English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3   




Link Library




Syllabus & Schedule





1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam




***     16. Print Culture     ***



The Technologies of Literature
Vol. 1B, pages 682-686 and 1079-1114
Longman 3rd ed.
"The Business of Literature,"
"The Languages of Literature" and

"The Rise of Print Culture" 


The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.  See General instructions on Journaling for this course. For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.


Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Summarize the readings or make notes you will find useful on the final essay. Some journaling ideas for this assignment include:

What historical changes might have been caused or enabled by printed books?

What personal changes might have been enabled by widespread literacy?






"Read not to  contradict, nor to believe, but to weigh and consider" -- Francis Bacon


Left: These symbols, represented in 7th century Lombard stone carving, might have been understood by illiterate speakers of many languages. The invention of writing restricted access to information to those who could read, even as it also made possible great improvements in information-keeping and retrieval.

Four Ages of Literature
The technology of literary production should not be under-appreciated. The great changes in literature, as in other fields, have been driven by technology. Three major breakthroughs in technology have been the alphabet, mechanical print, and electronic text. These three inventions divide the past into four major ages:

    1. The Preliterate Age of Memory: the time before literature, from and even before the invention of language and development of voice in prehistoric times (cir. 200,000-100,000 BCE?). Literature by definition did not exist in this Age, but ritualization, dance, music, and poetic patterns of sound--meter, rhyme, alliteration--helped to maintain consistency of content from one performance to another. 

    2. The Age of Manuscripts: the handwritten word from the use of writing (cir. 3000 BCE?) to the printing press (1436 CE in Europe). Memory is strengthened with text. Performance becomes fixed or nearly so (scribes may add new items to old manuscripts). Distribution broadens since copies can be made of the same words, but copies are limited in number because hand copying is tedious. Literacy is restricted to a small professional class of scribes or scholars. Copying becomes a value in itself: literary emphasis falls on the handing-down of authentic stories from old authorities and the close imitation of those models. Most authors are supported by politically powerful and wealthy patrons, so literature typically is priestly, courtly, or aristocratic. Classical literature and medieval literature represent the Age of Manuscripts in European history.

    3. The Age of Books: the printed word from the invention of the printing press until the internet. (Mechanical printing with movable type begins in Europe with Gutenberg in about 1436 AD.) Printed copies are nearly identical, so the performersí words are nearly fixed. Low cost and ease of publishing permit both mass distribution and specialization of subject matter. Commercial distribution favors popular literature; writers no longer depend for support on wealthy patrons but cater to the masses. Junk literature proliferates. Literature engages in social criticism, humor, humble subjects, fantasy and pure entertainment. Texts can be authenticated, so prophecy declines. Science is enabled.  Ideas are disseminated more quickly and more widely than in previous times. Early modern to modern literature represents the Age of Books in the west.

    4. The Age of the Internet: the web word from the invention of electronic text until the next big thing comes along.  Use your imagination to describe this one. How fortunate we are to live when such important changes are beginning to take place! Will the Internet Age resemble the Age of Memory since internet presentations are interactive and even "live," unlike old-fashioned books, manuscripts and recordings?  Will bards and performing arts make a come-back in cyberspace? How far will machines and simulations take the place of human performers? How different will these robots be from the artists of the first age?

The ages of literature are not absolutely defined by date, of course. We have improvised oral story telling today at the outset of the Internet Age, and we have manuscripts and more books than anybody can read, too. The old ages are with us still, not having vanished, not showing signs of ever going away. From age to age itís the cumulative variety of technology that grows, and the relative emphasis among technologies that changes.

Transitions are gradual. When changes finally come, people tend to see the new technology in light of the old. The works of Homer and the Beowulf poet, for example, are preserved in manuscript, but the words appear to be composed in the oral style of a bard. Within the age of manuscripts, beginning with Roman codexes in the first century AD, handwritten papers were bound together in book-like volumes. Early in the age of the printing press, mechanically published books had manuscript-like illustrations (recall More's Utopia), and for many decades the font styles remained unnecessarily and confusingly ornate, resembling handwriting. Similarly at the start of the Internet Age, we see the new web technology used first for book distribution in Amazon.com, electronic texts, and . . . even this print-heavy course? Meanwhile, the novelties of the new medium, like interactivity, are underutilized, and internet applications that seem wonderfully advanced to us now surely will seem primitive in the years to come.

Here we are in a great transitional time. How will literature change to make full use of electronic text and the world wide web?





Left: early books looked like manuscripts, with cursive fonts such as black letter ("Tudor font") and woodcut illustrations to compete with manuscript illumination. See also Ranulf Higden in Damrosch 1082-1083.


Four Ages in English Literature
In English literature, Old English, Middle English and Modern English loosely correspond to the Age of Memory, Age of Manuscripts and Age of Books. Maybe texting language is coming next, in the electronic age? (What will become of English teachers!)

The Old English Beowulf exemplifies the first Age in that it bears the markings of bardic song. Chaucer's Middle English Canterbury Tales exemplifies the second, as a written record of  things that people are supposed to have said. The Age of Books in England began with Caxton the printer, and it is represented by thoroughly bookish neo-classical writers like Philip Sidney (16th century), John Milton (17th century AD) and Alexander Pope (18th century) and almost everybody since their time through the twentieth century. There's at least rough correlation in history among the Age of Books, the British Empire, and the spread of the English language around the earth. (Recall Lesson 1.)

Beowulf-poet, Chaucer and Sidney, if they could meet somehow, would not be able to converse with one another very well because of the great changes in the language over the centuries. English teachers, of course, will have you perfectly understanding all of these people, and very many more besides . . .

But what about the fourth Age? Are we entering a time when the English language will change again into something strange and new? Perhaps machine language will play some role in transforming not only the technical processing of literature but also the form of English? Will people in the new age have trouble reading our "modern" English of 2000 AD, much as we have trouble reading Middle English? What shortcomings of books can be fixed by the new electronic medium?

Below: A 16th century print shop including readers, typesetters, ink rollers, pressmen, bookbinders and distributers. Folios were produced by folding the single sheets once. Quartos were produced by a second folding into quarter sheets. It has been estimated that up to 1000 sheets could be pressed in 12 hours.


Print Culture

Sidney's defense of poetry against Puritan censorship is an episode in a much larger story about the acceptable scope of discourse in early modern England. Nearly all writing in the manuscript age had been personal or narrow in its audience, hence fairly limited in its influence. With the printing press and emerging literacy, writing acquired a public dimension and unlimited potential influence. The control of this new technology and suppression of free expression obsessed not only moralists but the church and state in general.

Print has been held responsible for all manner of dissent, including the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance rebirth of learning, and the scientific revolution. Champions of the old guard, the Tudor-Stuart monarchs and many of their clergy feared the power of the printing press, and took action to punish writers and to suppress books that they did not like, and to publish propaganda. The technology of printing was too rigorous to be controlled politically,  but negative reaction against censorship by the British establishment set the stage for freedom of expression and freedom of the press in later ages.

The first books in English are printed in Britain by William Caxton.

1526. The New Testament is translated into English by William Tyndale. This work eventually would become the basis for the most popular book ever written in English, the King James Bible.

1534. Henry VIII declares himself head of the church.

1536. Henry VIII orders Tyndale to be strangled and burned at the stake.

1539. Henry VIII directs printing of an English translation of the Bible by Tyndale and others, edited by Miles Coverdale.

1557. Stationers' Company is chartered by Queen Mary to control book printing.

1559. In the Second Act of Supremacy, Parliament requires all books to be licensed by the Archbishop of Canterbury or York.

1579. Elizabeth has John Stubbs right hand cut off because of a publication criticizing her consideration of marriage to the French king's brother.

1593. John Penry is hanged, accused of publishing the "Martin Marprelate" pamphlets critical of the clergy.

1611. James I makes ownership of the Geneva Bible a felony. He also causes his own version to be published, based on Tyndale, the King James Bible.

1637. The publisher William Prynne has his ears cut off for printing pamphlets critical of Archbishop Laud.

1678. Pilgrim's Progress is written by John Bunyan while imprisoned for preaching. Sentencing may never have been more counter-productive than this!

Pilgrim's Pprogress



Centre for the History of the Book web site

History of the Book from Wikipedia

English translations of the Bible from Wikipedia.

William Harrison, A Description of Elizabethan England (1577) at Bartleby

Francis Bacon, Sir Francis Bacon (includes Bacon's Essays and The New Atlantis) at Bartleby.

John Bunyan from Bartleby.

John Bunyan Archive from Chapel Library

Michel de Montaigne at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Tyndale Society at Tyndale.org


If you know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson, please send it to Dr. G.

Copyright 2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess.