Skip to main content

Communication of Ideas: Europe and its Influence

Communication of Ideas: Europe and its Influence

By the first millennium b.c.e., major world civilizations were flourishing in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and China. Each had developed a distinct form of writing, along with urban centers for administration and record keeping. In contrast, Europe was largely a series of diverse nonliterate village farming communities steeped in the conventions of primary oral communication. The eventual emergence of a literate tradition in Europe took place in Greeceat its cusp, one of the most celebrated works in the history of Western civilization.

Orality and Literacy in Greece

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey occupy an important early niche in the history of European literature. It has been argued, however, that the Homeric epics, strictly speaking, are not even literature. In An Essay of the Original Genius and Writings of Homer (1775), the English diplomat and archaeologist Robert Wood initiated a continuing debate by arguing that Homer could not read or write and that the poetic character of the epics facilitated memorization and therefore oral transmission. More recent research has shown that these narratives share important characteristics with the oral histories of nonliterate societies around the world. Their aural resonance results from the use of devices such as hyperbolic turns of phrase, metrically patterned formulae, and extensive clichés.

Sometime between 700 and 550 b.c.e., the Homeric epics were committed to writing, using an alphabet the Greeks had recently adapted from the twenty-two-character Phoenician consonantal alphabet, which some scholars insist should be called rather a syllabary or consonantal syllabary. The Greek variant modified the original characters and added several new ones in order to represent a series of independent vowel sounds. This made writing easier to learn, a more complete approximation of speech, and a medium capable of transcribing different dialects and even other languagessuch as Coptic, an Egyptian language recorded using modified Greek characters. Within a hundred years the convention of writing left to right displaced the right-to-left Phoenician (and Semitic) tradition. Before this conversion the Greeks briefly experimented with boustrophedon, the seemingly logical but ultimately impractical style of alternating the direction of the script in each line.

The literacy revolution in Greece had significant cultural consequences, but it must be remembered that at first what was transcribed reflected the extant oral tradition, as in the poetics of Homer. Over the next several centuries, writing would gradually take a less flowery and more prosaic turn. This evolution, in which the content of a new medium is at first that of the previous mode of communication, is a central tenet in the communication theory of Marshall McLuhan. It recurs throughout the cultural history of Europe. In the fifteenth century, for example, the incunabula, or first wave of printed books, replicated not only the content but the calligraphic style of the earlier manuscriptsthe Gutenberg Bible was even printed on parchment, the preferred medium for manuscriptsand before the rise of newspapers in the seventeenth century, during the period when reports of major news events were printed in pamphlets and broadsides, they were often written in verse. Eventually, more efficacious ways of using a new medium change the forms of discourse conveyed by that medium, and so it was with alphabetic literacy in Greece.

Until the fifth century b.c.e., a teacher in Greece taught from transcribed texts that were steeped in the conventions of the spoken word. Students were expected to commit the information conveyed to memory (similarly, in the Middle Ages, a scribe might read a manuscript passage aloud in order to ensconce it in auditory memory). By the end of the fifth century, in the period coinciding with Plato's early education, what had been recited was now read by students schooled in the new mode of communication. How widespread literacy was at this timeit was limited in theory to free male citizensis still subject to debate. Nevertheless, its influence on institutions, such as the law, as well as on philosophy and knowledge in general, was profound. Learning the new alphabetic script was facilitated through the use of several easily accessible mediasand, slate, and waxed tablets. More permanent texts were inscribed on papyrus (imported from Egypt) and parchment (obtained from the skins of domestic animals).

Plato's Critique

Standing on the cusp of this information revolution, Plato saw benefits and liabilities in the transformation. In the utopian vision of his Republic, he has harsh words for both the oral tradition of Homeric verse and the later legacy of dramatists such as Aeschylus, whose writings have poetic overtones. Their emotionality, heavy reliance on sensory experience in describing the world (a signature trait of primary oral languages), imprecise use of language, and ambivalent portraits of the world and the gods Plato saw as exerting a corrupting influence on youth. On the other hand, he did not hold the new literate education, capable of circumventing these conceits, to be without its own limitations. In his Phaedrus, Plato uses a dialogue with Socratesnot a recorded conversation but literary prose imitating speechto lament the attenuation of memory that is a consequence of literacy. He argues that dependency on an external source, such as writing, will diminish the internal resources of thought and memory and thereby weaken the mind. Also, since the written text is passive, a dialogic give-and-take is not possible. Yet despite these reservations it was writingphonetic literacy, to be precisethat would facilitate the type of abstractions underlying Plato's philosophy and much of subsequent Western thought.

Alphabetic literacy fostered the gathering of a wide variety of data that would be difficult to retain using the relevance structure of primary oral communication. That this data could be analyzed and preserved for posterity is attested to by numerous texts that have come to us from ancient Greece, among them the geography of Anaximander (610547 b.c.e.), characterized by a visionary cartographic impulse; the histories of Herodotus (c. 484c. 420 b.c.e.); Hippocrates' (fl. c. 600 b.c.e.) treatises on medicine; the philosophy of Aristotle (384322b.c.e.); and the geometry of Euclid (fl. c. 300 b.c.e.), with its verbal arguments as well as figures. To this list must be added the imperial legacy of Alexander the Great (ruled 336323b.c.e.), abetted as it was by literate administrators.


The legacy of Hellenic culture would eventually and selectively pass to Rome. It was preceded by the art of writing itself. The Roman alphabet, nearly identical to the one we employ but limited at the time to block capitals, resulted from the modification of a Greek variant sometimes known as the Euboean or Western Greek alphabet. This diffused into the Italian peninsula under the auspices of the Etruscans, who eventually ceded it to Rome, where it was modified into the alphabet used in most of western Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, Australasia, and the Americas. The contrasting Ionian or Eastern Greek alphabet became the standard for written communication in the fifth-century b.c.e. Athens and the model for the modern Greek alphabet; it also provided inspiration for the later Cyrillic alphabet, used to write Russian and several other Slavic languages.

Many historians contend that the intellectual and artistic achievements of Rome failed to surpass the legacy of Hellenic civilization. However, it appears that in both the Roman Republic (fifth to first centuries b.c.e.) and Roman Empire (first century b.c.e. to fifth century c.e.) the literacy rate was higheryet oratorical eloquence was just as prized and cultivated as it had been in Greece. Earlier views suggesting that mass literacy might have existed in Rome have been tempered by recent estimates restricting it to anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of the population. Nevertheless, writing, in the form of signage and inscriptions on altars and monuments, was widespread. The ruins of Pompeii even reveal electoral posters, along with graffiti drawing on the poetry of Ovid and Propertius, which suggests that even some members of the underclass must have been able to read and write. In wealthier homes slaves were sometimes taught to be household scribes. Literacy was also not unknown among the gladiators.

The book trade, in the form of papyrus scrolls, flourished under the empire. Teams of scribes were able to produce hundreds of copies and occasionally revised "editions" of a given worka feat usually linked with the printing revolution. Bookstores were established, and even advertised. Papyrus was, however, expensive (ordinary correspondence usually employed wax tablets) and many private libraries accumulated written materials more for statusconspicuous consumption, to use Thorstein Veblen's termthan for the sake of having a repository of knowledge.

More so than in Greece, the communication of ideas in Rome emphasized practical arts such as the building of roads, aqueducts, bridges, and mills. Literacy also served administration and law, especially in rationalizing the transition from republic to empire. The growing body of law regarding contract and property rights and other legal obligations further inflated a growing bureaucracy. Communication over distance was accomplished through an efficient imperial postal system and an early forerunner of the newspaper, the acta a sheet of relevant news that would be distributed, copied, redistributed, and when necessary, read aloud to those who were not literate. Coordinating events in time was expedited through the calendrical reforms overseen by Julius Caesar (10044 b.c.e.), which laid the foundations of the calendar we use today. The variable (against the solar year) 12-month lunar calendar, in which the year starts in March, was displaced by a 365.2-day, (366 every fourth year), 12-month year starting in January, with the number of days in each month adjusted accordingly.

The Middle Ages

The usually accepted date for the fall of the Roman Empire and dawn of the Middle Ages is 476 c.e., when the Teutonic prince Odoacer deposed the youthful figurehead Romulus Augustulus, thus ending the imperial succession. However, as the historian Henri-Jean Martin insists, the death throes of classical culture had begun before and continued for several centuries after that date. Earlier barbarian invasions, crippling taxes, corrupt administration, and, most likely, food shortages and epidemics all contributed to the collapse of Rome. In the fourth century, in the face of growing instability, the emperor Constantine had adopted Christianity, and Rome had eventually followed suit. Constantine had also established Constantinople as the capital of the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire, which would outlast the Western Empire by almost a thousand years.

The Middle Ages saw a more limited and ecclesiastical form of written communication than was the case in classical antiquity. The parchment codex, or pergamenum, displaced the papyrus scroll. Its form resembles that of the modern book, with facing pages written on both sides. The codex manuscript began appearing in the first century c.e., became common in the third and fourth centuries, and then established itself as the dominant medium for written knowledge until the advent of the printed book in the fifteenth century. The codex could compress more information into a smaller space than the scroll. Parchment is also far more durable than papyrus and has the advantage of reusability when washed, resulting in a palimpsest that often reveals traces of the original text; and although costly, it could be produced locally at a time when trade with Egypt was being curtailed.

The Roman Catholic Church assumed administrative leadership in postimperial Rome, with popes replacing emperors. Europe became a decentralized, largely nonliterate patchwork of feudal estates based on rural agriculture. The centuries that followed are usually seen as a period of cultural decline, often referred to as the Dark Agesa term now dismissed, however, by many historians; Lynn White, for example, has argued that while classical learning may have been eclipsed, significant developments were occurring in agricultural practice (the plow and crop rotation), the mechanical arts (accurate clocks), and technology (multipurpose water-powered mills).

Monastic Expansion

By the end of the sixth century, under the auspices of Pope Gregory the Great (reigned 590604), another invasion of Europe from Rome began. The monastic tradition, founded by St. Benedict (c. 480547) and originally dedicated to prayer and asceticism, now formed itself into a proselytizing militia. When the churchmen moved north they were met with accommodation more than resistance as local rulers availed themselves of the literacy-based administrative skills the monks could provide. None were more appreciative or proactive in accepting what the newcomers brought than the Frankish king Charlemagne (742814). Although his capacity to read and write is debated by historiansapparently he sought to acquire the skill as an adulthe promoted the cause assiduously, overseeing the creation of written legal charters and of schools for the teaching and standardizing of Latin, which had become plagued with inconsistent usage. This Carolingian Renaissance, as it is called, although short-lived (his empire fragmented in the ninth century), left a profound imprint on subsequent European communication. It also yielded a new script, Carolingian miniscule, using lower-case characters with clean lines and improved punctuation.

Written knowledge became ensconced in monastic libraries that might contain several hundred to a thousand manuscripts. In contrast, however, libraries in Damascus, Cairo, and Córdoba, when Spain came under Moorish occupation in the tenth century, had upward of one hundred thousand volumes. These collections, fully employing the new medium of paper, evidenced far greater intellectual diversity than was permitted in Christendom, where the Catholic Church aggressively censored what was copied and knowledge was steeped in theological assumptions. When the church did allow secular classics from antiquity to become available, they were subject to revisionist interpretationthus, for example, Plato was appreciated for the otherworldliness of his philosophy and his disavowal of sensory experience. Medieval texts were usually read aloud; although silent reading would begin to appear in the later Middle Ages and became the norm after printing, for most of the era it was the exception. In his Confessions (c. 400), St. Augustine of Hippo expresses both bewilderment and admiration when he observes St. Ambrose reading silently.

Sacred vs. Secular

The worldview of the churchmen, sometimes referred to as a cosmography, regarded nature as a book to be interpreted, not a domain amenable to empirical discovery or rational analysis. However, with new ideas entering Europe from the Crusades and through the Islamic presence in Spain, as well as from the newly emergent church-founded universities, some accommodation became necessary. In response, Thomas Aquinas (12251274) argued for a partial application of rational methods to an understanding of the world, provided scriptural revelation remained the final arbiter. The Franciscan Roger Bacon (12141294) abused this license with a series of experiments, most notably in optics, that resulted in his imprisonment. The fate of others who transgressed Catholic ideology is chronicled in the history of the Inquisition.

In communicating its teachings to the mostly nonliterate masses, the church employed a rich iconography. Cathedrals were texts to be read; each image told a story. By the thirteenth century, clerics, drafting voluminous contracts, charters, and wills, began to increasingly serve the needs of both secular rulers and a merchant class that had been growing since the emergence of towns two centuries earlier. Still, in this mostly oral world, the language of everyday life remained poetic. Rhymes were used to remember everything from agricultural practice to accountancy, and newsworthy events were conveyed in song by traveling troubadours. The period also saw the beginnings of writing in local languages, or vernaculars, facilitated through the spread of paper, which had initially entered Europe via trade and by the fourteenth century was increasingly being manufactured there. Vernacular literatures emerged, as evidenced in the writings of Dante (12651321), Petrarch (13041374), and Chaucer (c. 13421400).

The Print Revolution

Although few scholars would argue that any single technology merits the label "historical prime mover," moveable-type printing is certainly one of the few likely candidates. It gave new impetus to the Renaissance already underway, opened the door to modernity, and offered a technique for mass production that would proliferate during the industrial revolution. Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith from Mainz whose forty-two-line Bible was printed in 1455, is usually deemed the creator of the new medium. It must be remembered, however, that printing from wooden blocks had begun seven hundred years earlier in China, and that by the eleventh century the Chinese were experimenting with moveable type using baked clay characters. Since Chinese print shops required thousands of such characters, given China's nonalphabetic script, and since the results were less aesthetically appealing than block books, the experiment had not endured. By the late fourteenth century Korea had developed both an alphabetic script and moveable-type printing using bronze characters. This remained a temporary development. It was the European variant of the technology that would eventually sweep the world.

By 1501, European printers had turned out twenty-seven thousand known publications totaling over ten million copies. Further growth would be exponential. Early print runs produced from two hundred to a thousand copies of a book at a cost far below that of scribal labor, not to mention the greater affordability of paper versus parchment. Although literacy rates rose steadily, nothing approaching mass literacy would emerge until the nineteenth century. Churchmen and scholars were the first to avail themselves of the new printed texts, with Bibles, prayer books, and the Latin and Greek classics having priority. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, dictionaries and treatises on philosophy, science, and medicine, often with woodcut illustrations, became widespread. Practical manuals in the technological arts also proliferated, diminishing a dependency on face-to-face apprenticeship in a number of fields.

The printed book assumed a look that was clearly different from that of the medieval manuscript. Printers such as the Venetian Aldus Manutius (Aldo Mannucci; 14491515) reduced its size (his Aldine editions prefigure the contemporary pocket book), streamlined the font, and made many Greco-Roman classics available in translation at a relatively low cost to the Renaissance consumer. Other features that we often take for granted began to appear: a regularized title page indicating the date and place of publication, improved punctuation, and layouts that made silent reading the norm. The index, once an oddity in manuscript culture, was now often used to make reference works easier to use.

The spread of knowledge brought about through printing increasingly drove a wedge between the world of the theologians and the views of both secular scholars and an emerging bourgeoisie with vested commercial interests. Print also abetted a schism within the church itself, when religious leaders saw it as a way of expediting the reproduction and sale of papal indulgences. This, along other church "indulgences," led a German theologian, Martin Luther, to nail to a Wittenberg church door ninety-five theses (1517) advocating reform. His grievances were soon printed and the church responded in kind, resulting in a full-scale war of words and, ultimately, the Protestant Reformation.

Philosophy and Literature

Although Luther oversaw the first vernacular edition of the Bible, in Germanonly to be perturbed by how some in his flock interpreted various passagesthe first two centuries of the print revolution saw Latin still used for most scholarly publications. But it was a language on the wane, as was the influence of theology on both natural science and the newly emerging human sciences. Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543) and Galileo Galilei (15641642), the former somewhat reluctantly (he was averse to seeing his work in print) and the latter stridently, challenged theological orthodoxy in scientific matters. By the eighteenth century in France, the Enlightenment philosophes demanded the removal of theological explanations from the realm of history. They also sought a science of man based on the models and methods of the natural sciences. Many were inspired by and participated in one of the great book publishing ventures in history, the French Encylopédie, edited (17511772) by Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert. The seventeen volumes (eleven volumes of plates) identified its contributors, defied government and church attempts at censorship, and symbolized the age more than any other writing project.

Print also brought into wider circulation the vernacular literatures of Europe. At first this did not require widespread literacy, as broadsheet ballads and chapbooks could be read aloud to the nonliterate. Authors were usually funded by a patron. The eighteenth century also saw an increase in the literacy rate, though, with writers now becoming dependent on the whims of the marketplace. Book purchase was often beyond the means of an expanding audience of readers; rental from a growing number of circulating libraries, however, became a viable option.

The nineteenth century, sometimes referred to as "the age of the novel," saw a series of changes that made books less costly and would by its end usher in nearly universal literacy. The making of linen rag paper moved into the world of industrial mass production as waterpower replaced manpower, and was in turn replaced by steam. Early beneficiaries included Walter Scott, whose Waverley (1814) became a best-seller, as did Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers (1836). The last quarter of the century witnessed a further drop in the cost of books resulting from the process of manufacturing paper from wood pulp rather than rag. This served to make not only novels but also works dealing with travel, adventure, and popular science affordable. Small personal libraries, once the preserve of the aristocracy, gentry, and later the bourgeoisie, now became an aspect of many working-class homes.


Orators in antiquity, the Roman acta, medieval troubadours, and handwritten and early printed broadsides were some of the ways through which news had circulated in premodern Europe. The first true newspapers, defined by a regular publication schedule, were weeklies that began in Germany in the first decade of the seventeenth century. Other countries quickly embraced the idea. Written in the vernacular, these publications were in part a response to the rise of nation-states and their growing economic interdependence. Freedom of the press was virtually nonexistent. In most countries a government license was required to publish newspapers as well as books, which meant submitting to censorship and high taxes. Circulation was limited to a few thousand readers at best. Domestic news was minimal and any critique of the government could lead to a charge of treasonous libel, for which several printer/publishers were executed. "Safe" domestic stories included the occasional and usually sensationalized account of a gruesome murderan intriguing link with contemporary tabloids.

Beginning in London in the first decade of the eighteenth century, the daily newspaper became a fact of life in many large European cities. Greater public access to information, coupled with the ideals of the Enlightenment, especially free speech, led to laws guaranteeing freedom of the press. The first of these was passed in Sweden in 1766, and by the end of the next century most European countries had followed suit. During this period newspapers became a true mass medium. Contributing factors included the rotary steam-driven press, which reduced production time; the viability of engraved illustrations, a feature popularized by the Illustrated London News when it began in 1842; and the spectacular increase in the speed of information movement the electric telegraph brought to news gatheringdemonstrated dramatically in coverage of the Crimean War (18531856). By the turn of the century, wood-pulp paper, the linotype machine (invented in the United States), the half-tone process for reproducing photographs, and increased advertising allowed newspapers to expand their size and scope without a substantial increase in price. These changes also helped give them a look that would endure well into the twentieth century.

See also Censorship ; Education ; Encyclopedism ; Literature ; Maps and the Ideas They Express ; Media, History of ; Propaganda .


Burke, James. The Day the Universe Changed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.

Clanchy, Michael. From Memory to Written Record in England, 10661307. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Crowley, David, and Paul Heyer, eds. Communication in History: Technology, Culture, Society. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2003.

Drucker, Johanna. The Alphabetic Labyrinth. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Feather, John. A History of British Publishing. London and New York: Routledge, 1991.

Harris, William V. Ancient Literacy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Havelock, Eric, and Jackson P. Hershbell, eds. Communication Arts in the Ancient World. New York: Hastings House, 1978.

Illich, Ivan, and Barry Sanders. A B C: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Le Goff, Jacques, ed. Medieval Callings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Logan, Robert. The Alphabet Effect. New York: Morrow, 1986.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being. New York: Harper and Row, 1960.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy. New York: Signet, 1969.

Manguel, Alberto. A History of Reading. New York: Viking, 1996.

Martin, Henri-Jean. The History and Power of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Menache, Sophia. The Vox Dei: Communication in the Middle Ages. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen, 1982.

Peters, John Durham. Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Stephens, Mitchell. A History of News: From the Drum to the Satellite. New York: Viking, 1988.

White, Lynn Townsend, Jr. Medieval Technology and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Paul Heyer

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Communication of Ideas: Europe and its Influence." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 20 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Communication of Ideas: Europe and its Influence." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (February 20, 2019).

"Communication of Ideas: Europe and its Influence." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.