The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe

by Paul M. Dover, University of Cambridge Press, 2021, 342 pp.
Paperback $29.99, Hardback $84.99, ISBN: 978-1316602034

The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe by Paul M. Dover

It is all too common to refer to the present information age as unprecedented. In an occasional exception, authors will draw parallels to the tumultuous centuries following the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press (c. 1440). Paul Dover remarks that even among historians, references to his work on early modern information revolution elicit responses such as “‘oh, you mean the impact of the printing press?’” (24) Scholars from Marshall McLuhan to Elisabeth Eisenstein linked Gutenberg’s printing press to a fundamental paradigm shift. The advent of European print technology was the earthquake with shockwaves in universities, marketplaces, and church pews.1 In fact, current scholars rarely draw a straight line between the printing press and any number of overlapping revolutions – political, scientific, epistolary. Dover’s Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe provides a comprehensive map for reorienting oneself within a history of information. Inside, the reader will find a deftly woven account incorporating the past three decades of scholarship on information, facts, and data in the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries. 

Information Revolution is a history of information management, defined as “new efforts to store and categorize information and the paper that contained it.” (2) The process of obsessively accumulating, storing, and referencing “particulars” pervaded every aspect of early modern society. It produced the abstracted notions of information and data, as well as their modern building block, the observable fact. Dover focuses on the revolution’s “hardware”: paper. Cheap and accessible paper co-evolved with key political, social and cultural shifts, from the growth of European states to large international organizations, such as the Society of Jesus and British East India Company. Dover highlights how ink on paper (however applied) became a fundamental form of knowledge production and maintenance, shaping an information age that is only just now giving way to the digital. As a contribution to Cambridge University Press’ New Approaches to European History series, Information Revolution is suitable for an advanced student or scholar seeking an overview of the “informational turn” in early modern history. The book takes on the “big” questions, such as “where did the information age begin?”, and “why did early modern states demand and collect so much information?”. Dover’s own perspective unmistakably comes through, especially in the analysis of early modern professional advice manuals and the “letterocracy” of early modern government (Chapter 4). Other discussions cover topics ranging from Ann Blair’s “info-lust,” to Peter Burke’s “paper state,” throughout which readers will find a concise explanation of the “greatest hits” of the intellectual history of early modern Europe, as well as useful references to key events, figures, and works in history.2 The book’s main goal, however, is distilling and recombining the models and case studies of Dover’s past work into a cohesive picture of a pan-European development.  

The book is organized into eight chapters, including the introduction and conclusion. Each of the body chapters takes on a different “revolution” in knowledge, commerce, governance, or culture. Dover aims to show how the “information revolution” provided essential scaffolding for each, as “expressions, institutions, and personnel” came to rely on paper records. Chapter 2 (“European Paper”) heavily echoes Harold Innis’ focus on paper as the material substrate of empire, as well as linking Europe to global developments.3  Chapters 3 (“‘Ink-Stained Fingers’: The Information of Commerce and Finance”) and 4 (“The Paper of Politics and the Politics of Paper”) drawn on Dover’s own valuable work on early modern Italy, tracing key developments back to the Renaissance Italian city-states, from diplomacy to double-entry bookkeeping.4  Chapter 5 (“Revolutionary Print”) takes on the specter of Marshall McLuhan’s “typographic man,” arguing that “the print revolution was only part of, and in many ways symptomatic of, broader transformations in information generation and exchange.”5 (150) Finally, Chapters 6 (“The Book of Nature and the Book of Man”) and 7 (“Writing Others and the Self”) follow the information age into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, examining the social and scholarly networks constituted through the exchange of letters, frequently known as the “Republic of Letters.”  

The conclusion zooms out to consider the current moment, considering especially whether we are witnessing the sun set on the age of paper. Dover warns of “false prophecy” in this regard, while nonetheless recognizing the key shift towards a “look-it-up culture, where what is prized is the capacity for speedy and effective location of relevant material amidst an ever-expanding sea of information.” (279) The conclusion is necessarily open-ended, but there is a surprising absence of discussion of digitization. Students and scholars increasingly encounter the paper artifacts of the early modern information age in digital form. The expansion of digital archives constantly shifts understanding of the scale and scope of an earlier information age, and not just our own.6

One of the greatest takeaways from Information Revolution is also one of the pithiest: the term “manuscript” simply did not come into regular use until print had become equally omnipresent. While no contemporary would have described themselves as an “information manager,” Dover and the cadre of information historians he cites have traced the many genealogical trees of the modern information age. In doing so, they illustrate how so many different traditions – from the commercial, to the scholarly, and even the familial – converged on the paper record as the definitive aid for collaboration, memory, and progress. The many roles and identities of early modern individuals provide further support for this interpretation, as they logically carried practices from one sphere of their life into another. At times Information Revolution reads as though scholars and statesmen carried the torch from merchants, when early modern individuals frequently defy easy professional categorization. Galileo Galilei, to give one example of a prolific information manager, wore the hats of a university professor, court celebrity, and tradesman.  Yet this is a minor criticism for an elegant contribution. Scholars and students alike will find Information Revolution a persuasive and accessible primer on the early modern information age.

McLuhan, Marshall, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962). Eisenstein, Elisabeth, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
Blair, Anne, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011). Burke, Peter, “Communication,” in: Ulinka Rublack(ed), A Concise Companion to History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011): 157-176.
Innis, Harold, “The Coming of Paper.” In William Buxton, Michael Cheney and Paul Heyes (eds.), Harold Innis’ History of Communication: Paper and Printing (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).
Dover, Paul (ed.), Secretaries and Statecraft in the Early Modern World (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).
McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy.
Hotson, Howard and Thomas Wallnig(eds.) Reassembling the Republic of Letters in the Digital Age. (Göttingen: University of Göttingen Press, 2019).

Rachel Midura, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University