CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION
Bill of Rights in Action
WINTER 2009 (Volume 24, No. 3)
Gutenberg and the Printing Revolution in Europe
Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable-type printing quickened the spread of knowledge, discoveries, and literacy in Renaissance Europe. The printing revolution also contributed mightily to the Protestant Reformation that split apart the Catholic Church.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, most people lived in small, isolated villages. If people traveled at all, they typically ventured only a few miles from where they were born. For most people, the only source of both religious and worldly information was the village Catholic priest in the pulpit. News passed from one person to another, often in the form of rumor.
Written documents were rare and often doubted by the common people as forgeries. What counted in important matters was oral testimony based on oaths taken in the name of God to tell the truth.
Almost no one could read or write the language they spoke. Those few who were literate usually went on to master Latin, the universal language of scholarship, the law, and the Roman Catholic Church. Books, all hand-copied, were rare, expensive, and almost always in Latin. They were so valuable that universities chained them to reading tables. Most people passed their lifetime without ever gazing at a book, a calendar, a map, or written work of any sort.
Memory and memorization ruled daily life and learning. Poets, actors, and storytellers relied on rhyming lines to remember vast amounts of material. Craftsmen memorized the secrets of their trades to pass on orally to apprentices. Merchants kept their accounts in their heads.
Even scholars literate in Latin used memory devices to remember what they had learned. One device involved visualizing a building with various rooms and architectural features, each representing a different store of knowledge. A university scholar imagined walking through this virtual building along a certain pathway to recall the contents of entire books for his lectures.
Scribes, often monks living in monasteries, each labored for up to a year to copy a single book, usually in Latin. The scribes copied books on processed calfskin called vellum and later on paper.
Specialists or the scribes themselves “illuminated” (painted) large capital letters and the margins of many books with colorful designs and even miniature scenes. These books were beautiful works of art. But they took a long time to make and were very costly.
An invention changed how books were made and dramatically changed people’s lives. “Movable-type printing” is a way to reproduce written material, usually on paper, by first forming upraised letters or other figures on small blocks called types. A printer arranges the types within a frame on a press to form words and then prints a page of writing. The types can be broken apart, moved around, and set to print other pages of writing. This process was first developed in China about A.D. 1040 when Pi Sheng made Chinese language characters on ceramic types.
The Chinese language, however, consists of tens of thousands of characters that alone or together represent things or concepts. Movable type did not catch on in China because it took too long to reproduce multiple copies of the many thousands of characters needed for printing. The old method of artistic handwriting, called calligraphy, was often faster and more economical.
In the Middle Ages, Europeans knew nothing about Chinese moveable-type printing. But by 1450, European technology had all the components in place for a movable-type printing revolution. This included paper, oil-based ink, metal alloys, casting methods, and presses used for centuries to make wine and olive oil.
The Europeans had one key advantage over the Chinese in making movable-type printing preferable to hand copying. Latin, Greek, and all the other European languages were alphabet-based. They did not have tens of thousands of characters like Chinese. The Europeans only had to produce types for a limited number of letters (26 in the case of English).
To print an entire book, printers would have to make hundreds of precisely identical types for each letter. Someone had to invent a way to do this quickly.
Johann Gutenberg was born around 1400 into one of the leading families of Mainz, Germany. Mainz was a busy commercial port on the Rhine River. Johann’s father worked as an official in the town’s mint, which produced coins for the Holy Roman Empire.
Nothing is known about Johann’s education, but he probably attended a university because he knew Latin well. Some historians think that he learned how to make gold coins at the Mainz mint. This involved a “punch,” a chisel-like tool used to engrave small letters and designs on a metal mold for casting coins.
In his mid-30s, Gutenberg decided to look for better prospects upriver in the German town of Strasburg (today Strasbourg, France). In Strasburg, he borrowed money from three men who became his partners in manufacturing and selling metal mirrors to religious pilgrims. The pilgrims traveled to religious sites and used mirrors supposedly to capture the healing powers of holy objects.
Outbreaks of the plague, however, were still occurring. Known as the Black Death, it had killed about a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century. A new outbreak interrupted the pilgrimages, and the mirror business failed.
Gutenberg’s partners then discovered that he was working on “another secret art.” They sued him to uncover his secret, but Gutenberg won the suit and kept his secret secure.
Apparently, Gutenberg had spent most of his years in Strasburg experimenting with a method of using movable type to print books. With no knowledge of printing from China and no one else in Europe to help him, Gutenberg worked alone to invent a unique movable-type printing process.
Gutenberg used trial and error to adapt a coin-maker’s punch to make a mold for casting types, using just the right alloy of metals. This mold enabled him to mass-produce identical types for each letter of the Latin alphabet plus punctuation marks and symbols. He could reuse the types numerous times for different jobs.
Gutenberg also experimented with ink and paper. He needed ink that dried quickly and did not smear. After trying numerous ingredients, he found the perfect ink by combining linseed oil and lampblack. He also discovered that paper had to be a certain thickness and slightly dampened for the ink to stick properly. Finally, be built a press that applied the exact pressure needed to print words clearly from the types onto paper.
By 1448, Gutenberg was back in Mainz. He borrowed money again to set up a printing workshop. In 1450, he printed his first book, a brief Latin grammar for students. He may have printed a few other things such as church “indulgences.” These standard forms often called for Christians to donate money to the Catholic Church. In exchange, the church forgave their sins, assuring admission into Heaven.
Gutenberg, however, had a much bigger project in mind. He knew that the Catholic Church wanted uniform Latin Bibles to standardize worship in Europe. Gutenberg could supply many identical copies of these Bibles by printing them. But he needed more money to set up a second print shop.
Already in debt to a Mainz businessman, Johann Fust, Gutenberg turned to him again for another loan. This time, however, Fust demanded that Gutenberg make him a partner and promise to repay all he owed in five years.
Gutenberg hired craftsmen to make the Latin letter types, construct six presses, and manufacture the ink. He also purchased paper for printing most of the Bibles and vellum for a small, more expensive edition.
In addition, he trained a team of men who, along with him, became Europe’s first movable-type printers. He passed on the secrets of his invention to his master printer, Peter Schoffer. He had been a scribe and was Fust’s adopted son.
Gutenberg took at least five years to manufacture the types and equipment and print nearly 200 Bibles. He used a type font called “black letter gothic,” which attempted to duplicate the look of the hand-copied Bibles. He grew obsessed with printing Bibles that would equal or exceed in accuracy and beauty those copied by scribes. The Gutenberg Bible consists of two columns of print on more than 1,000 pages. Unlike copies made by scribes, both columns are justified, aligned in a straight edge at the left and right margins, like the column of print you are reading right now.
Gutenberg printed one page of the Bible before going on to the next. After page 10, he shifted from 40 to 42 lines of print per page. He was experimenting for ease of reading.
Gutenberg printed most of the letters in black ink but some in red, which required pressing a page two times. After the pages were printed, artists decorated large-sized letters and added colorful designs on the borders of certain pages. Skilled workers then sewed the pages of each Bible together into two volumes with covers.
The Gutenberg Bible was a work of art and a wonder of technology. Up to 75 complete and partial copies still exist today, mainly in libraries and museums. You can view paper and vellum copies at the British Library web site.
When Gutenberg was completing the Bibles in 1455, Fust, his partner and creditor, demanded full payment of his loans. Gutenberg had all his money tied up in printing the Bibles and could not repay Fust right away. Fust sued. Winning the lawsuit, Fust took possession of the second print shop and finished printing the Bibles, which he sold.
Fust and master printer Schoffer continued operating Gutenberg’s second print shop. In a book that Fust and Schoffer later printed, they wrote a notice, taking credit for the “ingenious discovery of imprinting.”
Gutenberg borrowed more money and continued printing. Around 1460, he printed a Bible with 36 lines per page. But he never got out of debt, never married, and was never acclaimed for his astounding invention during his lifetime. He died a poor and forgotten man in Mainz in 1468.
The Printing Revolution
Fust and Schoffer tried to hide the secret of movable-type printing. But the workers Gutenberg had trained spread knowledge of his invention throughout Europe. Schoffer married Fust’s daughter and inherited the printing business in Mainz when her father died of the Black Plague in 1466. Schoffer died rich and famous 37 years later.
Less than 50 years after Gutenberg printed the Bible, over 1,000 print shops had sprung up in more than 200 European cities and towns. They turned out more than 10 million copies of books in Latin and other European languages. Books became cheaper in price and available to anyone who could read them. Books were no longer chained in libraries.
The spread of knowledge, both factual and not, exploded throughout Europe. Books began to appear for the first time with the author’s name on a title page. This made writers responsible for the content of their books, thus improving their accuracy. It also gave rise to the first copyright laws, protecting authors from having others publish their works without permission.
By the 1400s, the Renaissance had already begun in Italy, and this cultural revival was spreading to other parts of Europe. Scholars wanted more copies of the recently rediscovered writings of Aristotle, St. Augustine, Cicero, and other ancient authors. The scribes, however, could not work fast enough to meet the demand.
Printing presses were soon producing great numbers of books translated into Latin from Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and other classic languages. These books dealt with many subjects such as literature, the law, philosophy, architecture, and geography. By 1500, Renaissance Venice was Europe’s printing capital with 150 presses at work.
Printing was a highly competitive business. Printers were always trying to outdo each other with new ways to make their books more readable, attractive, and profitable. They produced books with title pages, tables of contents, numbered pages, indexes, and engravings of pictures, maps, and diagrams. They also began to use standard punctuation marks and broke down text into paragraphs.
Printers soon expanded their lists of books from those in Latin to those in Europe’s vernacular languages. These were the everyday spoken languages such as German, Italian, and English. The books covered all kinds of subjects such as astrology, folklore, history, and fashions. “How to” books, such as mastering the skills of a craft, were common. The first novels appeared. “Polyglot Bibles” written in multiple languages side-by-side were popular.
The increasing supply of books and other printed materials in vernacular languages spurred more people to learn how to read. Printers began to publish newspapers to meet the demand of readers for more information about national and world affairs.
William Caxton, an English trade diplomat in Belgium, learned about the new printing method while visiting Germany. He printed the first book in English, a collection of legends about the ancient city of Troy that he translated from Latin. The printing probably took place in Bruges, Belgium about 1471.
In 1476, Caxton returned to England with his types and set up the country’s first printing press in London. Eventually, he printed 100 different books in English, including the Canterbury Tales.
Caxton also recognized the need to standardize the inconsistent vocabulary and spelling of English. Caxton wrote about his concern in the prologue to one of the books he printed:
And certaynly our language now used varyeth ferre [far] from that whyche was used & spoken when I was borne. . . . And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre [shire] varyeth from another.
The printing revolution also helped develop modern science in Europe. For example, in 1543, the Polish scholar, Copernicus, took advantage of printed works on astronomy and tables of data on planet movements to print his own book, arguing that the earth revolved around the sun. Later, the Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, installed a printing press and paper mill near his observatory in order to print books on his discoveries.
Printing enabled scientists scattered throughout Europe to use the discoveries of others to speed their own investigations. Printed tables, charts, diagrams, and formulas eliminated the need for scientists to duplicate tiresome calculations.
Along with the many gains in European learning and culture stimulated by the printing revolution, there were some losses as well. Scribes tried to continue their craft, sometimes even copying printed books, but most surrendered to the printing press by the late 1400s. This may have been an early indicator of the industrial revolution, which replaced many occupations with machines hundreds of years later.
Another loss was a decline in the use of Latin, the universal language of religion and scholarship in the Middle Ages. With greater demand for books in the vernacular, more and more books were printed in vernacular languages. Fewer were printed in Latin. After Gutenberg, scholars had to seek out translations of works printed in numerous vernacular languages in order to learn about the work of others.
Memorization also began to fade as a way to remember large quantities of information. Almost 2,000 years earlier, the Greek philosopher Socrates had worried that replacing memory with writing “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls.”
Printing and the Reformation
The end of Christian unity in Europe was one of the most significant changes that the printing revolution helped to bring about. At first, the Roman Catholic Church welcomed printing as the “divine art.” Church leaders assumed that the widespread printing of uniform Bibles and manuals for priests would strengthen and standardize Christian worship in Europe. They did not expect Martin Luther to become the world’s first best-selling author.
A Catholic priest from Wittenberg, Germany, Luther despised the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences to assure a sinner’s place in Heaven. In 1517, he wrote an argument for scholarly debate against indulgences, known as the “Ninety-Five Theses.” Copies of this document quickly fell into the hands of printers, who distributed copies all over Europe.
Before long, Luther’s sermons, pamphlets, and books, calling for Christians to reform the church, were streaming off the printing presses. Between 1517 and 1520, printers published hundreds of thousands of copies of his writings.
The church put Luther on trial and excommunicated him in 1521. He went into hiding for a number of years, and translated the Bible from Latin into German.
Luther’s printed vernacular Bible enabled anyone who could read German to study the scriptures at home. Printed vernacular Bibles in other languages soon swept the rest of Europe. In 1526, the son of Peter Schoffer printed the New Testament in English, which was smuggled from Germany to England.
The Catholic Church tried to defend its domination of religion in Western Europe by declaring that only the Latin Bible and Latin mass were appropriate for Christian worship. The church also attempted to ban books by those who contradicted its religious teachings. Many printers, however, used the church’s banned book lists as guides for publishing works that sold well.
By the middle of the 1500s, the Christian church in Western Europe had split apart. Called the Reformation, this religious division set Catholics, Lutherans, and other Protestants against one another because of their different Christian beliefs and worship practices.
The printing revolution did not cause the Reformation. But the movable-type printing press produced many more copies of religious writings critical of the Catholic Church than would have been possible before Gutenberg’s invention.
In addition, printed copies of vernacular Bibles aided Luther’s insistence that Christians must read the scriptures silently on their own rather than depend on church officials for their salvation. Thus, the Protestant Reformation and the printing revolution combined to encourage reading literacy among the common people in Europe and later in America.
* * * * *
For centuries, Europe had lagged far behind the Muslim world in the arts, sciences, and literature. The Muslims also possessed all the components for a printing revolution, including an alphabetic language. Religious authorities, however, considered Arabic sacred since it was the language of God in the Koran. Muslims believed that only handwritten copies of books were appropriate. As a result, most Muslim countries prohibited printing until the 1800s.
Muslim learning stalled, due in part to the resistance to printing. Meanwhile, Europe made rapid advances in all fields of knowledge. Movable-type printing facilitated the spread of Renaissance ideas, modern science, and the Reformation with its emphasis on literacy and propelled Europe into a much different future.
For Discussion and Writing
1. Why do you think the Gutenberg Bible has been called a work of art and a wonder of technology?
2. Why do you think the printing revolution in Europe was a unifying force in science but a dividing one in religion?
3. What gains and losses did the printing revolution help bring about in European society between 1450 and 1550?
A C T I V I T Y
The Internet Revolution
More than 500 years after Gutenberg started the printing revolution, we are in the midst of an “Internet revolution.” What gains and losses for our own society is the Internet causing today?
1. Meet in small groups to make a list of gains and losses caused by the Internet.
2. The groups should then contribute their ideas to create a class master list of gains and losses caused by the Internet.
3. Discuss why each item is a gain or loss. Should any items be switched from gain to loss or vice versa?
4. Discuss whether books, newspapers, magazines, and other print materials will eventually fade away like the books hand-copied by scribes in the Middle Ages.
For Further Information
Encyclopedia Articles on Printing:
Manuscripts, Books, and Maps: The Printing Press and a Changing World The history of printing and its revolutionary effect on the world.
Museum of Printing Small museum displaying the evolution of the printing press.
Links on Printing:
Encyclopedia Articles on Movable Type Printing:
The Invention of Movable Type History of movable type, including directions on how to build your own movable type printing press.
Gutenberg and the Koreans Discussion of theory that Gutenberg was influenced by the Korean printing techniques.
The Man Behind the Press Details the development of movable type printing.
Links on Movable Type Printing:
Encyclopedia Articles on Gutenberg:
Catholic Encyclopedia: Johann Gutenberg
Johann Gutenberg Detailed biography of Johann Gutenberg.
Inventor Johann Gutenberg Biography Chronology of Gutenberg’s life.
Johann Gutenberg Time Magazine article discussing the life and accomplishments of Gutenberg.
Links on Gutenberg:
Encyclopedia Articles on Fust:
Johann Fust Biography of Johann Fust.
Links on Fust:
Encyclopedia Articles on Schoffer:
Peter Schoffer The life and work of Peter Schoffer.
Links on Schoffer:
Encyclopedia Articles on the Gutenberg Bible:
The Printing of the Bible Details the production of the Gutenberg Bible with images of actual text.
Treasures in Full: Gutenberg Bible Full text of the British Library’s two copies of the Gutenberg Bible.
Gutenberg Bible Census Locations of the known copies of the Gutenberg Bible.
Links on the Gutenberg Bible:
Renaissance Comprehensive site on the history and culture of the Renaissance complete with external links and primary documents.
Renaissance Interactive journey through the Renaissance.
Renaissance People Listing of links concerning key figures of the Renaissance.
Links on the Renaissance:
Encyclopedia Articles on Luther:
Links on Luther:
Dillenberger, John. Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings. 1958
Johnson, Paul. The Renaissance: A Short History. 2002.
Man, John. Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words. 2002
Rees, Fran. Johannes Gutenberg. 2006.
Thorpe, James. The Gutenberg Bible: Landmark in Learning. 1997