[Above is the library of the Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp.]
Though knowledge of reading and writing was considered desirable in medieval Europe it was a means to an end. The invention of printing revolutionized literacy. Francis Bacon described it as one of the three great inventions (the others were gunpowder and the compass) that had changed the appearance and state of the whole world.
The Invention of Printing
The printing press evolved as a practical solution to a practical problem. Before 1450 all books were hand produced - copied out by scribes in monastic scriptoria. Monks wrote standing at their desks. The illustrations were often lavish and the books were therefore very expensive. They were written on parchment or vellum made from animal skins in a cursive minuscule script dating from the Carolingian Renaissance of the ninth century. But even before the invention of printing there was increasing demand caused by the revived interest in the ancient Greeks (studied mainly in Latin translations), and secular scriptoria supplied the university stationers.
From the thirteenth century Europeans had increasingly used the Chinese process of manufacturing paper from rags, which was much more easily and cheaply manufactured than reed-based papyrus or animal skins (vellum or parchment). The Muslims had a paper mill in operation in Baghdad as early as 794, but by the end of the fourteenth century Christian Europe had far outstripped the Muslim world in production.
There was no single invention, but the printing press is usually attributed to the former goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg (d. 1468) at Mainz in the 1450s. Presses were already known from wine and cheese-making, but the printing press was a more precise instrument. It was free of all lateral movement and applied even pressure over the whole surface of the page. Thus, the printing press was virtually a new machine.
But the great innovation was moveable type, another Chinese invention,. Prior to Gutenberg, each piece of metal type for printing presses had to be individually carved by hand. Gutenberg developed moulds that allowed for the mass production of individual pieces of metal type. Each character was a separate block, in mirror image, and these blocks were assembled into a frame to form text. Because of his moulds, an entire upper case and lower case alphabet set could be made much more quickly than if they were individually hand carved. (Upper case pieces of type were stored on the top shelf and lower case pieces of type were stored on the bottom shelf.)
Printing from moveable type was taken up by the Europeans in response to the increased demand for printed books. It was immediately clear that printing like this was much more flexible and useful as a technology of reproducing information than the existing use of carved woodblocks. It could be partly dismantled and revisions and corrections made; it could be separated and reused for later sections of a long work, or for a quite different task. It enabled the printing of long books with modest amounts of type.
It also involved new materials and new processes. Paper was used almost exclusively since neither parchment nor vellum was suitable for use with the printing press. This led to heavy demands on the paper mills. The new forms of ink were oil based, rather than water based. They were thicker than existing inks and capable of imparting a sharp image that did not run.
New skills were needed: those of punch-cutter, typecaster and compositor. Artists designed the type-faces and laid out the pages. Typecasters needed some knowledge of metallurgy. Knowledge of chemistry was required to make printers’ ink. Bookbinders were much in demand.
1455 saw the appearance of the Gutenberg Bible in Mainz. It was too accurate and well laid out to have been the first book to come from the adjustable type mould. The assumption is that there must have been much trial and error before this high standard could have been achieved.
The Book Trade
In the early experimental period printers had set up all kinds of tiny centres, but towards 1500 printeries were concentrated in those places where venture capital could be found, patrons sought and contracts negotiated. There were specialist book fairs at Lyons and Frankfurt.
Because these were commercial ventures, the bulk of the early printed books were those for which there was a guaranteed market. This meant bibles, mass-books, breviaries, manuals for clergy and confessors. Three quarters of all books published before 1520 (and many afterwards) were religious. There were also educational works: dictionaries, schoolbooks. The average print run was 500-600 copies, but there were also best-sellers with much larger runs. Luther's German Bible had a print run of 4,000 and Erasmus's Praise of Folly, published at Basel had 1800.
Gradually printers published ‘Renaissance’ texts. As early as 1468 Cicero’s Orator was printed. Between 1470 and 1475 the French printer Nicolas Jenson produced editions of Eusebius, Cicero and Virgil in Venice. Between 1495 and 1498 the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (1450-1515) issued five volumes of Aristotle, and the comedies of Aristophanes, later followed by other Greek classics. All these works were printed in the increasingly popular Roman rather than the conventional Gothic type. By 1501 had achieved the technically difficult feat of converting the cancellaresca, the italic, into printing-type. This very economical type made printing in a small format possible and compressed the size of books.
The Englishman William Caxton (c.1421-91) learned the printing trade in Cologne. In Bruges in 1474 he published the first books ever to be printed in English, the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy and The Game of Chess. They were dedicated to Duchess Margaret of Burgundy and her brother George duke of Clarence. In 1476 he moved back to England where he rented a shop in the precincts of Westminster Abbey. He published an indulgence issued by Sixtus IV in aid of the war against the Turks. However, on the whole he published uncontroversial secular courtly works. In July 1485 he published Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur.
A Communications Revolution?
The fact that books could not be published more cheaply meant that collecting a library became feasible (if still expensive). Only a small proportion of the population was literate - but there was a substantial book buying and book reading public. The miller Menocchio owned or had access to a surprising number of books, at least one of which was bought in Venice.
By 1500 over 200 towns and cities had presses and it has been estimatd that there were between eight and twenty million incunabula (books published within 50 years of the invention of the printing press.) This vastly exceeds the number of books produced in all of western history up to that point. By 1600 about 200,000 different books or editions had been printed in press runs that averaged about 1,000 copies each. The book was thus the first modern mass-produced commodity.
Books became talking points and cultural reference pointers. The novel was quickly translated into all the western European languages and the second volume talks about its reception. (This would not have been possible before the advent of printing.) Don Quixote and Pancho Sanza talk about themselves as characters in a book!
By the end of the 16th century there was a thriving industry in broadsheets, ballads and chapbooks.
The communications revolution meant:
1) It was now possible to produce identical copies of books. It was even more important to be accurate, since a single mistake could be reproduced many times. When mistakes were made, it was possible to issue errata slips. The craft of the proof-reader developed.A Slow Revolution?
2) Printed books had distinctive type-faces, printer's device on the title page, the inclusion of the year and place of publication. All this gave printed books a greater air of authority and reliability.
3) Vernacular languages were standardised, and in print dialects lost out to the standard version of the vernacular.
4) Greater diversity of texts, possible to compare books, contradictions could be spotted. Transmission of received knowledge became more complicated. For example, the conflicting traditions and opinions of Arab and western medicine could be compared. The authority of ancient texts was gradually undermined.
5) Knowledge was now better organised: reference books, numbering of pages, catalogues in alphabetical order.
There are important caveats to the narrative of an unstoppable revolution.
- The print culture did not develop overnight, it was not uniform throughout Europe and even in the same region there could be startling discrepancies. In late 16th century Venice, which was an important publishing centre, books were still fairly rare and the notaries who drew up inventories do not appear to have been acquainted with them . We now know that medieval libraries and book-owners had owned popular texts in large numbers of copies; they had shrunk books into small format for convenience. The sumptuous manuscripts were not the only books published in the Middle Ages and cheaper works existed in respectable numbers (only most have not survived). (Query: what type of book were Dante's Francesca and Paolo reading?)
- Standardization can be greatly exaggerated. Printers were as much subject to human error as scribes. Compositors constantly complained about the difficulty of deciphering bad handwriting, and printing-house practice resulted in unpredictable and incalculable variations between copes of books. For example in Shakespeare’s First Folio there are two alternative readings: ‘Although our last and least’ or ‘Although our last not least’. This is partly because Shakespeare had a remarkably casual attitude to the printed editions of his plays, but there are also two possible definitive texts of Dr Faustus and there are many discrepancies in the editions of Don Quixote.
- The division between print and manuscripts is often made too stark. For a long time manuscript had a greater prestige than print and for this reason the first printed edition of Homer was issued in a type that resembled contemporary Greek handwriting. The world of the manuscript book did not come to an end in 1500; both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I owned manuscript books. In France the tradition of luxury illustrated manuscripts continued until 1520. For Hebrew, Greek, music, the type was not always available, so manuscript insertions had to be made; in many cases the manuscript tradition continued until the nineteenth century.
- The change from a predominantly oral to a predominantly literate culture was slow and by no means completed by 1700.
The state and ecclesiastical powers were involved in printing from the start. In 1479 Sixtus IV granted authority to the University of Cologne to censor books. In 1515 papal decree ordered censorship to be applied to all translations from Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Chaldaic into Latin. In 1520-21 both the pope and Charles V banned his writings. In 1559 the Index I.ibrorum Prohibitorum was published. Elizabeth I gave the stationers' Company an absolute monopoly of printing outside the universities.