What put an end to the Middle Ages? Many causes, operating through three centuries: the failure of the Crusades; the spreading acquaintance of renascent Europe with Islam; the disillusioning capture of Constantinople; the resurrection of classic pagan culture; the expansion of commerce through the voyages of Henry the Navigator’s fleet, and Columbus, and Vasco da Gama; the rise of the business class, which financed the centralization of monarchical government; the development of national states challenging the supernational authority of the popes; the successful revolt of Luther against the papacy; printing.

Before Gutenberg nearly all education had been in the hands of the Church. Books were costly; copying was laborious and sometimes careless. Few authors could reach a wide audience until they were dead; they had to live by pedagogy, or by entering a monastic order, or by pensions from the rich or benefices from the Church. They received little or no payment from those who published their works; and even if one publisher paid them they had no copyright protection, except occasionally by a papal grant. Libraries were numerous but small; monasteries, cathedrals, colleges, and some cities had modest collections, seldom more than 300 volumes; the books were usually kept inside the walls, and some were chained to lecterns or desks. Charles V of France had a library renowned for its size—910 volumes; Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, had 600; the library of Christ Church Priory at Canterbury was probably as large as any outside of Islam, having some 2,000 volumes in 1300. The best publicized library in England was that of Richard de Bury St. Edmunds, who wrote affectionately of his books in The Philobiblon (1345), and made them complain of their maltreatment by “that two-legged beast called woman,” who insisted on exchanging them for fine linen or silk.26

As schools multiplied and literacy rose, the demand for books increased. The business classes found literacy useful in the operations of industry and trade; women of the middle and upper classes escaped, through reading, into a world of compensatory romance; by 1300 the time had passed when only the clergy could read. It was this rising demand, even more than the increased supply of paper and the development of an oily ink,27 that led to Gutenberg. Moslems had brought paper manufacture to Spain in the tenth century, to Sicily in the twelfth; it passed into Italy in the thirteenth, into France in the fourteenth; the paper industry was a hundred years old in Europe when printing came. In the fourteenth century, when linen clothing became customary in Europe, castoff linens provided cheap rags for paper; the cost of paper declined, and its readier availability co-operated with the extension of literacy to offer a material and market for printed books.

Printing itself, as imprinting, was older than Christianity. The Babylonians had printed letters or symbols upon bricks, the Romans and many others upon coins, potters upon their wares, weavers upon cloths, bookbinders upon book covers; any ancient or medieval dignitary used printing when he stamped documents with his seal. Similar methods had been employed in the production of maps and playing cards. Block printing—by blocks of wood or metal engraved with words, symbols, or images—goes back in China and Japan to the eighth century, probably beyond; the Chinese in this way printed paper money in or before the tenth century. Block printing appeared in Tabriz in 1294, in Egypt toward 1300; but the Moslems preferred calligraphy to printing, and did not serve in this case, as in so many others, to carry cultural developments from the East to the West.

Typography—printing with separate and movable type for each character or letter—was used in China as early as 1041. In 1314 Wang Chên employed nearly 60,000 movable wooden type characters to print a book on agriculture;28 he had tried metal type first, but had found that it did not take or hold ink as readily as wood. Movable type, however, offered little advantage or convenience to a language that had no alphabet, but had 40,000 separate characters; consequently block printing remained customary in China till the nineteenth century. In 1403 a Korean emperor printed a large number of volumes from movable metal type; characters were engraved in hard wood, molds of porcelain paste were made from these models, and in these molds metal type were cast.

In Europe printing from movable type may have developed first in Holland; according to Dutch traditions not traceable beyond 1569, Laurens Coster of Haarlem printed a religious manual from movable metal type in 1430; but the evidence is inconclusive.29Nothing further is heard of movable type in Holland till 1473, when Germans from Cologne set up a press in Utrecht. But these men had learned the art in Mainz.

Johann Gutenberg was born there of a prosperous family about 1400. His father’s name was Gensfleisch—Gooseflesh; Johann preferred his mother’s maiden name. He lived most of his first forty years in Strasbourg, and appears to have made experiments there in cutting and casting metal type. Toward 1448 he became a citizen of Mainz. On August 22, 1450, he entered into a contract with Johann Fust, a rich goldsmith, by which he mortgaged his printing press to Fust for a loan of 800 guilders, later raised to 1,600. A letter of indulgence issued by Nicholas V in 1451 was probably printed by Gutenberg; several copies exist, bearing the oldest printed date, 1454.30 In 1455 Fust sued Gutenberg for repayment; unable to comply, Gutenberg surrendered his press. Fust carried on the establishment with Peter Schöffer, who had been employed by Gutenberg as typesetter. Some believe that it was Schöffer who had by this time developed the new tools and technique of printing: a hard “punch” of engraved steel for each letter, number, and punctuation mark, a metal matrix to receive the punches, and a metal mold to hold the matrix and letters in line.

In 1456 Gutenberg, with borrowed funds, set up another press. From this he issued, in that year or the next, what has been generally considered his first type-printed book, the famous and beautiful “Gutenberg Bible”*—a majestic folio of 1,282 large double-columned pages. In 1462 Mainz was sacked by the troops of Adolf of Nassau; the printers fled, scattering the new art through Germany. By 1463 there were printers in Strasbourg, Cologne, Basel, Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Ulm. Gutenberg, one of the fugitives, settled in Eltville, where he resumed his printing. He struggled painfully through one financial crisis after another, until Adolf gave him (1465) a benefice yielding a protective income. Some three years later he died.

Doubtless his use of movable type would have been developed by others had he never been born; it was an obvious demand of the times; this is true of most inventions. A letter written in 1470 by Guillaume Fichet of Paris suggests how enthusiastically the invention was welcomed: “There has been discovered in Germany a wonderful new method for the production of books, and those who have mastered the art are taking it from Mainz out into the world.... . The light of this discovery will spread from Germany to all parts of the earth.”31 But not all welcomed it. Copyists protested that printing would destroy their means of livelihood; aristocrats opposed it as a mechanical vulgarization, and feared that it would lower the value of their manuscript libraries; statesmen and clergy distrusted it as a possible vehicle of subversive ideas. It made its triumphant way nevertheless. In 1464 two Germans set up a press in Rome; in or before 1469 two Germans opened a printing shop in Venice; in 1470 three Germans brought the art to Paris; in 1471 it reached Holland, in 1472 Switzerland, in 1473 Hungary, in 1474 Spain, in 1476 England, in 1482 Denmark, in 1483 Sweden, in 1490 Constantinople. Nuremberg with the Koberger family, Paris with the Étiennes, Lyons with Dolet, Venice with Aldus Manutius, Basel with Amerbach and Froben, Zurich with Froschauer, Leiden with the Elzevirs, became humming hives of printing and publishing. Soon half the European population was reading as never before, and a passion for books became one of the effervescent ingredients of the Reformation age. “At this very moment,” writes a Basel scholar to a friend, “a whole wagon load of classics, of the best Aldine editions, has arrived from Venice. Do you want any? If you do, tell me at once, and send the money, for no sooner is such a freight landed than thirty buyers rise up for each volume, merely asking the price, and tearing one another’s eyes out to get hold of them.”32 The typographical revolution was on.

To describe all its effects would be to chronicle half the history of the modern mind. Erasmus, in the ecstasy of his sales, called printing the greatest of all discoveries, but perhaps he underestimated speech, fire, the wheel, agriculture, writing, law, even the lowly common noun. Printing replaced esoteric manuscripts with inexpensive texts rapidly multiplied, in copies more exact and legible than before, and so uniform that scholars in diverse countries could work with one another by references to specific pages of specific editions. Quality was often sacrificed to quantity, but the earliest printed books were in many cases models of art in typography and binding. Printing published—i.e., made available to the public—cheap manuals of instruction in religion, literature, history, and science; it became the greatest and cheapest of all universities, open to all. It did not produce the Renaissance, but it paved the way for the Enlightenment, for the American and French revolutions, for democracy. It made the Bible a common possession, and prepared the people for Luther’s appeal from the popes to the Gospels; later it would permit the rationalist’s appeal from the Gospels to reason. It ended the clerical monopoly of learning, the priestly control of education. It encouraged the vernacular literatures, for the large audience it required could not be reached through Latin. It facilitated the international communication and co-operation of scientists. It affected the quality and character of literature by subjecting authors to the purse and taste of the middle classes rather than to aristocratic or ecclesiastical patrons. And, after speech, it provided a readier instrument for the dissemination of nonsense than the world has ever known until our time.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!