The Printing Press

William Manchester describes it as an “epochal invention” and “one of the great movements in the history of Western civilization. (95). “One of the most important technological innovations of Western civilization”, writes Jackson J. Spielvogel.   James McClellan and Harold Dorn write that this invention incited a “communications revolution” that  “altered the cultural landscape of early modern Europe.” (224)

 In 1453, craftsman Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468) invented the printing press, which led to the mass production of printed works and incited massive change in Europe and the world.   How did Gutenberg achieve this?  What were some of the immediate and long-term effects of one of the most seminal inventions in human history? 

Before Gutenberg. For centuries, Europeans copied written works by hand, spending months transcribing works such as the Bible.  China, the inventors of paper, used more advanced copying technologies.  Printers began carving pages of text into woodblocks (woodblock printing) in the eighth or ninth century.  According to one Jesuit priest who lived in China in the late 16th century, this process could make 1500 copies per day – a much faster process than transcribing! (Headrick, 84).

Around 1045, Chinese inventor Phi Sheng created moveable (also known as interchangeable) type, using wax to attach individual ceramic characters to an iron frame. (Headrick 85)  Sheng’s invention allowed printers to rearrange symbols to create different texts. Woodblock printing, however, remained more practical, efficient, and cheaper than movable type printing. Chinese writing includes thousands of pictograph characters, which made arranging individual ceramic symbols an extremely time-consuming task. (143)

Movable-type, however, could be effective if applied to a writing system with a manageable number of symbols.

How did Gutenberg do it? Gutenberg allegedly created the printing press independent of Asian influence. There is some debate around this view.  We know, however, he used and modified recent inventions while adding his innovations.   Oil-based ink, already used to decorate textiles, offered a stable alternative for paper printing.  Gutenberg’s unique contribution is his development of moveable metal type.  He created steel signatures for each number, letter, and punctuation mark, then attached these symbols to a lead base and assembled them in a type tray. ( Parker, 580)  Next, he spread ink on the letters, lay a sheet of paper (or other material) over the letters, then used the press (adapted from the screw press used with wine presses and other applications) to impress the arranged symbols on the sheet. Symbols could be rearranged, reused and easily replaced, making for a relatively inexpensive process.  (Parker, 580) The twenty-six character Phoenician alphabet made movable-type more practical than the more elaborate Chinese lettering system. 

By modern standards, this seems like a tedious process.  Gutenberg, however, took a big step in mechanizing a process that enabled mass production of printed materials.  In doing so, he facilitated significant change in Europe and the world.     

Decentralizing Knowledge: The Spread of Ideas and Vernacular Languages. What were some of these changes? In practical terms, the printing press allowed people to mass-produce duplicate copies of written documents.  It offered a more accurate process than transcribing simple human errors.  Now, people could create identical copies of written materials such as pamphlets, posters, books, and sermons. 

Some lauded the invention as a victory for the spread of literacy and ideas.  Others feared it as a means of fomenting division.  The Holy Roman Empire, the overseer of a united Christendom, saw the rampant spread of printing as a threat to Christian unity.  As William Manchester points out, “Until late in the fifteenth century, most books and nearly all education had been controlled by the Church.” (Manchester, 95)   In part, this control entailed the exclusive use of Latin while discouraging and even outlawing vernacular languages such as German.  

The diffusion of knowledge, however, could not be controlled.  The production of printed material for the time is staggering.  By 1500 more than two hundred towns had print shops, and “almost 40,000 recorded editions of books had been published in 14 European languages, with Germany and Italy accounting for two-thirds. (Manchester, 92).  The Giolito Press in Italy, for instance, published numerous plays, poems and other works in Italian. 

These numbers increased exponentially in the following centuries.  Printing also made it easier to circulate ideas and opinions, including those that challenged traditional authority. Martin Luther’s famous 95 Theses (1521), criticizing the Catholic Churches sale of indulgences, were printed in German and widely circulated, driving the Protestant Revolution and Christian. 

Classical Literature and the Renaissance. Written works increasingly included a mix of religious and secular topics.  Gutenberg’s Bible sold well, as did Latin and Greek classics.  Printers noticed the growing appetite for classical works and strove to feed it.  Aldus Manutius, for instance, “set up the Aldine Press in Venice in 1495 to specialize in Greek, Latin, and early Italian classics.” (Parker 220) Aldus also published Greek dictionaries and grammar books. Historians identify an increasingly literate Europe with greater access to these classics leading to the classically inspired Renaissance.

Conclusion. Gutenberg’s printing press fostered a communications revolution that profoundly impacted Europe and the world.  More people learned to read and had greater access to a wider variety of ideas.  This diffusion of information – religious documents, philosophy, children’s books, science, classical texts – encouraged diversity while undermining the continent’s unity based on one language (Latin) and Catholicism’s pervasive belief system.  Printing also enabled papermaking, print shops, typefounding, publishing, writing, and other print-related industries.   

Gutenberg’s printing press certainly ranks among the top developments in the history of communications and, for some historians, it stands as one of the most outstanding achievements of all time. 

Selected Bibliography.

Cahill, Thomas.  Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World.  New York: Anchor Books, 2014.

Headrick, Daniel R.  Technology: A World History.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2009

Manchester, William.  A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance.  New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.

McClellan, James and Dorn, Harold.  Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.  

Newman, Garfield.  Echoes from the Past: World History to the 16th Century. McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 2001. 

Parker, Philip. World History: From the Ancient World to the Information Age. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017.

Spielvogel, Jackson J.  Western Civilization, Volume B: 1300-1815. Eight Edition. Boston: Wadsworth, 2012

Europe and The Black Death: An Introduction (1347-51)

In 1347, a merchant ship landed on the shores of Italy, harbouring a plague that would wipe out twenty-five to fifty percent of Europe’s population over the next three years.  Historians later referred to these plagues as the Black Death, the most devastating natural disaster in European history.

What was the Black Death? How did it spread so far and so quickly?  How did people react to the destruction it wrought? We will address these questions in the broadest sense, focusing on the European context.  We will address the plagues’ impact on different parts of the world, its short and long-term impact and other aspects in other blogs.  For now, let’s explore what happened in Europe. 

What was The Black Death? How did people get infected?Norman Davies aptly described the Black Death as a “devastating brew of three related diseases – bubonic plague, septicaemic plague, and pneumonic plague. (Davies, 409)  The most common, the bubonic plague – Yersinia pestis – often resided in rats.  Humans became infected when fleas bit rats then bit humans.  Symptoms included bleeding under the skin, swelling of the lymph nodes, delirium and fever. The hardest hit were children, the sickly, and the elderly. Still, the plagues did not discriminate, readily killing off kings, queens, the aristocracy – everyone. 

Origins. How did it Spread? Historians estimate the pandemic originated in Central Asia in the 1330s, first infecting the Mongols who controlled many trades and travel routes.  Rats accompanied the Mongols, and merchant travellers along land and water routes in the early 1300s spreading the disease to faraway places.  By 1347 it reached Constantinople.  Egypt became infected a year later.   That same year it reached Europe when a Genoese merchant brought it from Caffer to Sicily. It spread into southern France and Spain, Germany, France and the Low countries and England by 1348.   Eastern Europe and Russia succumbed by 1351.

The Black Death hit South Europe much harder than North Europe.  Southern trading centers in Italy and Spain, with their numerous seaports, suffered tremendous losses.  Rats readily travelled on ships and with food imports such as grains.      Scandinavian counties, by some accounts, lost a relatively low 20 percent of their population.   Urban centers, with dense populations and poor sanitation, attracted rats and encouraged infection. Stacked bodies lined the streets of Florence.  Venice lost 600 a day to the plagues.  Mass graves – plague piles – littered cities and towns.  

All in all, the Black Death devastated Europe.  Historians estimate that between 1347-1351, the plague claimed 25 to 50% of Europe’s Population- 14 to 38  of 75 million people. (Spielvogel, 308)

Contemporary Explanations and Reactions.  Only some six hundred years later did we understand how the Black Death infected people. So, how did contemporaries perceive the devastation? Many saw the Black Death as an expression of God’s wrath – a punishment.  Some people responded with pious acts, offering more sermons and bolstering daily prayer routines. Some extremists performed public penances like self-flagellation, whipping themselves bloody as they walked city and town streets.  

Scientists offered explanations. Some contemporaries believed the plagues to be subterranean gases released into the atmosphere by earthquakes and volcanoes.  Others looked to astrology for answers. The University of Paris pointed to a conjunction of planets – Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter, on March 20, 1345 – as the instigator.

Like other crises, pandemics provide fodder for scapegoating and conspiracy theories.  Target varied, but it tended to be those in the minority or deemed an “Other.” Lepers were blamed and abused, along with beggars and gypsies.  Jews became the most frequent target.  Somehow, a story circulated that Jews instigated the Black Death by poisoning wells.  Nonsensical, of course, especially considering that the Black Death killed Jews as readily as anyone else.  Regardless, Jew suffered torture, execution, and exile.  “By 1351, Thomas Cahill writes, “more than two hundred Jewish towns and urban neighbourhoods across Europe had been obliterated. (Cahill, 23)

Conclusion. The short and long-term impact of the Black Death is difficult to determine. The bubonic and pneumonic plague continued to afflict Europeans well into the eighteenth century, but its devastation hit the high mark in the fourteenth century. A high death rate led to labour shortages, giving workers more leverage to demand higher wages and better conditions from landowners.  Landowners resisted and pushed back, resulting in widespread revolts.

Some historians see the Black Death as causing the dissolution of the feudal system in Europe.  Other historians argue that the pandemic accelerated an already declining Medieval institution.  Religiosity, by some accounts, rose even as the institution of the Church began to wane.

Whatever conclusions historians draw, they agree that the Black Death is Europe’s most devastating natural disaster. 

Selected Bibliography

Cahill, Thomas.  Heretics and Heroes. New York: Anchor Books, 2014.

Davies, Norman. Europe: A History.  London: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Martin, Sean. A Short History of Disease. Olague, Poxes, and Civilization. 

Mee Jr. Charles L.  The Black Death.  New Word City, Inc. 2012.

Snowden. Frank S.  Epidemic and Society From the Black Death to the Present.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. 

Spielvogel, Jackson J.  Western Civilization. Volume B: 1300-1815.  Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012. 

Zophy, Joseph W. A Short History of the Renaissance and Reformation Europe. New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc., 2003.