Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, eds. The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print New York and London: Routledge, 2000. xi+212pp. + 51 illus. ISBN 0 415 220645

Jerome de Groot
University of Huddersfield

de Groot, Jerome. "Review of Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, eds., The Renaissance Computer". Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 12.1-6<URL:>.

  1. This is an interesting and invigorating book that analyses the impact and strategies of knowledge transfer systems during the early modern period. The essays address a wide range of subjects loosely based around the profound changes caused by print technology. The editors, Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, argue that the "situation facing publishers and readers in the first century of print [...] is in many ways analogous to that facing publishers and readers in our own period, the first century of computers" (1). The word "analogous" is the key here. Many of the essays in the volume are predicated upon analogy, parallel and anticipation. This leads to some interesting arguments, but it can also mean that the essays rest upon approximations, assumptions and ingenious arrangements.

  2. The essays in this collection are stimulating and exciting. Andrew Hadfield deploys a number of postmodern and postcolonial theories to consider the impact that print had upon notions of national identity and definitions of nation. He discusses the way that new technologies transform "the range and possibilities of imagined communities" (116). Hadfield neatly interweaves discussion of a variety of texts that define 'Britishness' with an analysis of the state of modern theoretical approaches to nation and identity. Jonathan Sawday considers the origins of our language of technology and traces the concept of 'replicability' first defined in the early modern period:
    The language which has evolved to describe so many of the activities which we now associate with computer culture is [...] indebted to a view of the world which first made itself apparent in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (42).

  3. Other articles discuss the systems and strategies involved in the gathering, organisation and retrieval of information. Clare Preston analyses the relationship between knowledge and experience in her discussion of Thomas Browne and early modern cabinets. Anne Lake Prescott looks at various editions of Pierre de La Primaudaye's L'Academie Francaise to show how early modern readers used encyclopaedias and received newly organized information. Preston's discussion demonstrates the way in which this book works best: by acting as a showcase for new and interesting approaches to a subject, and by fostering a sense of interdisciplinary enquiry.

  4. Thomas Corns contributes a piece that has interesting things to say about information retrieval and reading methods. He challenges traditional models of reception by claiming that early modern readers were conscious of more complex and less linear ways of approaching texts:
    Complex texts of the early modern period in some ways anticipated recent developments and concerns in electronic media, reflecting their producers' sense that non-serial access could both make the texts more usable and could shape the ways in which they are used. (103)

    Yet the connections with the overall ethos of the volume seem tentative. Sometimes the consequences of the essay are obscured through its being forced into the 'computer' paradigm.

  5. In their Introduction to the volume Rhodes and Sawday consider that the essays
  6. explore the technology of the early printed text to reveal how many of the functions and effects of the modern computer were imagined, anticipated, or even sought after long before the invention of modern digital computing technology (13).

  7. Furthermore, they maintain that "The experience of our own new technology has enabled us to re-imagine the impact of new technologies in the past" (2). The collection is a stimulating exploration of some intriguing concepts, and suggests a range of new ways of approaching and reading Renaissance texts. It does not engage with the theory of technology particularly -- there is no room in the bibliography for the work of Friedrich Kittler, Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard, or, surprisingly, Michel Foucault. This is minor quibbling, however. The volume points towards newly theorized readings of print culture, suggesting new approaches and potent lines of inquiry for those working in the period.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).