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.
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.
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.
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.