The Pleasures of the Printing Press

by space_unicorn on October 26, 2016 - 4:22pm

Empirical Observations


In a recent trip to the Osler Library, the opportunity to work with a rare medical book from 1684 was presented.


Theoph Bonet’s A Guide to the Practical Physician has a slightly carved binding that includes the date of publication, the author’s name and a shortened version of the title. Although the cover is blank, it shows that the book was tremendously used and began falling apart. In fact, the cover was removed completely from the binding. The strong odour of herbal medicine suggests that it is indeed a medical book and was stored near herbs that the book called for to treat various conditions.


On the inside, there were indications that this book was damaged by water and the papers were a ruffled, but there were no signs of any additional writings. The medical content was organized through a “Table of Heads” that would alphabetically arrange any medical conditions from bruising to miscarriage and reference a page number. At the top of each page is a heading that would let the reader know what condition they are reading about.




During the early modern period, the competition between printers and scribes pushed the printers to use “running heads...footnotes...tables of contents[...]” (Eisenstein,  24) to convince readers to buy their product. It shows that competition encouraged the production of better books, which would persuade people to purchase them. This is why “title pages became increasingly common [...] acting as advertisements” (24). These features are still used to this day to organize and facilitate the navigation inside a book.  Printers also promoted books through “handbills, circulars, and sales catalogues” (29) and then eventually they would “drive to tap markets [...] with efforts to hold competitors at bay by offering better products” (29). The introduction of advertisements and eliminating competitors shows early signs of present capitalism ideals and marketing strategies.


However, early modern books were slowly printed using “movable metal type, oil-based ink, wooden handpress, and so forth” (14) which are methods that are now outdated and replaced by computers and industrial printers that use toner. To compare, a skilled worker could put together 2 000 characters in an hour when a current computer could do the same in 2 seconds (University of Texas). Moreover, because religion was such an important aspect of early modern people, it was suggested that the printing press could be a “supernatural intervention”(22) unlike the current belief in technology as a science.


A Guide to the Practical Physician is a text filled with medical knowledge, but no illustration that could help in identifying or locating important organs. Bonet’s book is quite large in size and this suggests that readers of this book would need sufficient time to read it, sufficient space to store it, a basic understanding of medicine, and to be literate. It is believed that the past owners could be surgeons, pharmacists, or people of higher rank who had an interest in medicine. Hints on the pages of the book show that there was a complex printing process: the last words on a page needs to be the same word on at the beginning of the next page to allow printers to make sure that the order of the book is right. It is estimated by the head librarian at the Osler Library that there could have been hundreds of prints of this particular edition of Bonet’s book. This means that the books “could be viewed simultaneously by scattered readers” (24), which would influence readers in various places and these readers would share the same ideas as the author and then spread this knowledge wherever they are. Because the process of creating copies of books is demanding, different roles were created. Mechanics who worked closely with the printing process also had to collaborate with editors and correctors who were highly educated professors or former clergymen (27). This creates more acceptance between the ranks of workers and academics. There were also collaborations between “astronomers and engravers [...] physicians and painters” (27). Working together allowed the minimization of intellectual boundaries and for everyone to exchange knowledge.


Works cited


Eisenstein, Elizabeth. “Defining the Initial Shift,” The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. 2nd Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).13-45

University of Texas. Printing Yesterday and Today. Accessed 25 Oct. 2016.


I really liked the way you compared early modern printing techniques with modern technology! Indeed, it allows the reader (such as myself) to have a reference point in order to compare the 2 methods. You say that this was written for high rank, wealthy and literate individual, and that surgeons are among those who would use this book. However, am I correct in assuming that surgeons were only barbers and butchers looking for extra money? Therefore, would these people not be high ranked individuals, much less be literate and have spare times on their hands? Anyways, although this may seem like criticism a bit on the harsh side, it was the only downside to your paper. Everything else is well written, well linked together, and well organized! Wonderful!

Great piece, I really like the way in which you described very specific features of this book such as the smell of herbal medicine as well as physical condition of the book. I found it very interesting when you compared the creation of books from that time period to today, especially when you hinted at the way in which these books were advertised represented an early form of capitalism. Although you are undeniably correct with your claim that today's print publishing is much more efficient and that the methods of creating books such as this one are outdated, it is important to think about how advanced books like this were for their time. Before the printing press allowed these to be published, each book would have to be hand written by a scribe which is timely, and leads a rarity of identical books. Even how you noted that the last word on each page is the first word on the next is very advanced as this is how those who bind the books know that the pages are in order. Overall, outstanding article with great analysis, just thought I'd put my opinion in on how impressive these books actually are for their time.