Updated: Jul 22, 2021
Today in 1468 Johannes Gutenberg combined various elements, of movable type, oil based ink and a mechanical system allowed the mass production of printed books. This technological leap forward, the Printing Press, ushered in an era of mass communication which permanently altered the structure of society. Enthusiastically adopted first by different religious groups we look at the ramifications for the Reformation and beyond.
Today in Germany Johannes Gutenberg invented the Printing press. This technological revolution is now considered to be a milestone of the second millennium, adopted enthusiastically by the cultural geniuses of the Renaissance, the passionate partisans on both sides of the Reformation, free thinkers during the Enlightenment and pioneering scientists during the Scientific Revolution. Gutenberg had been the first European to use movable type twenty years before. He invented a process for mass-producing movable type; mechanising the process, adjustable moulds; the use of oil-based ink for printing books. Guttenberg managed to combine all of these elements into a practical and economical system that allowed the mass production of printed books. One of the first profit-making enterprises of the new press was the printing of thousands of indulgences for the Catholic church. The sale and in some cases abuse of these indulgences was a trigger which lead to the reformation. It also opened a new market for printers as one of the drives of the reformers was to make the Bible more widely accessible and release it from the control of clerics. So a few years after printing indulgences, he completed his 42-line Bible, known as the Gutenberg Bible. About 180 copies were printed, most on paper and some on vellum.
The arrival of Guttenberg’s press ushered in an era of mass communication which permanently altered the structure of society. Ideas could now be spread much more effectively, including revolutionary ideas, this transcended borders, threatened the power of political and religious authorities but also lead to a the increase in literacy and an emerging middle class. The monopoly of the literate elite on education and learning was fading, Latin as the lingua franca was undermined by a proliferation of vernacular print, and the increasing cultural self-awareness of its people led to the rise of proto-nationalism eagerly seized upon by the German protestant princes who saw the death of the holy Roman Empire. His work was appreciated by all sides, this is a letter written by the future Pope Pius II - All that has been written to me about that marvellous man seen is true. I have not seen complete Bibles but only a number of quires of various books of the Bible. The script was very neat and legible, not at all difficult to follow—your grace would be able to read it without effort, and indeed without glasses."
Guttenberg himself was swept up in the changes that he had turbocharged. He was involved in legal cases, bankrupted at one point, and exiled. Each time he was able to restart another press or fall back on his families trade as goldsmiths. It may come as a surprise that Gutenberg was not financially successful in his lifetime, it maybe that like some entrepreneurs he wasn’t an astute businessman but by the end of his life, the importance of his work was recognised, and he was given the title Hofmann (gentleman of the court) by Archbishop von Nassau. This honour included a stipend, as well as 2,180 litres of grain and 2,000 litres of wine tax-free. He died in 1468 and was buried in the Franciscan church at Mainz, which indicates that he remained a Catholic through all the turmoil. Unfortunately, the church and cemetery were later destroyed, and Gutenberg's grave is now lost. However his legacy was not, in fact you could argue that you are listening to his story today because of another revolution in mass communication, the Internet. Standing on the shoulders of giants!