Reading and Social Change

This book review, written for an academic audience, is not easy reading. I apologize in advance. However, the book under review relates directly to "reading and social change." As such, you may find the review interesting and worth the effort to read.

Book: Reading Ireland: Print, Reading and Social Change in Early Modern Ireland by Raymond Gillespie,
National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Manchester Manchester University Press, 2005
ISBN: 071905527
Reviewer: Joad Raymond, University of East Anglia


Raymond Gillespie's Reading Ireland sketches the impact of print in early-modern Ireland. It is a wide ranging and stimulating overview that touches upon many of the themes that have shaped recent histories of books in other European countries, but especially in Britain.

It falls into three parts. The first discusses the social impact and social meanings of print. In chapter 1, Gillespie explores the relations between and among oral communications, printed books and manuscripts, and, fascinatingly, the iconic value of books in a low-literacy society. In chapter 2, he looks at changes in writing practices and attitudes to writing that develop through the exchange and production of property deeds. These are the consequence of political centralisation, and thus initially affect the English within the Pale, though they soon extended into the provinces. The spread of a 'textual culture' in Ireland, and the consequent increases in literacy, is closely related to legal documentation of land ownership.

The second part traces the introduction and establishment of print in Ireland between 1550 and 1700, and is mainly focused on printing and the book trade. Chapter 3 tells the story of 'the coming of print' from 1550 to 1650, during which the development of the trade was restricted by under-capitalisation. Expansion was given a fillip by the 1641 rebellion, and the impact of war sharpened political polemic. Nonetheless, throughout the seventeenth century the Irish book trade had a 'colonial feel' because it was dominated by English language books, by imported books and imported printing conventions. It was the lack of capital investment, the significance of imports and linguistic division that distinguished the ascendancy of the book in Ireland from that in England. Nonetheless, as chapter 4 shows, print did triumph in the later seventeenth century, and in doing so it spread from Dublin into the provinces. This development was linked to both 'the rise of bilingualism' and entrepreneurial ambition.

The third part consists of three chapters on reception and reading, and uses a variety of evidence, both manuscript and printed, to show how readers responded, or were intended to respond to the advent of print. 'Reading for power' looks at the role of print in state formation, including the use of legal manuals, military manuals, propaganda and pre-printed forms for leases and other legal transactions. Print was increasingly used by state and church for practical purposes, but also to shape and influence culture through literary technologies. Readers were nonetheless able to resist print and to put it to their own uses.

Chapter 6, 'Reading for salvation', looks at the devotional uses of reading. It considers the use of print in a range of religious communities, and suggests the relative importance of devotion over doctrine. Print was, however, used to challenge custom, and Gillespie writes of 'a new, orderly spirituality' that developed out of print culture. This account, especially when considered alongside the arguments concerning print and state formation, suggests some sympathy for Elizabeth Eisenstein's thesis about the early-modern print revolution, though Gillespie does not position himself in this debate.

Among the several interesting readers discussed here is Elizabeth Freke, who composed emblems based on Scripture as an interpretative exercise during her reading (p. 137); and among the interesting themes is the smuggling of catholic works. The final chapter, 'Reading for profit and pleasure', looks at a miscellany of other kinds of reading matter: chapbooks, histories, news, etc. This chapter is a little too fragmentary to be satisfying: it neither situates these materials in the context of broader print culture nor offers a thesis for their development.

I would have particularly have liked more on the rise of news media, its movement between areas and languages, and more on almanacs. Gillespie suggests that chapbooks were potentially used as reading materials before school: Lori Humphrey Newcomb has unearthed an example of a chapbook version of Robert Greene's Pandosto (the main source for Shakespeare's Winter's Tale) being used as a school textbook in nineteenth-century Ireland. This wonderful example of an improvisatory attitude towards the printed text suggests room for a more sustained and integrative picture of cultural translation and the penetration and uses of texts.

Gillespie's Reading Ireland shows how complex – perhaps messy – the history of books can be. He makes some very useful and nuanced distinctions: such as that between cultural literacy (having a sense of the social significance of books) and the entirely independent technical literacy of being able to read. He touches upon a very broad range of themes and topics: shortages of type, the second-hand market in books, the extent of libraries (James Butler, first Duke of Ormond's is interesting), the significance of bilingualism and language issues, violence against books, book lending and borrowing, libels, censorship, print-runs and prices. There is a wealth of detail here.

The structure of the work, however, means that the reader cannot find consolidated analyses of key topics – print runs or imports, for example – but instead has to search through the book (and index) for scattered references. There are some useful tables in appendix, however, which give more of a statistical overview.

It is perhaps inevitable that a brief survey of this kind has shortcomings, some related to its form. At times it reads like a series of essays: richly broad, but not offering a particularly dense or thick account of print culture. But limited evidence is more generally a problem. Gillespie can cite a single publication as evidence for generalisations about a market; and he occasionally interprets literary evidence as a factual representation of attitudes.

Finally, there is very little on visual images and the use of illustrations. Gillespie's Reading Ireland provides a strong sense of the publicity value of print in late seventeenth century Ireland. It is a useful contribution to Irish history, but also fills in a grey area for early-modern British historians and historians of the book in particular. The book developed in Ireland in a complex matrix of legal and economic restrictions, entrepreneurial and ideological initiative, and idealistic and sceptical attitudes towards print – towards its speed and capacity to illuminate, but also its unreliability – that only partly resembled those in England, Wales and Scotland. It leaves many details to be filled in, but is a distinguished and enjoyable introduction to the subject.


  1. Ms Vanessa
    This book that recommend to read, seems to me interest.But I think it's very difficult for me at this time. It has difficult words.
    Maybe later I'll try.
    I do not like to begin something and then leave it in the middle.

  2. Mata


    Your message is an example of misreading.

    I did NOTrecommend "reading the book."

    I recommended reading the review of the book.

  3. This review give me a lot of information about how a role of print changed and how society's attitude changed about the print in Ireland. The print was invented because of people's need- it was used for legal document. Later people also applied it to many different purposes. People used to think print was useless, and it was not popular untill businessmen involved. To me the most interesting part is that Irish people had a 'colonial feel' because it was dominated by English language books. It maked me think of what we had discussed about English only recently. It's sure not a good thing if law enforces a language on people.

    Because print was invented, people can read many different kinds of books. When people read more, they will get more information and knowledge, so they had critical think to judge, even challenge the tradition value.

    It is very intereting. The history of books was not only books themseves, but also the other factors that influenced them.
    I think I should check the history of books in China. It may interesting ,too.

  4. hi all,

    I read the review many times. and I want to emphasize the relation between print, capitalism, and soial change.

    The print has been generalized-democratized- the access to books. Before only the elite people can read and made profit of the rare spicemen of books.

    The invention of the print has been coincide with the arrival of the capitalism. The last one is appeared in England. Lately, it has been propagated in the European countries. And ordinary people have been contributed with a large part to diffuse it because the books of the celebrated economic thinkers like Adam smith have been available not only for the nobles, but also for the rest of the society.

    the introduction of the capitalism in this feodal society has many effects among others, the social change.

  5. A few more observations... the print revolution did not immediately affect all levels. First, it affected the nobility and emerging middle classes, some of whom already knew how to read and could afford books, which were expensive.

    Not just printing books like the bible but also translating them in vernaculars (which were only then emerging in written form) fueled movements that lessened the control of the Church and eventually lead to reforms.

    Even then, however, books and reading were still the province of the elite. The change was not their becoming less elite but more accessible to secular readers and less under the control of religion.

    Emerging capitalism did a lot to promote literacy. Literacy and numeracy are crucial skills in the marketplace, especially as it moves from just trade to controlling trade and production.

    Later, with improvement in printing technology, rise of newspapers, popular lending libraries, and so on, reading became more affordable for lower middle and working classes.

  6. Hi teacher Vanessa,

    Thank you for your observations. In my last comment, I was in the wrong to write that books have been accessible for the rest of the society. I have to narrow that first the emerging middle classe was able to read books. Then, in the course of time,books have been accessible for lower middle and working classe.

  7. Not really wrong - more a matter of adding detail. Secular book access and the habit of reading has to start somewhere. Of course it will start sooner with those who can afford books and education.

    Then think too of books that get misread and used wrong.

    The broadsheet period is interesting too - it predates and overlaps with newspapers. Broadsheets are like flyers - printed on a single sheet and distributed or tacked up on walls.

    In contemporary terms, writing on the internet and especially blogging could be thought of as roughly analogous to broadsheets.

  8. Dear Vanessa!

    I read review of this book despite that was very difficult level of reading for me. This subject of reading is very interesting for me because I'm always loved to read history books and history researches. However I think that evolution of print in Ireland and others countries of Europe was same. For example, in Russia at 1563 year was published first book. Of course it was a church book (merely another books in this age not existed) but the value of this book was greatest.


  9. Mark

    Yes, this review is a difficult level to read, partly because of the "academic style," which does not flow well. I posted it because it relates to our very interesting discussion of reading and social change.

    The pattern seems to hold for most (if not all) countries. We've each noticed that in the print history of our own languages. From what Rajeev told us about print in India, the same pattern holds too.

    I don't know enough about print history in China, Japan, VietNam, and other Pacific Rim countries but can't help wondering how print history there compares to Western & North African print history. We do know that China had printing - appearing during the Tang (618-906) dynasty - long before Europe.

    Following the same pattern we've seen for Western Europe, Russian, and India, printing was used to copy short Buddhist religious texts. Scrolls and books were printed later, first by wood-block printing and then, beginning in the 11th century, with movable type. Inexpensive printed books became widely available in China during the Song dynasty (960-1279). The earliest printed book found so far was a Buddhist scripture, printed in 868, hidden in a cave near the Silk Road.

    Muslims, who traded with China, knew about the technology but didn't use it. When Marco Polo visited China in the 13th century, he must have seen printed books.

    So there was printing in China much earlier, but it did not have the same explosive effect, triggering massive social change. That suggests other factors, and the time has to be right.


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