At the height of the Hussite crisis in the early 1400’s, when the authorities ordered 200 manuscripts of heretical writings burned, people on both sides realized quite well the significance of that act. Two hundred handwritten manuscripts would be hard to replace. Not only would it be a time consuming job, but also trained scribes would be hard to find. After all, most of them worked for the Church, and it seemed unlikely that the Church would loan out its scribes to copy the works of heretics. Although the Hussites more than held their own against the Church, their movement remained confined mainly to the borders of their homeland of Bohemia. One main reason for this was that there was no mass media, such as the printing press to spread the word. A century later, all that had changed.
Like any other invention, the printing press came along and had an impact when the right conditions existed at the right time and place. In this case, that was Europe in the mid 1400’s. Like many or most inventions, the printing press was not the result of just one man’s ingenious insight into all the problems involved in creating the printing press. Rather, printing was a combination of several different inventions and innovations: block printing, rag paper, oil based ink, interchangeable metal type, and the squeeze press.
If one process started the chain reaction of events that led to the invention of the printing press, it was the rise of towns in Western Europe that sparked trade with the outside world all the way to China. That trade exposed Europeans to three things important for the invention of the printing press: rag paper, block printing, and, oddly enough, the Black Death.
For centuries the Chinese had been making rag paper, which was made from a pulp of water and discarded rags that was then pressed into sheets of paper. When the Arabs met the Chinese at the battle of the Talas River in 751 A.D., they carried off several prisoners skilled in making such paper. The technology spread gradually across the Muslim world, up through Spain and into Western Europe by the late 1200’s. The squeeze press used in pressing the pulp into sheets of paper would also lend itself to pressing print evenly onto paper.
The Black Death, which itself spread to Western Europe thanks to expanded trade routes, also greatly catalyzed the invention of the printing press in three ways, two of which combined with the invention of rag paper to provide Europe with plentiful paper. First of all, the survivors of the Black Death inherited the property of those who did not survive, so that even peasants found themselves a good deal richer. Since the textile industry was the most developed industry in Western Europe at that time, it should come as no surprise that people spent their money largely on new clothes. However, clothes wear out, leaving rags. As a result, fourteenth century Europe had plenty of rags to make into rag paper, which was much cheaper than the parchment (sheepskin) and vellum (calfskin) used to make books until then. Even by 1300, paper was only one-sixth the cost of parchment, and its relative cost continued to fall. Considering it took 170 calfskins or 300 sheepskins to make one copy of the Bible, we can see what a bargain paper was.
But the Black Death had also killed off many of the monks who copied the books, since the crowded conditions in the monasteries had contributed to an unusually high mortality rate. One result of this was that the cost of copying books rose drastically while the cost of paper was dropping. Many people considered this unacceptable and looked for a better way to copy books. Thus the Black Death rag paper combined to create both lots of cheap paper plus an incentive for the invention of the printing press.
The Black Death also helped lead to the decline of the Church, the rise of a money economy, and subsequently the Italian Renaissance with its secular ideas and emphasis on painting. It was the Renaissance artists who, in their search for a more durable paint, came up with oil-based paints. Adapting these to an oil-based ink that would adhere to metal type was fairly simple.
Block printing, carved on porcelain, had existed for centuries before making its way to Europe. Some experiments with interchangeable copper type had been carried on in Korea. However, Chinese printing did not advance beyond that, possibly because the Chinese writing system used thousands of characters and was too unmanageable. For centuries after its introduction into Europe, block printing still found little use, since wooden printing blocks wore out quickly when compared to the time it took to carve them. As a result of the time and expense involved in making block prints, a few playing cards and pages of books were printed this way, but little else.
What people needed was a movable type made of metal. And here again, the revival of towns and trade played a major role, since it stimulated a mining boom, especially in Germany, along with better techniques for working metals, including soft metals such as gold and copper. It was a goldsmith from Mainz, Germany, Johannes Gutenberg, who created a durable and interchangeable metal type that allowed him to print many different pages, using the same letters over and over again in different combinations. It was also Gutenberg who combined all these disparate elements of movable type, rag paper, the squeeze press, and oil based inks to invent the first printing press in 1451.
The first printed books were religious in nature, as were most medieval books. They also imitated (handwritten) manuscript form so that people would accept this new revolutionary way of copying books. The printing press soon changed the forms and uses of books quite radically. Books stopped imitating manuscript forms such as lined paper to help the copiers and abbreviations to save time in copying. They also covered an increasingly wider variety of non-religious topics (such as grammars, etiquette, and geology books) that appealed especially to the professional members of the middle class.
By 1482, there were about 100 printing presses in Western Europe: 50 in Italy, 30 in Germany, 9 in France, 8 each in Spain and Holland, and 4 in England. A Venetian printer, Aldus Manutius, realized that the real market was not for big heavy volumes of the Bible, but for smaller, cheaper, and easier to handle “pocket books”. Manutius further revolutionized book copying by his focusing on these smaller editions that more people could afford. He printed translations of the Greek classics and thus helped spread knowledge in general, and the Renaissance in particular, across Europe. By 1500, there were some 40,000 different editions with over 6,000,000 copies in print.
The impact of the printing press
The printing press had dramatic effects on European civilization. Its immediate effect was that it spread information quickly and accurately. This helped create a wider literate reading public. However, its importance lay not just in how it spread information and opinions, but also in what sorts of information and opinions it was spreading. There were two main directions printing took, both of which were probably totally unforeseen by its creators.
First of all, more and more books of a secular nature were printed, with especially profound results in science. Scientists working on the same problem in different parts of Europe especially benefited, since they could print the results of their work and share it accurately with a large number of other scientists. They in turn could take that accurate, not miscopied, information, work with it and advance knowledge and understanding further. Of course, they could accurately share their information with many others and the process would continue. By the 1600’s, this process would lead to the Scientific Revolution of the Enlightenment, which would radically alter how Europeans viewed the world and universe.
The printing press also created its share of trouble as far as some people were concerned. It took book copying out of the hands of the Church and made it much harder for the Church to control or censor what was being written. It was hard enough to control what Wycliffe and Hus wrote with just a few hundred copies of their works in circulation. Imagine the problems the Church had when literally thousands of such works could be produced at a fraction of the cost. Each new printing press was just another hole in the dyke to be plugged up, and the Church had only so many fingers with which to do the job. It is no accident that the breakup of Europe’s religious unity during the Protestant Reformation corresponded with the spread of printing. The difference between Martin Luther’s successful Reformation and the Hussites’ much more limited success was that Luther was armed with the printing press and knew how to use it with devastating effect.
Some people go as far as to say that the printing press is the most important invention between the invention of writing itself and the computer. Although it is impossible to justify that statement to everyone’s satisfaction, one can safely say that the printing press has been one of the most powerful inventions of the modern era. It has advanced and spread knowledge and molded public opinion in a way that nothing before the advent of television and radio in the twentieth century could rival. If it were not able to, then freedom of the press would not be such a jealously guarded liberty as it is today.