Europe and the Printing Press

Europe and the Printing Press
Europe and the Printing Press
Before 1450, books were produced by scribes who laboriously copied an existing book by hand. Between 1455 and 1500, the printing press, containing movable type using manufactured paper, revolutionized book production.

By 1500, hundreds of printing presses throughout Europe had produced more than 6 million books, roughly equivalent to the total number of books produced in the prior 15 centuries.

This revolution was begun by an ordinary man named Johann Gutenberg (c. 1400–1468). Gutenberg had a printing shop in Mainz, Germany. Though often called the “inventor of movable type,” Gutenberg did not invent any of the major parts of the printing process but took the concepts and engineered a solution that touched off a rapid growth in printing.

Prior to the printing press, books were made at great expense by hand. Only kings, universities, large churches, or monasteries could afford the price of a book. The rising merchant class and lower nobility created a demand for a more economical book.


The components of the printing process had recently become available. Paper production had begun in Italy, taking rag stock, mixing it into pulp, then pressing it in a felt press. Paper cost about one-sixth the price of vellum (calf- or sheepskin). The printing press was already in existence for block prints of artwork, or other hand-crafted printing.

Oil-based ink that would work well for transfer to paper was in existence. The concept of movable type (individual letters or characters that could be put into a holder) had been invented by the Chinese centuries before and had slowly made its way over to Europe.

The genius of Gutenberg was in the careful perfection of a printing system. Gutenberg adapted a press to hold a form containing metal pieces. He manufactured more than 300 different symbols including capital letters, lowercase letters, numerals, large block letters, and ligatures (two or more letters attached together). He perfected the ink to work on paper stock acquired from Italy (an oil-based ink that would not smear, nor bleed through the paper).

He devised a system of rolling the ink onto the type form and finally printing it onto paper. Each page would be individually prepared by a skilled typesetter, and then many copies of that page would be printed by the press operator.

Gutenberg first produced some small works (a Latin grammar), but then with business partners Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer providing funding, Gutenberg undertook to produce a copy of the Bible in Latin beginning in 1450. By 1454 or 1455, the first edition was complete.

The Gutenberg Bible uses a typeface that appears hand-printed, since it was produced to compete with hand-printed bibles (at a much lower cost). The Bible would then be decorated (beginning letters colored by hand), and other annotations (or rubrications) added.

Books printed with this new printing press were enormously popular. By 1458, there were several other printers in Germany and Switzerland. By 1475, hundreds of printers with their printing presses were producing editions of books throughout Europe. By 1500, more than 40,000 editions of various works had been produced by printing presses.

While advancements were made to speed up the process of producing and ordering the movable type, the fundamentals of the printing press did not change till the 20th century with the advent of electromechanical printing and finally computer-based printing.

Martin Luther first nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the castle church in Wittenberg in 1517, 60 years after the invention of the printing press process by Gutenberg. Luther intended to raise an academic debate among the region’s theologians.

Instead he ignited a storm of controversy that swept Europe in the rapid communication of his theses through the printing press. Within weeks of his posting the Ninety-five Theses, printers in Wittenberg and other places were selling copies as a short pamphlet, distributing it throughout Germany and even other countries in western Europe.

Luther was a prolific and popular writer. Just over a year later in 1519, he received a note from a printer Basel named Johannes Froben: “We sent six hundred copies of your collected works which I published to France and Spain.

They are sold in Paris, read and appreciated at the Sorbonne. The book dealer Clavus of Pavia took a sizable number to Italy to sell them everywhere in the cities. I have sent copies also to England and Babant and have only ten copies left in the storeroom. I have never had such good luck with a book.”

Many of Luther’s shorter works were published as pamphlets, easily accessible to merchants, lesser nobility, and others who could read. The printing press enabled the rapid spread of Reformation.

The advent of the printing press produced other societal changes. With books more accessible, the system of instruction at the university level changed. Prior to the printing press, a professor would read from a single book (often the only copy at the university) and the students would take notes.

With the printing press, great works by authors of past eras were published more broadly, bringing the Renaissance era to full fruition. The work of scientists such as Copernicus and Isaac Newton were published, bringing both debate and further development to science.

It also increased the desire of those in power to control what was published in their country or church. The first Index of Forbidden Books was published by King Henry VIII of England in 1526, and the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited (or Forbidden) Books was published in 1559 and revised constantly thereafter.