Elizabeth L. Eisenstein

Elizabeth L. Eisenstein

Elizabeth Eisenstein
Library of Congress
Born (1923-10-11) October 11, 1923 (age 90)
Nationality American
Fields Historian
Alma mater Vassar College
Radcliffe College

Elizabeth Lewisohn Eisenstein (born October 11, 1923[1]) is an American historian of the French Revolution and early 19th century France. She is well known for her work on the history of early printing, writing on the transition in media between the era of 'manuscript culture' and that of 'print culture', as well as the role of the printing press in effecting broad cultural change in Western civilization. Eisenstein is the third daughter of Sam A. Lewisohn, son of Adolph Lewisohn and Margaret Seligman, granddaughter of Joseph Seligman.


Eisenstein was educated at Vassar College where she received her B.A., then went on to Radcliffe College for her M.A. and Ph.D. It was there she studied under Crane Brinton. She taught as an adjunct professor [2] at American University from 1959 to 1974, then the University of Michigan, where she was the Alice Freeman Palmer Professor of History.[3] In 1979 she was resident consultant for the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress.[4]

She has held positions as a fellow at the Humanities Research Center of the Australian National University and at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Palo Alto). Eisenstein was visiting professor at Wolfson College, Oxford, and published her lectures from that period as Grub Street Abroad. She is currently professor emerita at University of Michigan.[5]

Her most recent work is "Divine Art, Infernal Machine, the Reception of Printing in the West," (Penn Press, 2011).

The Printing Press as an Agent of Change

File:Elizabeth Eisenstein - From scribal scarcity to the disruptive text.webm Eisenstein's best-known work is The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, a two-volume, 750-page exploration of the effects of movable type printing on the literate elite of post-Gutenberg Western Europe. In this work she focuses on the printing press's functions of dissemination, standardization, and preservation and the way these functions aided the progress of the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution. Eisenstein's work brought historical method, rigor, and clarity to earlier ideas of Marshall McLuhan and others, about the general social effects of such media transitions.[2]

This work provoked debate in the academic community from the moment it was published[6] and is still inspiring conversation and new research today.[7] Her work also influenced later thinking about the subsequent development of digital media. Her work on the transition from manuscript to print influenced thought about new transitions of print text to digital formats, including multimedia and new ideas about the definition of text.[8]

The Unacknowledged Revolution

Eisenstein's book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change lays out her thoughts on the "Unacknowledged Revolution," her name for the revolution that occurred after the invention of print. Print media allowed the general public to have access to books and knowledge that had not been available to them before; this led to the growth of public knowledge and individual thought. The ability to formulate thought on one's own thoughts became reality with the popularity of the printing press. Print also "standardized and preserved knowledge which had been much more fluid in the age of oral manuscript circulation" (Briggs & Burke(2002); A Social History of the Media). Eisenstein recognizes this period of time to be very important in the development of mankind; however, she feels that it is often overlooked, thus, the 'unacknowledged revolution'.


Eisenstein has received various awards and recognitions, including fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 2002, she received the American Historical Association's Award for Scholarly Distinction,[9] and in 2004 the University of Michigan awarded her the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.[10]

In 1993, the National Coalition of Independent Scholars created the Eisenstein Prize, which is awarded biannually to members of the organization who have produced work with an independent focus.[11]


  • After the advent of printing...the transmission of written information became much more efficient. It was not only the craftsman outside universities who profited from the new opportunities to teach himself. Of equal importance was the chance extended to bright undergraduates to reach beyond their teachers' grasp. Gifted students no longer needed to sit at the feet of a given master in order to learn a language or academic skill. Instead, they could swiftly achieve mastery on their own, even by sneaking books past their tutors — as did the young would-be astronomer, Tycho Brahe. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, p.34.
  • As communion with the Sunday paper has replaced church-going, there is a tendency to forget that sermons had at one time been coupled with news about local and foreign affairs, real estate transactions, and other mundane matters. After printing, however, news gathering and circulation were handled more efficiently under lay auspices...the pulpit was ultimately displaced by the periodical press, and the dictum "nothing sacred" came to characterize the journalist's career. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, p.93.
  • There is considerable irony about the enthusiastic reception accorded to printing by the church. Heralded on all sides as a "peaceful art," Gutenberg's invention probably contributed more to destroying Christian concord and inflaming religious warfare than the so-called arts of war ever did. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, p.155.

Selected bibliography

(The author is Elizabeth L. Eisenstein unless indicated otherwise.)

  • Based on the Rosenbach lectures, March 2010.
  • Includes a new afterword by the author.
  • Series : Lyell lectures 1990-1991.
  • Series : The Sixth Hanes lecture.
  • "Some Conjectures about the Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought: A Preliminary Report," The Journal of Modern History Vol. 40, No. 1, March 1968
  • Briggs, Asa and Burke, Peter(2005) A Social History of the Media: from Gutenberg to the Internet(second Edition) Polity, Cambridge.
  • Baron, Sabrina A., Eric N. Lindquist, & Eleanor F. Shevlin (eds), "Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth L. Eisenstein" (2007)

See also