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The Invention of the Printing Press

by Antonette Correa about a month ago in history

Through the Lens of Cultural Transformation Theory

The Invention of the Printing Press


For more than five thousand years prior to the invention of the printing press, scribes and clerks in the West wrote private letters, commercial transactions, sacred scriptures, and imperial decrees by hand. Furthermore, China had been employing the use of mechanical print by A.D. 750, and yet the innovation of printing failed to cause major political or socio-economic developments in that region. According to Rogers, an innovation is a new technology or idea presented by an innovative thinker. Although Johan Gutenberg is famous for inventing the printing press, the innovation itself does not have full explanatory scope as to how the invention changed cultures and societies. So, how did Gutenberg’s printing press result in a wild explosion of knowledge and ideas throughout Europe? A combination of people, processes, pressures and philosophies facilitated the transformation of the religious landscape of Europe for centuries to come, steadily causing Christianity to expand into a worldwide religion.

Johan Guttenberg: Innovator

Movable type had been used in China in the eleventh, but the print revolution would not begin until a century later. In the late 1430’s, German goldsmith Johann Gutenberg’s three main contributions to the development of the printing press were the metal type, oil-based ink, and use of rag paper. These individual components were not new, but the innovation was Gutenberg’s idea to combine them, which allowed him to cast dozens of letters separately.

Through experimentation, Gutenberg developed a method of printing with numerous advantages over previous methods, which led to rapid diffusion and adoption of the printing press. First, rag paper was much less expensive than other types of paper being used at the time. Second, Guttenberg’s press could produce about 30 pages per hour, at a rate impossible for a wooden-block carver. Therefore, an experienced type founder could produce up to six hundred pieces of type a day. This resulted in an almost immediate reduction in the cost of books. The opinion leaders were Gutenberg’s investors and the local prince who protected him from the Church, the early adopters were the print shop owners, and the late adopters were the lay people, although in this case the term “late adopters” may not apply due to the rapid rate of diffusion and the consequent explosion in literacy across Europe, which launched an intellectual, religious, and political revolution.

However, if it hadn’t been for the change in usury laws by the Church, things could have gone much differently. By the mid-fourteenth century, the Western notion of the separation of church and state had not been fully conceived, although resentments toward the Church had surely been percolating for some time, perhaps even prior to the crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo. Since then, lay people had been enduring under the absolute power of papal supremacy and dissatisfaction with the Church became ubiquitous. During Gutenberg’s time, it had been recognized across Europe that usury laws were stifling economic development. As a result, the Church modified its position by deciding that a more modest rate of interest charged by creditors needed to be enforced by law. The socio-economic changes to the usury laws allowed investment and encouraged innovation, and intellectual property became far more feasible to develop new technologies and processes. This explains the rapid increase of printing as members of various trades promoted the new method of print.

Gutenberg was in a fortunate position to take advantage of the new incentives. As a son of a businessman in a family constantly fighting bureaucracy, he identified a new market and believed the printing press to be a gift from God. He introduced the first sections of a bible printed on his invention at the Frankfurt trade fair in 1455. Two years later he had completed the first Bible. Despite usury laws and the lower cost of printing per book, developing the printing press had become very expensive for Gutenberg personally because he to borrow significant amounts of money to piece together all these materials through trial and error. Gutenberg was ultimately forced to turn his equipment over to his investors, who sought to make a fortune by printing and selling books to churchmen and the increasingly literate merchant class, the dollar signs in their eyes unintentionally contributing to the transformation of the religious landscape of Europe in the manifestation of the Reformation.

The new technology was highly efficient and enabled printers to create approximately a thousand copies in a single print run. Consequently, simple printed school texts cost only a quarter of the price of hand-copied texts. By the year 1500, the leading book seller in the town of Bologna managed to stock ten thousand copies of texts, treatises, and commentaries, and even street singers sold copies of their songs. Gutenberg’s invention was revolutionary because the same information and ideas were available throughout Europe at virtually the same time, thereby giving a voice and power to the rising impetus of intense dissatisfaction of lay people of an oppressive and corrupt Church bureaucracy, supporting Harrison’s main thesis that culture is a dominant factor affecting change and progress within a society when the idea that a crisis needs fixing propagates itself.

Furthermore, the efforts of monarchs, princes, and wealthy merchants in the cities were concerned with communication and expanding lay education. Although it is unclear whether Gutenberg accidentally stumbled upon a burgeoning new market by the eve of the Reformation, the number of European universities had risen from 20 percent to 70 percent. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, an estimate of literacy suggests that 5 percent of the overall population and 30 percent of the urban population could read by the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Despite previous illiteracy rates, the demand for books had been evident among members of European society by the passing on if ideas from those who could read to those who could not. Literacy rates had already been increasing as the underlying demand for knowledge and religious freedom began to rise to the surface of society, ignited by the invention of the printing press. Furthermore, the thousands of published Reformation pamphlets and sermons soon to be distributed were designed to be read to the illiterate as well as the literate. The invention of the printing press allowed common people to directly challenge the Latin-based knowledge of elites of church and state by making it possible for anyone with a popular following to promote his or her point of view. The printing press spurred a revolution that began to democratize knowledge (Robert, 2009).

Naturally, the rapid spread of literacy, and the printed books and pamphlets, were seen by religious and secular authorities as a challenge to the medieval church’s authority to enforce a common worldview under the control of monarchs and popes. Between 1460 and 1500, approximately 6 million books were printed, more than had been produced throughout the entire Middles Ages. The symbiosis of increasingly widespread literacy and printing, along with the Renaissance intellectual impulses stimulated an unprecedented development of individuality and the formation of individual consciousness, which were previously oppressed. It was the development of individual self-awareness through literacy and the availability of printed Bibles in local languages that initiated the next broad phase in Christianity, leading to vernacularization, Bible translation, and the roots of modern missions.

Martin Luther: Change Agent

By the end of the fifteenth century, printing presses existed in over two hundred cities and towns and thousands of titles were on religious subjects. More books were printed in the forty years between 1460 and 1500 than had been produced by scribes and monks throughout the entire Middle Ages. These developments changed social and economic structures in Europe at the end of the Middles Ages and the early Renaissance by encouraging a flood of new ideas and technologies and facilitating their distribution. The advent of printing had other far-reaching consequences as the preconditions for the process of Reformation were in place.

Referred to by Reeves as “God’s volcano” in his book The Unquenchable Fire (Reeves, 2010), Martin Luther’s feelings of religious discontentment began as a monk at the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany in 1505. To enter a monastery was to enter a world of strict rules, and while training to become a priest, he was terrified of God, obsessing over the countless sins that needed to be absolved. Because of this never-ending stream of thought, he began to desperately seek a solution to the problem of salvation. Private study of the bible was not permitted by monks, but he defiantly appropriated a bible and read it in secret.

Traveling to Rome further intensified Luther’s search for answers, as he observed the magnitude of corruption in the church. He realized that the crux of the offense against God was that if indulgences were being offered, nobody need to sincerely repent of their sins. Furthermore, the outgrowth of the Church’s teaching on sin and penance required confession to a priest which guaranteed forgiveness from God, but left people constantly in spiritual debt in an effort to avoid hell and purgatory. Salvation was restored by penance, not by baptism. Church doctrine taught that outer penance was required to draw near to God. The seven sacraments were meant to be repeated on a regular basis, establishing a widespread institution of guilt, empty works, and outward demonstrations of faith, like the teachers of the Law in New Testament scripture. As a result, private masses became increasingly common, and some priests even made their living by continually healing the departed of any sin for which they were willing to pay, negating the necessity of true and sincere repentance. The Church had the power to deliver suffering souls from punishment by sacrifices of priests, prayers of the saints, alms of close friends, and the fasting of relatives, without a clear lead from either Scripture or tradition.

Additionally, popes and bishops of the Church were despised by the secular ruling classes for overstepping the bounds of authority, dominating not merely spiritual but even temporal affairs. Because of the insatiable appetite for temporal things, “the bishops set themselves up as rulers and legislators, to reduce kings and peoples to intolerable and disgraceful slavery, and consequently become insufferable to all the faithful” (Marsilius of Padua (ca. ca. 1270 – ca. 1342). In the hierarchy of Christendom, the pope stood above councils and even the emperor. The Bible retained its ancient prestige, but it was just one source of authority among many, and its true meaning could only be known by papally approved interpretation.

This system was inherently open to abuses and had been criticized by thinkers long before Luther. Papal indulgence and the abuses of priestly status were vehemently opposed by moralists and reformers. An example of one of the most infamous of worldly prince-bishops was Albrecht of Brandenburg in Germany, who kept a share of alms meant for the poor to pay back bankers who financed his purchase of the archbishopric of Mainz, resulting in a black hole of endless debt and greed. Materialistic Friar Johan Tetzel campaign slogan “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory to heaven springs” clearly illustrates the magnitude of corruption and the political atmosphere at the time (Marshall, 2009). The religious elites exerted absolute power and propagated spiritual darkness over the mass of the people, not to mention the conflicts that arose from within the meticulously systematized bureaucracy as an inherent product of corruption and greed. “The church system had grown to a point where it attracted certain types of people for whom career survival required that they behave often in an unedifying way” (Cameron, 2012).

As Professor at University of Wittenberg, Martin Luther recognized a huge problem within the religious, political and social environment of society in Europe, and his research, produced the famous Ninety-Nine Theses, written in protest to the widespread abuses of the Church and the current worldview in Europe, quickly adopted among a culture severely disgruntled with the status quo, facilitated by the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed the long list of points for disputation to the door of the church near the castle in the Saxon capital of Wittenberg, a moment that reverberated history, the day on which the Protestant Reformation was born, and the Middle Ages died. The printing press gave the people a voice in the Western world in which a powerful aristocracy dominated a peasant society and transformed worldviews, philosophical ideas and religion.

Luther’s protest was only the first strike against the authoritarianism that dictated worldview in many areas of social and intellectual life. Although Luther hadn’t fully conceptualized what would later be known as the Reformation, the movement initiated by the German friar brought an end to corrupt and oppressive rule by the clergy of an institutional Church, a Church that had maintained its power by imposing superstitious and psychologically burdensome beliefs on ordinary worshippers. Therefore, he has been largely credited for the return to the pure sources of Christianity after centuries of man-made traditions. The Reformation triumphed in that it destroyed a cultural inheritance and dismantled structures of community no longer sustained by interconnected world of guilds, brotherhoods, and collective rituals, and allowed individuals access to knowledge, enabling them to think for themselves. Most importantly, the bible, the Word of God, was to be restored to its rightful place as the authority of Christian life.

Luther’s local prince, as an opinion leader, protected him from being executed by church opposition. Because of the political, cultural, and socio-economical preconditions and processes combined with the innovation of the printing press, the ready-made printers were eager to snatch every new work from Luther’s hand because this offered both a guarantee of success and an exceptionally rapid return on investment capital. Luther’s ideas blanketed Europe within months like an unquenchable fire. In Wittenberg alone, there were seven print shops devoted to the writings of Luther and his university colleagues, using a vernacular intended to reach the common people, regardless of education and status. Furthermore, the translation of the bible from Latin to German contributed to the normalization of the German language. Finally, more than two million hymnals, song sheets, and other hymn related materials circulated in sixteenth century Germany.

The Reformation created modern Europe and led to spiritual liberation casting aside the shackles of theological and moral servitude, leaving an indelible mark on the history of the world as an example of religious and social change, teaching us that these two processes are not independent of each other. The Reformation gave way to plural reformations and multiple theological and political movements with their own directions and agendas. There were distinct national, regional, and local reformations, sects and denominations, causing Europe to experience an alternative to the old faith of Catholicism in Protestantism. Catholic reform was naturally shaped by an ongoing confrontation with Protestantism, producing numerous change agents in Europe, like John Calvin, the French Protestant reformer who was only eight years old when the Ninety-Five Theses was written, and William Tyndale, who translated the words of Scripture into English 1522.

Vernacularization: The Process of Change and Diffusion

Book owning was no longer the exclusive preserve of scholars, and soon printers moved from producing solely ancient classics to including lists of works in vernacular languages. The very popularity of printed vernacular texts affected language. William Caxton (1422-1492), for example, began printing books in English in 1472. His pioneering work help standardize modern English, just as the publication of Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible in 1522 would standardize modern German. By the time of Luther’s death, nearly 4,000 editions of the Bible had been printed. Historian Adrian Hastings argued that Bible translation was the source of modern nationhood, defined as a distinct people sharing common languages, customs, laws, and habits, starting with the experience of England and spreading as a model to other countries all over the world. The Bible could finally be interpreted by its readers rather than by educated elites, as spoken vernacular moved from the oral to the written stage, thereby producing a body of literature that cemented a people’s sense of cultural unity. The concept of a nation was defined by the use of the word in the earliest Bible translations. Finally, the vernacularization process laid the foundation for modern missions to spread throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, resulting in the fulfillment of bible prophecy, obedience to the Great Commission, and the worldwide expansion of Christianity. As Martin Luther quoted from Romans 10:17, “Faith comes by hearing.”


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Antonette Correa
Antonette Correa
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