Try to imagine printing technology before there were computers, electronic printers, and even typewriters. It must have been primitive, right? Au contraire, dear. The printing press, the first method of producing the printed word, influenced a change of culture and society forever.
The origins of printing take place in China. The Chinese created a printing press as early as the 2nd century C.E., the earliest printed book was created in the 11th century, and the first movable type was created in the 12th century. China ruled the print scene, but it had yet to reach Europe.
In the Middle Ages (5th c. C.E. – 15th c. C.E.), Europe was a manuscript culture. Scribes wrote all sorts of texts by hand. Even more impressive, some of these texts were extraordinarily long. Take, for example, the bible. Needless to say, it took years to complete one bible because they could only work on a few pages each day. (I can only imagine the severity of carpal tunnel syndrome.) At this time, there was a clear distinction between the elite who had access to the few books that were in circulation, and the common people who did not have that opportunity. There was an unmistakable class division since the middle class did not exist yet.
Bibles were often handwritten in Latin because it was a sacred language, a language of theology and science for the elite. By no accident, most common people did not understand Latin. When they went to church and listened to the priest read from the bible, the congregation had no idea what he was saying!
That all changed with a man named Johannes Gutenberg. Gutenberg presented his movable type printing press to Europe for commercial use in 1454. He named his invention none other than the Gutenberg Press. He used it to print bibles. Can you guess what he named the sacred book? The Gutenberg Bible. With an innovation this important, it’s fitting to put his name all over it.
Gutenberg’s press and bible had three profound, lasting outcomes. First, he was able to print in mass production, making the bible and other texts inexpensive and accessible to the public for the first time ever. Second, he printed texts in the vernacular, meaning common languages like English, German, and Italian. This encouraged people learn to read and spiked literacy rates at a time when only scholars were literate. Learning is so much more fun when it’s in a language you understand. Third, the combination of mass production and vernacular texts transformed the the flow of intellectual thought. Discussions about ideas, theories, and information flowed freely throughout Europe as common people were exposed to science, philosophy, politics and religion. How liberating it must have been to openly explore the wonders of the universe!
The Gutenberg Press was absolutely revolutionary. It helped to bring society out of the Dark Ages and into European Renaissance: the age of art, creativity, knowledge, and discovery where a middle class began to thrive. It is arguably one of the most important inventions ever created not only for its practical purposes, but for the impact it had on communication, culture, and society. The printing press is not so primitive after all!
Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut E. “Johannes Gutenberg: German Printer.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Johannes-Gutenberg.
Oregon State University Libraries. “Treasures of the McDonald Collection.” http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/mcdonald/incunabula/gutenberg/.