The Gutenberg Printing Press

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The world before the printing press arrived was very different to the one we know today. There were very limited printing capabilities in Europe and China, such as woodblock printing, but these early methods required skilled craftspeople, were very slow and costly, and consequently did not flourish. There were few books, no publishers, no newspapers, no bookshops, and no Amazon (except for the river). Most existing books and pamphlets were manuscripts, painstakingly hand copied, which could take months or even years to complete. Books were expensive and rare. In the 14th century, a manuscript book cost the same as the price of a house. The largest library in Europe at the time was in Paris, and contained only 300 manuscripts. The vast majority of the public were illiterate. As a result, only a wealthy, elite minority, such as church clergy, could read and write, and usually only in Latin. There were no newspapers. Information and ideas were communicated largely by spoken word, within small local groups. As a result, news often did not travel far outside the locality.

Under these conditions, suppression of dissenting voices by those in positions of power was commonplace. Censorship and other means were used to control the spread of ideas that were seen to be in conflict with the accepted norms of the day. For example, in 496 AD the Roman Catholic Pope Gelasius I issued a list of prohibited books that were deemed to be contrary to morality. Catholics were forbidden to read them.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, and the beginning of the Renaissance, a young man from Mainz, Germany was about to change everything. In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the metal Moveable Type Printing Press. Gutenberg was a skilled goldsmith and entrepreneur. He combined several innovations to design his new printing process. These innovations included cast metal type (print characters), oil based ink, a modified screw press, and an efficient industrial process. Gutenberg borrowed money and by 1450 he was printing Christian religious pamphlets and books. He printed about 200 copies of a 1286 page bible that is now known as the Gutenberg Bible. This massive effort over several years cost Gutenberg his business, as a result of a legal dispute with his investors. However, though his business venture failed, his new printing press was a success, and his printing process was copied by others. In the following years, printing businesses flourished across Europe. The Gutenberg printing press made printing much faster and much more affordable than previous methods. Distribution channels for books did not previously exist, so centres of trade such as port cities became the centres of printing. Venice, a thriving city state, became the heart of printing in Europe.

In time, the ability to print rapidly at low cost resulted in the founding of the newspaper publishing industry, now known as “the press” after the printing press. From the early 1600’s, newspapers started to appear all across Europe, helping drive the growth of literacy and access to information for ordinary people. The concept of book authorship, or creator’s rights, became important, and in time copyright laws were enacted to protect authors against piracy and plagiarism.

The printing press changed books from being rare and expensive items in small libraries and monasteries, in the hands of an elite few who could read Latin, to becoming widely available and more affordable, in many languages. Printing facilitated the exchange of information and ideas, and powered periods of great social change in Europe, including the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Printing and distribution of books and pamphlets enabled information and ideas to be spread widely and rapidly. This had a democratising effect on European society. The censorship or stifling of ideas, such as by churches or political elites, became much more difficult. An example of this was the event that led to the Reformation. In 1517 Martin Luther challenged the Roman Catholic Church, and started the Reformation movement when he posted his “Ninety-Five Theses” on the door of Wittenberg church in Germany. The Theses document was afterwards translated, printed and distributed throughout Europe. Luther went on to publish a translation of the bible in a dialect of German which was understood throughout Germany. The widespread distribution of these and other printed documents that challenged the existing Christian church resulted in a split that created the new church of Protestantism.

During the late Middle Ages (13th and 14th centuries) and continuing into the European Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries) European scholars experienced a reawakened desire to learn about Greek and Roman culture. However, few manuscripts were available in Western Europe. Great efforts were made to locate and translate those “long lost” manuscripts. The texts came primarily from two sources: texts in Arabic from the Islamic world, and texts in Greek from the Christian Byzantine Empire. During the Middle Ages, Greek manuscripts were brought to the Islamic world and translated into Arabic. These were later brought back to Europe, such as by the Muslim Moors who migrated to the Iberian Peninsula (now Spain & Portugal). After the defeat of the Moors, the Arabic texts were translated into Latin. A wealth of classical philosophical, cultural and historical writings was made available for translation and printing.

The European Renaissance was a period of great social change in Europe in culture, the arts, politics and economics. It has been characterised as a “rebirth” after many centuries of the Middle Ages period. The reawakened desire for knowledge and learning of the classical Greek and Roman texts was accelerated by the printing press. While the Renaissance predated it, the arrival of the printing press accelerated the change by making translated copies of manuscripts more available and affordable.

Translation of texts from ancient Greek or Arabic to Latin played an important role. In 1439, a movement called the Neoplatonic Florentine Academy was founded in Florence. It was sponsored by the Cosimo de’ Medici, a banker and politician, and head of the wealthy and powerful banking and political Medici dynasty. The Academy’s goal was to bring the classical philosophy teachings of Plato to the Europe of the Renaissance period. The Academy modelled itself on Plato’s Academy, a school of philosophy founded by Plato in Athens. The Academy was led by Marcilio Ficino, a brilliant Neoplatonist philosopher, physician, scholar and translator. Ficino acquired all of Plato’s works from the Byzantine Empire via the Medicis, and translated them from ancient Greek into Latin. The translated works were printed and published in 1484, thus bringing the ideas of Plato to a much wider world. The works published included the Dialogues, where Plato uses conversations between two or more speakers to explore philosophical issues. Ficino also published commentaries on Plato’s works, in his role as a philosopher.

Aldus Manutius founded a printing house called Aldine Press in Venice in 1494. Between 1495 and 1505, Aldine Press printed more than one hundred classic Greek, Roman and other Italian texts. Manutius said that the reason for his efforts was “for the abundance of good books which, we hope, will finally put to flight all ignorance.”

Today, books are very affordable and accessible for most people, thanks to efficient printing processes. Most people can read – worldwide literacy levels are approaching ninety per cent. The challenge in today’s globally connected world is finding the time in our busy lives to read and learn from quality books. Work, commuting, family life, entertainment, and our smartphones are some of the myriad things that demand our attention and draw from our finite resources of energy and time. An additional challenge today is the desire for an instant solution to our questions – how often do we “just google it”? We may ask why we should spend hours reading a book, when we might find the answer online in minutes? 

Devoting the time and attention to reading a quality book is a rewarding experience. The many benefits of reading good books are known to include improved literacy and vocabulary, and better attention span. Reading also improves learning skills, provides us with knowledge, and opens us up to other points of view. It stimulates the imagination as we visualise while reading, creating the world from the page in our own mind’s eye. It takes a little time and effort to read a book, and the discipline to silence that smartphone, but the rewards are lasting. 

The old saying goes that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. But is the printing press mightier than the pen? Perhaps one could argue that the pen and the printing press together have opened up a world of knowledge and ideas, ranging from classical Greece and Rome, to today’s vast array of books on many subjects. We have Johannes Gutenberg, and many others, to thank for that achievement.

Tim Leahy