The Development of the Printing Press and the Decline of the Chronicle as Historical Method
While in medieval times the chronicle was the method by which people would hear and read of the most recent news, it was now too long and bulky to compete with the various cheaply printed genres in the print shop. In addition, it could not keep up with the speed with which the other genres could communicate news. By the time a chronicle recorded a contemporary event, passed through the press, and reached the bookseller, it was no longer news. Manuscript newsletters, ballads, and newsbooks could record and communicate events at a much greater speed than could chronicles. With the limitation of the chronicles to the most recent past, and the most recent past being disseminated by other genres, the chronicle’s purpose was becoming obsolete.23
While print shops stopped printing chronicles as they moved in the direction of smaller and cheaper, there were a few exceptions. Printers were afraid to lay out the cost of printing such bulky books, but if the expenses could be offset by the government or by a wealthy patron, printers were occasionally open to printing chronicles. Other times, printers were willing to take the risk, and the chronicles became bestsellers, such as Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. Even with the defrayed cost, printers were unlikely to continue to print reissues or new editions, as the venture was too risky. Since the financial elements of the printing press led to the dissemination of the functions of the chronicle, accessible historical topics were expanded.24
As the territory of ‘recent history’ was overtaken by news sources, historians found the world of history more open. They were no longer confined to the recent past; rather they pulled sources together in a historical discovery of the remote past. Coupled with the access to public archives that allowed historians to delve further into the past, this rediscovery of the distant past became their main occupation. The printing press’ destruction of the chronicle moved historians to no longer add records of the recent past onto traditional accounts of the distant past, but to expand their scope to the beginning of time.
In both an underlying and direct way, the printing press played a major role in the historiographical changes that came about at the end of the sixteenth century. Renaissance historians could only begin to record events as centered around human action because of the access that the printing press provided to classical texts that espoused this idea. Historians began to develop a scientific and systematic method of criticism of sources and evidence in their historical writing because they now had access to so many resources, spurring them to look for different copies of works, in order to ensure that their accounts were accurate.
This verification process also began to make them question the validity of oral tradition, which had shaped the medieval chronicles. Due to financial elements of the printing press, historians were no longer confined to the recent past, as they had been with their addendums to chronicles. Accordingly, these historiographical changes cannot be viewed just as a result of a philosophical change, but a technological change - the printing press - that was at its foundation. The movement toward the Enlightenment, and a deepening of humanist ideals, only furthered this decline and lead the chronicle to its ultimate death.
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