In 1980, Elizabeth Eisenstein published The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe in two volumes.1 But despite the book’s massive influence, its thesis has been continually challenged since then and it is widely thought by most scholars working in the field to have been finally discredited by Adrian Johns’s The Nature of the Book.2 Johns rejects just about every aspect of Eisenstein’s thesis: printed books are, he argues, no more fixed, reliable or standardized than manuscripts. Moreover, they were often sold in small print runs for narrowly defined groups. And the conditions of the reception of printed books was highly variable, depending upon how, why, or whether they were read. I will argue that for all of the problems with Eisenstein’s thesis, its main argument – the revolutionary effects of printing – is even stronger than she originally proposed and that the attempt by recent scholars to argue for the persistence or even the coexistence of manuscript and print is misconceived, depending upon an elision of printing with the printing of books. When the first British Census of Production was made in 1907, books constituted only 14 per cent of the total value of print production. Printers do not print books. They print sheets of paper. Printing, I will argue today, did indeed produce a revolutionary transformation in communications, but not primarily through books. Its most radical effect was its incitement to writing by hand. Half an hour before landing in the United States, the flight attendants issue

all passengers with printed customs declaration forms. This is followed by the usual scramble to find a working pen; to recall what the flight number is; to retrieve your passport so as to fill in its number and the place where issued; to recall whether or not you’ve been on or near a farm; to remember that you’ve forgotten to buy all those gifts for your friends that you now won’t need to declare; and finally, anxious and exhausted, to put your seat in the upright position, make sure that your seat belt is securely fastened, and prepare for landing. Among the many things that a flight to the US may be, it is an exercise in compulsory literacy. The nation-state demands that one reads and writes or (today humiliatingly, unless one is very young or doesn’t read or

write English) find someone who will fill in the form in one’s stead. The work of the nation-state is done through a printed form that elicits writing by hand. We are heirs to the Catholic Church, which, in 1476, inscribed the manu-

script names of Henry Langly and his wife on William Caxton’s first dated work: the single sheet of an Indulgence, published by the Catholic Church in the shape of a blank form.3 Printing and manuscript are compulsorily conjoined in the printed blank form – a form that only fulfills its function as a form when it has been completed by hand. And there are two things above all that you must be able to write: your name and the date. A third, more variable, element is place – country of origin, place of birth, home address. The revolution of printing-for-manuscript that provides the material basis for compulsory literacy has little to do with reading. It demands that we fill in name and date, whether or not we have actually read our passports, our tax returns, or the fine print on customs declaration forms. The printed forms that shape our daily lives do not require us to read; they demand that we participate in the revolutionary transformation of writing by hand. A perverse thought: some of the most fundamental technologies of communication that shape and control our lives are not primarily communicative at all. Europeans first encountered printed blanks to be filled in with name, date,

and place in the form of indulgences, published at the expense of the Catholic Church and printed in millions in the first century of printing. The first dated text that survives from Gutenberg’s press is not a book but a printed indulgence. An indulgence was usually a single piece of paper, printed on one side only. Gutenberg stopped work on his great Bible to print 2,000 copies of an indulgence in 1454-55.4 But Gutenberg’s 2,000 indulgences were only a foretaste of what was to come. In Augsburg in 1480, Jodocus Pflanzmann printed 20,000 certificates of confession, four to a sheet, and Johan Bämler printed 12,000 indulgences. In 1499-1500, Johann Luschner printed 142,950 indulgences for the Benedictine Monastery at Montserrat.5 As Clive Griffin has shown, so profitable was the printing of indulgences that printers competed fiercely for the patents to print them. Successful printers sometimes had to set up new printing houses to cope with the work. Varela, for instance, set up a second house in Toledo where he printed indulgences from 1509 to 1514.6 But the staggering increase in indulgences required not only printers but also new kinds of scribes. These scribes no longer needed to know how to copy out the whole of a Latin bible. Like us, they needed to know how to fill in printed forms with name, date, and place. The sale of indulgences typically depended upon a complex interaction of

speech, manuscript, and print. This indulgence, issued by the Archbishop ofMainz and Magdeburg, has blank spaces for the name of the recipient, the month of the year and the day of the week.7 It was issued for the use of John Tetzel, the immediate cause of the Reformation, since it was he who took over Luther’s church, ejecting him from his own pulpit, so that he could sell his indulgences. It was in direct response to Tetzel’s usurpation of his church that Luther wrote

and published the 95 Theses – theses whose overwhelming subject is the sale of indulgences.8 Just how they were sold is carefully depicted in a German Lutheran woodcut.9 In the center of the cut, in front of an altar, is the indulgence cross that was set up with papal banners either side of it. On the right, a monk encourages two parishioners to put their money into the collection box directly below the cross. On the left, the indulgence preacher stands in the pulpit, holding up a manuscript papal bull with five seals, while he delivers the indulgence sermon. And in the right foreground, a clerk sits at a table, around which three men and a woman are gathered. With his right hand, the clerk hands out one of the printed and sealed indulgences, while, with his left hand, he either records the transaction in manuscript or fills out the blanks in the next indulgence. In front of him are other sealed indulgences, and wax seals. The indulgences are advertised orally by a preacher; they are distributed as

printed forms; they are filled in and recorded in manuscript by clerks. Indulgences were thus sold by a revolutionary conjoining of speech (sermons), printing (blank indulgences), and writing (the completion of the blank forms in manuscript). Printing also produced the mechanical means by which this woodcut image was itself reproduced. Finally, this woodcut depicting the sale of indulgences is itself part of a polemic against what I believe was the single most important form of printing in the first seventy years of printing: the printing of millions of blank indulgences that, while only a small portion of the total number of sheets being printed, had a disproportionate impact upon the whole of Europe, becoming a central means of raising money to wage war against the Ottoman Empire and to subsidize the papacy. Plenary indulgences, giving remission of all sins committed before the indulgence was granted, could only be conferred by the Pope. Partial indulgences, on the other hand, were administered by local officials and constituted a system of taxation for subsidizing hospitals, rebuilding churches, mending roads and harbors, and lining the pockets of pardoners and bishops. Indulgences were not, as is usually thought, some strange aberration; they were the successful means by which both the Church and local communities raised taxes. They also provided the model for the first government tax forms. In 1512,

parliament granted Henry VIII a subsidy for war against France. The subsidy was proclaimed both in folio booklets and in printed broadsides that were posted. But more important for its future implications was Cardinal Wolsey’s order for the printing of blank forms to assist in the collection of the tax. These “bureaucratic forms,” like indulgences, “provided blank spaces for the name of the buyer and date of purchase.”10 One of the three surviving forms is a blank that Richard Pynson printed in 1515

for thorderynge and assessynge of eruey [sic] p[er]sone dwellynge, abydynge, or hauynge theyr moost resorte to, or in the sayde Cytie of London chargeable and contributory to a subsydie graunted to our sayd

soueraygne lorde, by auctoryte of his Parlyament last holden in Westm [inster].11