The Printing Press: Knowledge Becomes Independent

In 1455 a craftsman called Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden, known by the name of Johannes Gutenberg finished the task of composing the Bible using a device he called "printing press". We don't know many things about the life of this character, neither his born or death date, but generally, experts believe he was born in 1400 and died in 1467. What we know for sure is that he carried out his work in the city of Mainz (Germany) and he was born in the middle of a family of smiths dedicated to issuing the coins of the city. However, despite the scarce information we have about his life and works, the printing of the Bible is considered an extraordinarily important event in our culture, a primordial invention which separated our history in two halves, marked a watershed in the way we spread information and knowledge and, as a consequence, the opportunity to formulate it and to visualize it.

Printing Workshop in the 16th Century. Author: Jost Amman

After making such a bold statement, now let's focus on those who try to play down this incredible new device. There are always slaves who remember the mortal hero and the historians often play the role of slaves against the feelings of enthusiasm of those who have made history because of their triumphs. In this case, they didn't try to take out Gutenberg's merit, but to refuse the idea that Gutenberg was the original inventor of the device. So, it must be highlighted that our hero didn't invent the printing press. There were printings before 1455. In the age of Gutenberg, playing cards, engravings, figures, and even names were printed. Indeed, experts think the invention of the printing press dates back to the 6th century in China, where retrospective chronology has offered us printed pages, and a few centuries later experts have found collections of printed drawings by using wooden movable-type printing. Also, as some people claim, Gutenberg was not the inventor of the paper. It was also a Chinese invention that reached Europe thanks to the Arabs. Also, it is not correct to attribute him to the invention of the movable-type printing, as we've said before they were used in China way before. Regarding this, researchers have found the existence of texts made from "semi-movable" types in the same age as Gutenberg's. There was even one individual who disputed Gutenberg the invention of the apparatus in life, specifically Lorenz Coster, a Dutchman who assured to have used the movable types for printing 20 years before the German did. As we can see, there's a good amount of motifs to attenuate the originality of the innovation of Gutenberg. Despite everything, is indispensable to continue talking about our civilization as the "Gutenberg Galaxy".

Actually, Gutenberg was born in a place and time of high literary and documental activity. He lived in the precise moment to solve the problem that he hadn't raised, but which was there, in the air that was breathed by the cultural life of the time. The society demanded and needed the distribution of texts at a larger scale. The necessity to satisfy these petitions of the new readers required faster and more effective processing methods of reproduction of religious, literary, philosophical and recent books. A demand that was not new. In ancient Greece, Alexandria and Rome were cultural centers, attended by avid readers and bibliophiles. The dissemination of medieval universities throughout all Europe also had demanded a faster way of reproduction of books, exigency that grew a lot more during the Renaissance period, as many inhabitants of the new cities found enjoyment in reading. Moreover, those same cities also appeared fliers which informed people about religious or mundane events (for example, astronomical phenomena such as an eclipse or comets), in the form of printed drawings which could be understood by all the population, no matter the education level. They often looked as very coarse printings but they became quite popular.

Gutenberg offered a solution to reproduce books simply and effectively, taking advantage of all his experience in the drawing and text impressions, but innovating enough to make his device look original and new. First, he conceived the printing as a composition of text by types, knowing this method as the "movable-type printing". The new thing about the device of Gutenberg, considering everything mentioned before, was that the types he used to print with, were made of metal and not of wood, as the Chinese were using. Without a doubt, his job as smith helped him to design the movable types. The molds of the letters allowed him to have uniform typography so that he could adjust the text in well-defined lines. Also, the printing plate was enough solid and resistant to be able to obtain lots of copies in a shorter period. Another innovation that Gutenberg included in his method was the ink utilized, very similar to the pigments that the painters used, rather than using that aqueous dissolution that the people who printed wooden engravings were using at the time. New movable metallic types and ink of a new composition could be seen as minor innovations, but on the opposite, these two elements contributed to the extreme success of the Gutenberg printing method. The first book printed using this technique was the Bible already mentioned; it was the Latin version of the Vulgata, composed of pages where the text was disposed in two columns of 42 lines each, being the letters perfectly aligned.

These were the beginnings of the printing press, known nowadays as the "Gutenberg Galaxy". Humble, like all beginnings, the Gutenberg type printing press spread rapidly throughout Europe, and it started to compete with the traditional systems of book reproduction. The new artisan workshops where the types, plates, and impressions were manufactured, were competing with the so-called scriptorium, rooms in monasteries, where professionals carefully wrote beautiful copies which ended up as books, exquisitely enlightened by illustrations. At that age, two different methods of book production were competing against each other, and finally, the winning method was, of course, the printing press. The copyists had innovated their methods of book production, had implemented the paper as the primary medium, were much faster in the production process, but, despite all of these changes, they couldn't compete with the Gutenberg printing press. This is how a modest device, managed to defeat all kinds of archaic methods of book production, which had monopolized the culture in Europe for centuries. The copyists were gradually disappearing in western Europe and they only subsisted in those places where the use of the printing press was forbidden. The influence of the printing press can be measured by its effects on Renaissance culture. It has been repeated thousands of times that the printing press meant a democratization of knowledge, and which evolved extremely fast over time, and pretty soon, these devices were able to print books at an all-time high speed. Certainly, all of this is true, but it does not explain the democratization of knowledge at all. In the beginning, the printers were relatively uncontrolled workshops, some of them were even small manufacturers that moved from one city to another, and they even printed books without citing the author or the date of the publication. Between 1455 and 1500, more than a thousand print shops were established all over Europe, giving birth to thousands of books of all kinds, and as a result of that, it took place a true burst of knowledge that wasn't subjected to an excessive political control from the religious and civil authorities. In the early 16th century, the situation changed and the public powers tried to take control of these printers.

Anyway, to explain the function of democratization that the printing press was supposed to have, it's important to highlight that if the world hadn't suffered from such cultural convulsions and changes, this function of the printing press hadn't been as effective as it turned to be. Precisely, the 16th century started with one of the most cultural convulsions of all time: The Lutheran Reformation. In 1517, Luther pinned in the door of the church in Wittenberg Palace, 95 theses against the sale of indulgences by the papacy of Rome. Today, this fact would only be mentioned in some textbooks as a simple curiosity, if the printing press hadn't been introduced in Europe, as these theses were rapidly spread through Germany by printing thousands of copies. Luther became a popular and influencing figure thanks to the spread of their thesis and in 1521 the Protestant Reformation (4 years after Luther pinned for the first time his thesis in that door) counted with thousands and thousands of followers in Europe. On that occasion, the printing press served as a vehicle for the Lutheran revolution to consolidate, becoming a major threat to the papacy's authority. The challenge for Lutheran was finished in 1534 when he translated the entire Bible from Latin to German language. In this case, the printing press became one more time, the main character of the story, sending thousands of copies of this Bible in German to families all over the country, trying to consolidate and gain supporters in favor of the Lutheran Reformation and opening the path for the German language to start a vigorous development. The printing press served the Reformation this way and the Reformation reinforced the importance of the printing press.

But the Lutheranism was not the only process where the printing press showed its importance. A cultural phenomenon, perhaps less explosive or less popular than the Lutheran Reformation, was the so-called Scientific Revolution, today considered the process of perspective changes in the understanding of the nature of things, which started in the Renaissance and evolved during the Baroque until consolidating in the Enlightenment. This is what we call now "modern science". The spread of these new scientific ideas, of opinions that were not always desirable for the ecclesiastical powers, only was made possible thanks to Gutenberg's invention, largely improved over the previous decades. The academies and scientific societies had at their disposal printers to be able to print books, annual magazines that would inform about the main scientific discoveries of that year... The flexibility of the printing press added to to the relative independence of the editors. In every city, there was always a printer disposed to print a forbidden book in other places. For example, the work titled Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche: intorno á due nuove scienze attenenti alla mecanica e i movimenti locali, written by Galileo Galilei after he was condemned by the Holy Office, which wanted to "shut up his mouth", was published in Holland, in the city of Leiden. The printing press was the first example that showed how culture can burst and get out of political control, and perhaps, this was the essential lesson of Gutenberg's invention.

Source: Wikipedia

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