The (R)Evolution of Printing

Our world today is inundated with print media. Newspapers, magazines, books–blogs–all bring us into ever closer contact with the words and ideas of others. Yet the ability to rapidly and accurately produce books at the volume required for mass exposure came rather late to mediaeval Europe, which only adopted the technology of printing in the 15th century.

Gutenberg, although an engineering genius, fought an uphill battle against a centuries-old manuscript culture. (Wikimedia Commons)

Gutenberg, although an engineering genius, fought an uphill battle against a centuries-old manuscript culture. (Wikimedia Commons)

The narrative, as traditionally told, usually ends where it begins, with Johannes Gutenberg and his successful printing of the Bible in 1455, which showcased his system of movable type and paved the way for the establishment of presses in urban centres across the continent. In fact, thanks to some beautiful data processing by Harvard researchers, you can now ‘see’ this process unfolding in a video produced from Harvard library holdings from the first century of print.

As lovely as it is, however, this video only tells half of the story–the spread of production. The real challenge of printing, however, lay not in the technical aspects of creating books, but rather in encouraging someone–anyone–to buy them.

Manuscripts, created from luxurious vellum and often personalised on a bespoke book market, had been high status products, a display and repository of moveable wealth. Thus, although the novelty value of printed books was high, the sheer volume of the print run–and the lack of colour and individualisation–meant that demand for these new books was much lower than the enthusiasm for printing them.

This printed page from the Nuremberg Chronicle has a hand-coloured illustration, mimicking one of the most popular features of manuscripts. (Wikimedia Commons)

This printed page from the Nuremberg Chronicle has a hand-coloured illustration, mimicking one of the most popular features of manuscripts. (Wikimedia Commons)

All of these factors meant that the rapid rise of printing was soon followed by collapse. Many presses failed, and many early printers started press after press, chasing elusive business success.

When the market eventually adapted, throughout the 16th century, it was through the publishing of pamphlets and other ephemera (previously unknown) and of new material born outside the tradition of the monastic scriptoria (such as novels.)

From this, we can see that printing truly did have a revolutionary effect on the book as it was known in Europe. Made with new materials, including linen paper, complex machinery, and oil-based ink, printing changed the economy of book production and created a whole new class of skilled artisans and engravers. It also commoditised texts, as can be seen in the development of title pages (a feature unknown in manuscripts, many of which were compilations by different or unknown authors).

At the same time, though, printing also revolutionised itself, maturing from a form of imitation into a medium ideally placed to create products–including newspapers and visual propaganda–which would come to radically alter the intellectual space of Europe.

Learn More:

The inspiration for this post came from a lecture I attended given by Dr. Andrew Pettegree, whose book The Book in the Renaissance, may be of interest.

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15 thoughts on “The (R)Evolution of Printing

  1. What a great post! Everything I’ve ever heard about the invention of the printing press makes it seem like printing and books immediately spread like wildfire, and I never once stopped to think that there may have been resistance to printed books in the beginning. Than you for providing an interesting tidbit of history!

  2. And one last thought, the video is superb. I was surprised at the density of printing presses in The Netherlands, Germany and Italy, while comparatively the technology spread very slowly in France and even then was confined to a handful of cities. Very, very interesting

    • Thanks–for all of your comments!

      In a way, looking at early printing is very similar to what’s happening now, with digital media. New technologies always have big advantages, but never quite reproduce everything about the old. 🙂

      I don’t know enough to explain the pattern you’ve noticed fully, but my initial reaction is that it is tied to the density of cities. Italy and the Netherlands especially were very heavily urbanised by mediaeval standards, and they were also involved in the early Renaissance and trade. I think these things may have combined to make them early adopters of such novel technology.

      • Yes it’s definitely true that most of France in that time was rural and not densely populated. But what a comparison, by the end of the video the yellow dots were almost outlining France perfectly! (on the East)

  3. Thanks for this post–the video was very interesting! I found you while searching for ‘printing’ on wordpress blogs. I worked for a year in Amsterdam as a printer. 🙂

  4. Enjoyed your post very much – and as usual 🙂
    Could not help myself, though, from suggesting this link for a humorous tone in the way new technologies – related to literacy also! – spread and the difficulties they meet:

  5. Great post. There is a parallel to today’s development of digital media. Initially they imitated existing print media and are only now beginning to explore the potential of their new form.

    • Thanks! I absolutely agree with you that the parallels are striking. I have to admit that I have a lot of sympathy for the point of view of monks and others who weren’t very impressed with printing. It’s difficult to think that a mass-market paperback is superior to a hand-illuminated manuscript.

  6. Interesting. One more thing that may have contributed is that fewer people were educated enough to appreciate the written word so easily available. And those who could afford the luxury of an education could presumably also afford the luxury of handmade manuscripts.

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