Johannes Gutenberg is considered to be the inventor of modern Western printing around 1454. Before him, it was the Chinese who first explored the concept of printing in order to simplify the use of their ideographic script. In the 15th century, Gutenberg developed a means of accelerating the speed of reproduction with two inventions: movable metal type and the hand press. From then on, printing contributed greatly to the rapid spread of knowledge, thought and ideas during the Renaissance. This invention allowed millions of books to spread throughout the world. The famous German, who died in 1468 in poverty, never made a profit from his invention.
Books before Gutenberg
Men have always looked for the best way to preserve written documents and have used clay tablets, papyrus and parchment in turn. The first books appeared in the first centuries of our era, when the Romans bound small wooden tablets covered with wax, which they later replaced with sheets of parchment. Folded several times and sewn together, these sheets of parchment revolutionised the way books were written.
In the 2nd century AD, the Chinese developed and widely spread the art of printing texts. The printing of drawings and images on cloth preceded the printing of words in China by at least a century. The invention of paper in 105 and the expansion of the Buddhist religion encouraged the development of printing in China. The traditional writing materials in the Western world, papyrus and vellum, were not suitable for printing. Papyrus was too fragile to be used as a printing surface, while vellum, a thin surface made of animal skins, was too expensive. Paper, on the other hand, was relatively strong and cheap.
As early as the tenth century, printing houses were founded in Asia. They first used the woodcutting technique, then from the 14th century onwards the movable metal type.
In the Middle Ages, knowledge was disseminated solely through the workshops of copyist monks, who “edited” numerous volumes for the high aristocracy, churches and monasteries. The first booksellers appeared in the 12th century and began to sell the monks’ work themselves, after receiving permission from the university authorities. In the 15th century, the demand for books increased significantly and xylographic books began to be produced, made from engravings of each page in hardwood and then printed with a rudimentary press.
Around 1423 or 1437, the Dutchman Laurens Janszoon seems to have had the idea of cutting type from pieces of wood, but these proved to be too brittle and deformed too easily due to variations in hygrometry, i.e. the degree of humidity in the air.
Invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg
It was not until around 1440 that the modern printing press was invented. It was invented by a German silversmith named Johannes Gensfleisch, also known as Gutenberg. Born in Mainz between 1394 and 1399, he learned the trade of goldsmith and then moved to Strasbourg in 1430, where he set up a workshop for cutting precious stones before starting to make mirrors. Around 1436, Gutenberg became interested in the reproduction of texts and began to develop a new printing technique.
After four long years of work, he and his associates, including Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer, succeeded in making reusable and interchangeable metal movable type with an alloy of lead, tin and antimony, using a die-cut mould into which the molten metal was poured. They then used these movable typefaces in a press, which they also invented, which was equipped with a movable carriage and a frame on which the sheet to be printed was placed. Finally, the ink used is oil-based. Thanks to this process, which was probably developed around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg prepared his first book for printing.
This was the famous two-column Biblia Sacra Latina, the so-called “42-line Bible” or Gutenberg Bible, of which 48 copies have survived to this day. Published in February 1455, it was printed in 300 copies and contained 1,282 pages. It was an immediate success.
As for the German printer, he was ruined by a lawsuit he lost against Fust, one of his former partners, who demanded the reimbursement of his investments. He was finally returned to Mainz in 1465 by Archbishop Adolph II of Nassau. He died in his home town on 3 February 1468, leaving behind one of the most formidable inventions in history. Since 1962, Mainz has housed a museum where his workshop and press have been reconstructed.
Rapid spread of printing in Europe
It was in Mainz, in 1462, that a civil war prompted the typographers, students of Johannes Gutenberg, to flee the episcopal city, which was on fire. Printing flourished in the Holy Roman Empire, then in Italy, starting with the monastery of Subiaco, near Rome. Printing works were established in 150 cities, in Italy, France and Holland – a country where Laurent Coster, in Harleem, was at one time considered to be the inventor of the printing press. From 1455 to 1500, nearly 40,000 titles, incunabula, were printed, despite a very low literacy rate – it was not until the 19th century, a period of industrialisation, and measures to promote education, that literacy increased.
France was not to be outdone. In 1470, in the theology faculty of the Sorbonne college in Paris, under the impetus of the intellectual Guillaume Fichet, a workshop was set up thanks to the German master typographer Jean Heynlin. Another opened in Lyon in 1473, where more popular works were printed. In all, in France, where François I imposed the Roman typeface, 30 printing works were created before the end of the century, including in villages such as Bréhan-Loudéac in Brittany. The first book published in Paris, thanks to the Germanic printer Ulrich Gering, ends with this enthusiastic colophon (final note), translated from Latin: “Just as the sun spreads light everywhere, so Paris, capital of the kingdom and nurturer of the Muses, you pour science onto the world. Receive, then, as a reward, that almost divine art of writing which Germany invented.
The invention of the printing press revolutionised thinking
It is generally estimated that between 15 and 20 million copies were printed before 1500. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention not only revolutionised the way people read (texts were now more easily read), but also had repercussions on the way they thought, as it allowed direct access to biblical and ancient texts. Culture was gradually emancipated from political and religious power, and humanist ideas spread throughout Europe.
The printing press thus considerably facilitated the dissemination of ideas and contributed to the Reformation and the emergence of Protestantism. Indeed, between 1517 and 1520, more than 300,000 copies of Luther’s writings were distributed in Europe. Finally, it was the essential vector of the great cultural revolution that took place during the Renaissance. However, the Church, by putting mainly religious works on the index, exercised censorship until the French Revolution, when printing finally became free.