Media History: Books, Publishing and the Written Language

How did books come into being?

  • The transmission of ideas into language – drawing to writing.
  • The development of written documents (tablets, scrolls and then books).

People used to draw to record their ideas and many cultures see people having painting on cave walls. A documentary: Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog (2010) sees discussions that the stories told in cave paintings are returning to contempory culture due to changes in communication, using more images, and networking using social media brings us once again into tribes.


Oral Tradition as a means to bind and create the SOCIAL GROUP

  • A social group contains about 150 people.
  • If you are part of a social group, you have a far wider circle of contacts.
  • A social group tend to have shared values and systems of social behaviour.

By being a member of a certain social group you expand your contacts and therefore expand your chances of success in society. To get on in life you have to interact with others.

We change language based on who we speak. For example, I say things differently to my friends as I would my lecturer or even a woman in the shop.

  • Oral stories change the understanding of the listener.
  • Think about the stories you have been told and how they might have impacted you.

If you listen carefully, at the end, you’ll become someone else.’

The Development of Writing Materials

  • Papyrus (development of a flat and highly durable material that enabled far more information to be stored).
  • Animal skins.
  • Parchment or vellum scrolls.
  • Re-writable wax tablets (often used to write on in keeping track of the harvest).

Writing materials tended to be used only by/for commerce, law and religion. Writing was used to set boundaries not to tell stories. Although eventually, oral stories were written down.

Handmade paper started to be developed by the felting of veg fibres (Europe used cloth). This happened over different periods for different countries: 206BC to 220AD in China, 600AD in Japan, 1085 and 1150 in Spain, 1276 in Italy, 1390 in Germany and 1495 in England.

Handmade to Mechanisation

  • Shortage of materials and skills restricted printing in England 1695.
  • Uneconomic until the 18th century – introduction of duty on imports, advances in papermaking technology.
  • Demand grew as education and population grew.
  • Using a wine press and interchangeable letters (developed by Gutenberg 1439) the printing press was created.


Printing in the UK

  • William Caxton established the printing office in London 1476.
  • William Tyndale translated the bible into English in 1526. 3,000 copies were smuggled.
  • Thomas Cranmer created the Book of Common Prayer in English.
  • This was the time of reformation and the rise of Protestantism in Europe.

State and Guild Control of the Press

1403 – City of London Stationers Company established – they controlled who could work as a printer and where they would work.

1557 – Royal Charter to ‘regulate and discipline’ printing.

1662 – Parliament passed Licensing of the Press Act so that:

1663 – Printing was restricted to London, Oxford, Cambridge and York. The license was renewed every two years up to 1679.

1666 – The Great Fire of London – booksellers around St Paul’s reduced their trade.

1689 – Bill of Rights set out civil rights, not freedom of the press.

1712 – Stamp Act – This was a tax on publishers which had a negative impact on printing and publishing.

1799 – Strict regulation of printing by Act of Parliament. It required printers to disclose their name and address on all of their work.

Standardisation of English Spelling and Meaning

  • Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language.
  • Commissioned by a group of London booksellers in 1746.
  • Johnson appreciated the changing nature of language.
  • 40,000 words were included.

The Private Press Movement

Rich individuals developed their own ‘private presses’ so they could produce books for their own ownership. This supported the desire for classical texts. In 1757, Horace Walpole’s private press in Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, used Caslon’s typefaces and published their own works.

The Reaction to the Private Press Movement

There were concerns that skilled workers were losing employment. There were also concerns about mass production and poor standards, all amongst socialist beliefs.


The Growth of Publishing

  • Paperbacks became popular.
  • WHSmiths and the Railway Library (Routledge’s) both established.
  • Libraries became popular.
  • Education grew.

The cost of books

Increased when there were shortages of materials and labour. Increased depending on the cost of power. World Wars put the prices up. Decreased when there were reduced labour costs or a surplus of materials (recycled paper). Decreased depending on the global market and when there was a growth in reading.

As we move into the modern era we can see the introduction of eReaders and smart phones which once again change the landscape and use of written language.

These are from my notes of Semester One Lectures/Seminars.
I do not own the above images, they are from:, and

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