2 — The Textbook of History

Indulging in Print

Sometime around 1450, in the city of Mainz in Germany, Johann Gutenberg (c1400-1468) took out a mortgage from a rich goldsmith for the development of a printing press which would use movable type. This press was probably used for printing a letter of indulgence issued by Nicholas V, dated 1451. It is ironic that the oldest dated and printed document of which copies exist, is a letter of indulgence. Sixty-six years later it was Luther’s printed attack against indulgences, distributed throughout Europe, which sparked the Reformation.

By 1470 use of the printing press had begun to spread throughout Germany and into Holland. A letter by Guillaume Fichet (1433?-1480) of Paris speaks of this amazing invention:

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. [1]

Later Erasmus, in the ecstasy of his sales, would call the printing press the “greatest of all discoveries.”  [2]

But not everyone was as enthusiastic as Fichet or Erasmus. “In the Middle Ages every monastery was its own publishing house, and a monk with writing desk, ink, and parchment was his own publisher.”  [3] The livelihood of monasteries was threatened, and copyists protested that printing would deprive them of income. Some of the elite in society (who could afford hand-copied books) saw the printing press as a mechanical vulgarization and feared that it would cause a reduction in the value of their manuscript libraries. Leaders in Church and State were concerned about the printing press because they saw in it a possible means of spreading subversive ideas. [4]

The introduction of the printing press broke the monopoly of the monasteries as the publishing houses of Europe. It also changed forever the nature of publishing. Until then, publishing was understood to be the preservation of the past.

Their whole stock-in-trade was what the modern publisher would call a backlist. The book was not expected to be, nor dared it be, a vehicle for new ideas carrying messages from contemporaries to contemporaries. Instead it was a device to preserve and amplify the treasured revolving fund of literary works. [5]

The age of the copyists was not the age of the author. Writers would not always give credit to other writers with a quote; and when they did, it was practically impossible to give a clear indication of the source of the quote. There were no standards for publishing; for chapter, section, and page numbering; or for making citations. In addition, writers who were composing original material were often reluctant to make a claim of originality. They did not want to take the risk of being blamed for innovation. “In the great age of manuscript books, anonymity was dictated by technology, orthodoxy, and prudence.”  [6]

However, with the introduction of the mass production of books, paradoxically, the product of the individual became more distinct, and authorship became prized. “As never before, the individual ‘author’ was encouraged in his efforts at individuality and could be rewarded for his peculiar product. Originality became both respectable and profitable.”  [7]

The copyists of the monastic system were highly venerated during the Middle Ages for their preservation of the past through copying  [8] and also for their prodigious memories. [9] But their status fell with the introduction of the printed book. Copying became an inefficient and expensive way to publish. And the printed book became “a new warehouse of memory, superior in countless ways to the internal invisible warehouse in each person.”  [10] Memorization became unnecessary, and soon drifted into the area of ‘mere stunts’. [11]

The monasteries were also held in wide respect for their copy rooms and libraries. This veneration of books was carried over into the Renaissance movement in Europe, with its emphasis on the classics. Around 1400 the assembly of large libraries became a popular past-time. Later significant examples include the Medicean Library (founded around 1450) and the Vatican Library (founded in 1453). A scriptorium and library were considered to be essential parts of any well equipped school or monastery. [12] It is estimated that in the libraries of Europe, before 1500 there were 30,000 to 35,000 titles in 20 million copies;  [13] less than one book per person. Seventy percent of these were in Latin.

The introduction of the printing press changed the nature of publishing by moving it out of the hands of the monks and into the hands of entrepreneurs motivated as much by profit as by any other factor. Printing also moved books from secure libraries into the hands of the public and diminished the prestige of the monks as the guardians of the world’s knowledge. The portability of the book broke the monopoly of the libraries, almost all of which were under the control of the Church. Books no longer had to be chained to reading cubicles, and lay and clergy could have libraries in their own homes. These changes set the stage for social, political and religious reform which rocked Europe for the next 400 years.

Vernacular Society

The printing press was a principal force in the movement of Europe out of the Middle Ages into the era of nationalism. “Of the many unforeseen consequences of typography, the emergence of nationalism is, perhaps, the most familiar. Political unification of populations by means of vernacular and language groupings was unthinkable before printing turned each vernacular into an extensive mass medium.”  [14]

Medieval vernaculars had changed considerably in the four hundred years before the invention of the printing press. By the seventeenth century, vernaculars across Europe had crystallised. [15] Spelling and grammar became uniform,  [16] and a simple, clear literary prose began to appear. [17] “The triumph of the printed book soon brought the triumph of the languages of the marketplace. ... Vernacular literatures in print shaped thinking in two quite disparate ways. They democratized, but they also provincialized.”  [18]

The ideas and dialogue which were once confined to the few, became the common property of the many. New ideas could be thrust upon men in masses, and multiply. This broke the old barriers and opened new horizons. [19] “Print, as it were, translated the dialogue of shared discourse into packaged information, a portable commodity.”  [20] As these new ideas were absorbed, a new homogeneity arose around the printed word. De Tocqueville (1805-1859) explained how the printed word “achieving cultural saturation in the eighteenth century, had homogenized the French nation.”  [21] Similarly William Cobbett (1763-1835) in his A Year’s Residence in America, written in 1795, speaks of everyone being a reader, able to converse on any subject. “Book culture had created the new man in America.”  [22]

This homogeneity, which was fostered by typography, affected every area of life. “The uniformity and repeatability of the book ... created modern markets and the price system”  [23] and invaded the arts, science, industry, politics and religion.

With print Europe experienced its first consumer phase, for not only is print a consumer medium and commodity, but it taught men how to organize all other activities on a systematic lineal basis. It showed men how to create markets and national armies. For the hot medium of print enabled men to see their vernaculars for the first time, and to visualize national unity and power in terms of vernacular bounds. [24]

The press also had a daemonic power to open the world and diffuse knowledge. ... Merely by its power to multiply the product, the printing press would be a champion of freedom, providing myriad unstoppable channels for dangerous facts and ideas, sending out countless items which could not be traced or withdrawn. Once the printing press had done its work, there was no force on earth, no law or edict, that could retrieve the message. [25]

The Press of Politics

The feudal system of the Middle Ages was formed around oral communication. But the printing press supported the introduction of new forms of social organization. Writers furnished the population with new ideas, and instilled in them a new temperament and disposition. [26] As these ideas took hold, political change became inevitable. National cultures arose around the formalized vernacular languages, and the old systems of government were replaced with new ones.

To give you some idea of the impact of the printing press on political systems I have selected the following quotations:

The effect of the discovery of printing was evident in the savage religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Application of power to communication industries hastened the consolidation of vernaculars, the rise of nationalism, revolution, and new outbreaks of savagery in the twentieth century. [27]

From the writings of Milton, Sidney, Harrington, and especially John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, the colonists drew moral support in their disputes with the homeland in the Revolutionary era. [28]

In early 1776 an able and persuasive Englishman, Thomas Paine (1737-1809), published a pamphlet at Philadelphia with the title of Common Sense, which had an enormous effect on public opinion. ... It converted thousands to the necessity of separation. The turn-over of opinion, once it had begun, was rapid. [29]

Paine’s words were intended for mass appeal. Common Sense came at the psychological moment, and its trumpet call to independence shook the waverers and forced them into line. With a sure instinct Paine touched the deepest emotions of Americans by appealing to them to turn their backs on the outworn institutions of the Old World and to create in America a new society. [30]

The French Revolution [was] long prepared by the homogenizing print process ... [31]

The citizen armies of Cromwell and Napoleon were the ideal manifestations of the new technology. [32]

Napoleon (1769-1821) is on record for saying that “three hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”  [33]

The Printed Word

Immediately after its invention, the printing press was used primarily by the Church. Most of the readers were in the Church hierarchy, and their books were the primary items requiring publication. [34] The Bible in Latin was the first book to be printed with the new invention of movable type. It appeared in 1456 from two presses. The Gutenberg Bible (or Mazarin Bible) of 42 lines per page was actually published by Fust to whom Gutenberg had surrendered his press and prepared plates, because of bankruptcy. Gutenberg himself published a 36-line Bible known by a number of names (Bamberg Bible, Schelhorn’s Bible or Pfister’s Bible), apparently in the same year.

Thereafter, the printing press was used to print formal publications of the Church such as indulgences and small books to aid private and family devotion. Many of these were in the vernacular and were of a simple evangelical nature. The printing of the Bible and these devotional books was a significant aspect of the means God used to bring about the Reformation. One philosopher has stated that “there probably would have been no surging revolt against the dead forms of Christianity, had it not been for the invention of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century.”  [35]

When Martin Luther issued his Ninety-Five Theses, printing was already an established technology. However, Luther did not yet appreciate the value of this medium. He took no steps to have his theses published. He was simply posting his theses for the purpose of debate among the local scholars and leaders of the Church. “But others surreptitiously translated the theses into German and gave them to the press. In short order they became the talk of Germany.”  [36] Because of the printing press “the Ninety-Five Theses had a circulation which was, for the time, unprecedented. They were known throughout Germany in a little over a fortnight; they were read over Western Europe within four weeks.”  [37]

Luther quickly came to realize the value of the printing press. By February of 1519 Johann Froben (1460?-1527) a printer in Basel, reported that he had never seen copies of any publication so quickly exhausted as those which he had prepared of some of Luther’s works. Six hundred copies had been sent to France and Spain, and Zwingli in Switzerland had ordered several hundred copies for distribution among the people. [38] Bainton, a biographer of Luther,  [39] indicates the extent to which the printing press played a role in the furtherance of the Reformation:

Feverish missionary activity was to win most of northern Germany within a decade of the Reform. This success was achieved through a wave of propaganda unequalled hitherto and in its precise form never repeated. The primary tools were the tract and the cartoon. The number of pamphlets issued in Germany in the four years 1521 through 1524 exceeds the quantity for any other four years of German history until the present. [40]

Will Durant also indicates the power of the printing press for the cause of the Reformation. He, of course, had a negative perspective on the events of that period, and had no love for the spread of the Gospel message. Nevertheless, he could not deny the importance of the printing press, and reported its use by Luther:

Printing fell in with his [Luther’s] purposes as a seemingly providential innovation, which he used with inexhaustible skill; he was the first to make it an engine of propaganda and war. ... Printing was the Reformation; Gutenberg made Luther possible. [41]

In the early decades after the invention of printing, it was a risky business to commit one’s entire livelihood to so new a technology. [42] Gutenberg went bankrupt at least twice while attempting to introduce this technology, and printers suffered at times the confiscation of their equipment at the hands of an unsupportive Church.

Printers and those making use of the printing press were adventurers willing to take a risk for a good cause. They understood the value of applying this technology as a means of reform and as a means of presenting the Gospel. They used the printing press as the public address system of their age. [43] They amplified the small quiet voice of individual monks and clergy into a voice of thunder.

Printing ... 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 rationalists’ appeal from the Gospels to reason. It ended the clerical monopoly of learning, the priestly control of education. ... It facilitated the international communication and co-operation of scientists. [44]


[1] Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Part 6: The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from, Wyclif to Calvin, 1300 - 1564 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954), p. 159. Back

[2] Ibid., p. 160. Back

[3] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), p. 493. Back

[4] Durant, op. cit. Back

[5] Boorstin, op. cit., p. 493. Back

[6] Ibid. Back

[7] Ibid., p. 531. Back

[8] Ibid., p. 494. Back

[9] Ibid., p. 482-484. Back

[10] Ibid., p. 485. Back

[11] Ibid. Back

[12] Ibid., p. 495. Back

[13] Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), p. 206. Back

[14] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man (New York: Signet Books, 1964), p. 161. Back

[15] McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 232. Back

[16] Ibid, p. 231. Back

[17] Hiroshi Inose and John R. Pierce, Information Technology and Civilization (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1984), p. 5. Back

[18] Boorstin, op. cit., p. 517. Back

[19] Thomas M. Lindsay, A History of The Reformation, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1907), p. 45. Back

[20] McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 164. Back

[21] McLuhan, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man, p. 29. Back

[22] McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 171. Back

[23] Ibid., p. 164. Back

[24] Ibid., p. 138. Back

[25] Boorstin, op. cit., p. 271. Back

[26] McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 219. Back

[27] Harold A. Innis, The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951), p. 29. Back

[28] Michael Kraus, The United States to 1865 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1959), p. 208. Back

[29] H. G. Wells, The Outline of History (New York: Garden City, 1920), p. 839. Back

[30] Kraus, op. cit., p. 216. Back

[31] McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 162. Back

[32] Ibid., p. 222. Back

[33] McLuhan, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man, p. 28. Back

[34] Klaus Bockmuel, Books: God’s Tools in the History of Salvation (Vancouver: Regent College, translated 1986), pp. 10-11. Back

[35] Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason and Revelation (Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 1986), p. 44. Back

[36] Roland H. Bainton, Here I stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), p. 63. Back

[37] Lindsay, op. cit., p. 230. Back

[38] Bainton, op. cit., p. 93. Back

[39] Bainton, op. cit. Back

[40] Ibid., p. 238. Back

[41] Durant, op. cit., p. 368. Back

[42] Boorstin, op. cit., p. 515. Back

[43] McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 197. Back

[44] Durant, op. cit., p. 160. Back

Copyright © James R. Hughes, Toronto, Ontario, 1997

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