Early in the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, took upon himself the very contemporarily significant task of developing an efficient way of printing. Why, out of all things in the political and socioeconomic sphere, was printing of any contemporary significance?
The Black Death was one of the most crippling epidemics faced by Europe, and uncannily factored in as a major cause behind the rise in need of a new system of printing. The epidemic claimed the lives of several thousands, whose properties were inherited by those who did survive. The surviving population found itself richer than usual, and with money to spare. They invested understandably in new clothes, which meant old ones were thrown out and clothes rags were accumulated in plentiful amounts. Writing was earlier generally done on vellum or parchment, both of which were much more expensive than rags, which were now a cheaper, good substitute as paper. The concept of using rag paper was acquainted and familiarized by nations of the East, notably China, to Europe with the growth in trade.
Additionally, the Black Death cost a majority of the populace in the various monasteries of the Church across Europe. The loss of lives of these priests was significant. The Church was the singularly most powerful authority of Europe before the 15th century. The Pope could sway rulers of the great countries with just his word. As a powerful organization, the Church oversaw the dissemination of education, religious and otherwise, across the continent. Thus, as far as Europe was concerned, the production of books was solely mediated by the Church. It required priests to hand write and copy texts, primary the Bible, which was both time-consuming and laborious. As a good portion of priests succumbed to their unfortunate end due to the fast-spreading epidemic, the major workforce carrying out the production of books was compromised. This meant laborers skilled in copying became expensive. However, as mentioned before, rag paper became readily available. People thus began to eagerly search for an alternative method to carry out copying and printing that was more efficient and cheap than the painfully tedious job of manual labor, given that paper was now cheap.
Gutenberg was certainly well aware of the requirement of an alternative way of printing. Seated in his shack at Mainz, he came up, for the first time ever, with what was to become one of the most revolutionary inventions in human history. Gutenberg’s printing press was a result of several years of innovations in the earlier years- it incorporated the ideas of block printing, except by adapting it using the squeeze press and interchangeable metal types in the machine instead of the plain wooden blocks used originally; oil-based ink, instead of the much less durable water-based ink; and the use of rag paper. The machine carried out printing with remarkable speed and minimum effort. Printing began in full force now and suddenly, one of the biggest means to disseminate information was set in motion.
The invention of the printing press brought with it a number of iconic changes post the 15th Century, including the advent of the Renaissance into Europe. The authority of the Church rapidly dwindled as people could read the Bible themselves now, and realized a lot of what the Church said was information tweaked to suit its own purpose.
Additionally, groups raising awareness against the growing corruption in the Church gained popularity as their views could now be circulated to a great degree. Scientific advancements saw important landmarks and were also published and circulated. Development of transportation through the sea led to establishment of important links with various parts of the world. Liberation of thought became characteristic and the foundations of the rise of Protestantism as opposed to the Roman Catholic system were laid. The spirit of curiosity and awakening of the human spirit, proliferation of art and literature, and recognition of cultural identities were all facilitated by the sheer genius of the inexpensive and relatively simple printing press.
Nearly all important inventions mark the cornerstone of social progress, and the invention of the printing press was undoubtedly one of them. It single handedly made accessible information that was earlier limited to only the elite, rich section of the society, and became the major tool in spreading the entire momentum and spirit of the Renaissance- helping in dismantling the most influential power of the earlier centuries, dispelling the ghost of the Dark Ages, and marking the inception of the new world: The world of reformation and enlightenment.
-Contributed by Tinka Dubey
Picture Credits: matbuu.com