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The Gutenberg Printing Press

The Gutenberg Printing Press

In the 1450s inventor Johannes Gutenberg ushered in an information revolution. His printing press let information spread faster than ever before. You might say that a modern day equivalent to Gutenberg's printing press was the 1991 invention of the internet.

So how did the Gutenberg printing press compare to previous methods of printing literature? Why was it such an innovation? And how did it contribute to the Protestant Reformation?

The Gutenberg Printing Press History

Here is a timeline of the Gutenberg printing press history.

DateEvent
1440Johannes Gutenberg began developing the printing press.
1450Gutenberg perfected his machine and it was commercially distributed, allowing the publication of books, posters and pamphlets across Germany, and eventually across Europe.
1455Gutenberg printed his first book, the Gutenberg Bible, with his financiers Johannes Fust and Peter Schoeffer. Later that year, Fust and Schoeffer seized equipment after a lawsuit and began printing themselves.
1457Schoeffer printed and distributed the Book of Psalms.
1465The Gutenberg Printing Press was brought to Italy. The Roman Catholic Church was able to commission the printing of various religious texts. The Papacy even used the Printing Press to issue indulgences and distribute pamphlets to help with the Catholic Crusade against the Turks.
1476William Caxton brought the technology of the Gutenberg Printing Press to Westminster, England.
1501Pope Alexander I prohibited the printing of books without the Roman Catholic Church’s permission and threatened excommunication. This was due to fear that printing would be used to disseminate anti-Catholic literature or facilitate dangerous misunderstandings of religious texts. Estimates state that there were around 9-20 million books in Europe at this time.
1517Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses. The work was copied, printed, and distributed throughout Germany using the Gutenberg Printing Press. Some historians estimate that within 17 days of publication, the 95 theses were being printed in London, England.
1522Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German whilst in hiding at Wartburg Castle. The resulting book was printed and distributed widely.
1534Luther translated the Old Testament from Latin into German. Now the whole Bible was translated into German and sold as a book throughout Germany and Europe.

Advantages of the Gutenberg Printing Press

The Gutenberg printing press was made of small blocks shaped into letters. These movable pieces could be arranged to form sentences and ink would be applied to them. These inked-up pieces would be pressed against a sheet of paper, creating a printed page.

The Gutenberg Printing Press An reproduction of the Gutenberg Printing Press StudySmarterFig. 1 Photograph of a modern reproduction of the Gutenberg Printing Press.

Gutenberg used his goldsmith skills to create metal movable type, this was the ultimate material to use as it was very durable. The printing press made this copying books much quicker than and allowed books, pamphlets and posters to be printed and reproduced at a rate never seen before.

Did you know? Though Gutenberg is often credited as inventing the printing press, it was really a Korean civil minister named Choe Yun-ui who created the first printing press, modelled after more rudimentary versions from China. Choe Yun-ui completed this press 200 years before Gutenberg's, though political upheaval in Korea meant that Choe Yun-ui's press had less of a immediate impact than Gutenberg's.

Here are some advantages of the Gutenberg printing press compared to handwriting, or scribing, as it was then called.

FeatureScribingGutenberg printing press
SpeedHandwriting made copying materials time consuming. Movable type meant that one collection of printing materials could reproduce many different pieces of literature using the same alphabet, increasing the versatility of the printing.
Cost The time needed made copying an expensive process. Animal hide was often used as parchment. This material required a high level of skill to remove the skin, dry it, and stretch it, making copies even more expensive. The quick speed massively reduced printing costs. Rag paper had become mass-produced by paper mills in the 1300s. Gutenberg used rag paper for his printing which reduced the costs. He also used relatively cheap ink.
AccuracyCopying texts by hand gave room for human error. Using movable letters or type meant increased accuracy of copies.
Type of material copiedBecause of the long time needed and high costs, only the most valuable texts were copied. These were usually Bibles and other religious texts. Cheaper printing costs meant that those not part of the Church could print their opinions. Pamphlets and manifestos could now be printed and distributed.
AudienceTexts were confined to monasteries or Church libraries. This meant audiences were usually church officials or aristocrats.Print material circulated around Germany and then Europe. Though literacy was not high, those who could read now had access to new ideas.

The Gutenberg printing press could therefore produce books, posters, and pamphlets cheaply and quickly. An establishment with a printing press could distribute their literature easily. Once printing information became readily available in the 15th century, the way society produced and reproduced information changed dramatically.

Effect of the Gutenberg Printing Press

Before the Protestant Reformation, most of Europe was Catholic. Roman Catholic authorities believed that the Bible was only to be read and interpreted by Bishops and the Pope who could read Latin. The Church had previously had exclusive control of religious texts which were stored in cathedral and monastic libraries.

The first book to be published by Gutenberg was his “42 Line Bible," called as such because it had 42 lines per page. It was printed in the language of Latin for Catholic churches and provided uniformity of the Bible for Catholicism. But despite the Roman Catholic Church using the Gutenberg printing press, they still believed that literature was restricted to the elite.

The Gutenberg Printing Press The Gutenberg Monument in Strasbourg StudySmarterFig. 2 Photograph of the Gutenberg Monument in Strasbourg, Germany.

This changed with the rise of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther was a German priest who had lost faith in the Catholic Church. He protested against many Catholic ideas like only Bishops and the Pope being allowed to read the Bible. Luther believed in a "priesthood of all believers," the idea that everyone had the same rights as a priest to read and understand the Bible. Martin Luther printed his new religious ideas, not in Latin, but in German. He argued that the Bible should be translated into German so that it was more accessible.

The printing press meant that the Catholic Church's previous monopoly over religious debate was broken. Protestant and Roman Catholic debate was printed to the public, for example in the Augsburg Confession (1530) and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531). No longer behind closed doors, religious debate was now available to the public.

Impact of the Gutenberg Printing Press

Pamphlets made spreading information a drastically quicker process. This can be seen in the Peasants War in 1524. The Peasants War was waged by peasant farmers who were protesting against their exploitation by the ruling German nobility and princes as well as the Roman Catholic Church which collected taxes and enforced Catholicism.

Luther's 95 theses ushered in a moment of radical change. The Catholic Church, long the unquestioned authority of Europe, was now being challenged. The ideas Luther conveyed via the printing press inspired these peasants against what they saw as unfair and unjust use of religious and political authority. Thomas Müntzer, a Reformer who opposed the feudal system, the Roman Catholic Church and Martin Luther’s Reformation efforts, led the Peasants War in 1524.

The Gutenberg Printing Press A print of Thomas Munster 1525StudySmarterFig. 3 Print of Thomas Müntzer, leader of the Peasants War in 1525.

Under his leadership, the peasants published their demands in a text known as “The Twelve Articles” which was distributed widely in 1525. Some of the demands were religiously motivated, such as changing the tithing system, others were regarding the end of serfdom and access to land. Bible verses were included in the Articles to justify the demands and the war. Despite their use of Protestant ideas, Luther himself never fully supported the peasants.

How did Luther respond to the Peasants War of 1524?

Luther distributed two significant pamphlets throughout 1525 in response to the Peasants War. The first was his “Admonition to Peace” which advocated peaceful measures by the peasants and that it was peasants’ job to farm and princes to maintain peace.

Towards the end of the Peasants War in 1525, Luther distributed “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants” which condemned the violence and immorality of the peasant revolters and asked that princes put down the rebellion swiftly. Luther’s latest pamphlet resulted in the crushing of the Peasant rebellion by the German princes who hired mercenary armies to fight the ill-equipped peasants.

At the end of the Peasant war around 100,000 people were killed. Thomas Müntzer was captured and executed for leading the Revolt and Luther was held responsible by Catholics for the peasants’ deaths.

The Gutenberg printing press helped to spread Luther’s preachings about religious reform, but also helped to publish the demands of the peasants and Luther’s reactions to war. The advances in information communication as a result of the printing press helped to both start and end the Peasants’ War, demonstrating a new approach to religious and political crisis.

Importance of the Gutenberg Printing Press

As demonstrated with the Peasants War, the ability to print and disseminate information at such a rapid rate introduced an information revolution in Europe. Luther’s translations of the Bible into German opened up the religious text to any literate German. This reflected the Protestant message of sola scriptura.

Sola scriptura

The Protestant idea that the Bible was the sole or only source of authority on God. Protestants rejected the authority of the Pope to decide on religious matters.

This broke the moral and intellectual authority the Roman Catholic Church had held with scripture and aided the Protestant cause.

The Gutenberg Printing Press A drawing celebrating Caxton bringing the printing press to England in 1476 StudySmarterFig. 4 Drawing celebrating William Caxton's establishment of the Printing Press in England in 1476. The King James Bible was printed and distributed because of Caxton's effort to bring printing to England.

Luther’s translations also led to other translations such as the King James Bible. The King James Bible (1611) was a Bible translated into English that has become one of history’s most printed books, with as many as 5 billion copies being printed worldwide as of 2015.

The abundance of literature produced by printing presses corresponded by an increase in literacy rates throughout Europe. As books were cheaper and more accessible to the public, people were more inclined to read and understand texts themselves. The Royal and Church libraries no longer held control of information as they once did.

The Gutenberg Printing Press - Key takeaways

  • The Gutenberg printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1450s and revolutionised how information was distributed throughout Europe.
  • Before the printing press, information had been distributed through scribing. The press combined the latest technologies of ink, metal type casting, and print media to create an affordable and quick method of reproducing texts.
  • Information had been held tightly by the Roman Catholic Church as it was in Latin and only a few copies of texts existed, locked up in Church libraries. The printing press allowed texts to be translated and distributed easily, which led to the Catholic Church cracking down on printing books without permission in 1501. Luther used printing presses to distribute his 95 Theses and publish his translations of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible (1522 and 1534).
  • The Printing press aided the Peasants War in 1524 because peasant revolters were able to publish and distribute their demands in "The Twelve Articles" which protested religious issues, serfdom and access to land.
  • The Press increased literacy rates throughout Europe and widened the access to information.

References

  1. Fig. 2 Photograph of Gutenberg Monument, Strasbourg (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Strasbourg_-_Gutenberg_Monument_-_%22Et_la_Lumi%C3%A8re_Fut%22.jpg) by TxllxT TxllxT (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Txllxt_TxllxT) licensed by CC BY SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
  2. Fig. 3 Print of Thomas Müntzer (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_M%C3%BCntzer.svg) by Eugenio Hansen (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Eugenio_Hansen,_OFS) licensed by CC BY SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about The Gutenberg Printing Press

Johannes Gutenberg began developing the printing press using his knowledge as a goldsmith in 1440. By 1450, he had created a working model and it started to be commercially distributed. 

Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz, but following his political exile, he began to invent the printing press in Strasbourg.

The Gutenberg Printing Press allowed for texts to be printed multiple times and distributed. This vastly improved the freedom of information such as religious texts. Gutenberg's first book to be printed was known as the Gutenberg Bible and allowed the Catholic church to have a uniform text to refer to. During the Protestant Reformation, key figures such as Martin Luther were able to translate, print, and distribute the Bible so that many people could read the text rather than just priests who read Latin or Greek.

The Press is loaded with a printing medium, such as rag paper, ink is primed onto the movable type and then pressed using a large screw (similar to those used in wine and olive pressing) onto the paper. This can be repeated many times as the movable type was made of metal. 

A major impact of the printing press is its use in the Peasants War. Protestants and Catholics were able to communicate publicly during this time, printing and distributing their demands and ideologies. By making the religious debate public, the war was fought with a lot more information and was able to gather support for both sides. The printing press allowed for information to be spread and shared, increasing literacy rates throughout Europe and the world, and unseating the Royal and Church libraries from their control over information.

Final The Gutenberg Printing Press Quiz

Question

In which decade did Johannes Gutenberg invent his Printing Press?

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Answer

1450s

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Question

What materials were printing "type" made from?

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Answer

Wood

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Question

Which other processes inspired Gutenberg's screw press?

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Answer

Wine making

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Question

What was Gutenberg's first printed book?

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Answer

The Gutenberg Bible

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Question

When did Pope Alexander prohibit the printing of books without the Roman Catholic Church's permission?

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Answer

1501

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Question

When did William Caxton bringing printing technology to Britain?

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Answer

1476

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Question

When did Martin Luther translate the New Testament from Greek into German?

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Answer

1522

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Question

From which language did Luther translate the Old Testament into German in 1534?

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Answer

Latin

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Question

Who led the peasants during the Peasants War in 1524?

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Answer

Thomas Münster

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Question

What was the name of the text distributed by the peasants during the Peasants War which described their demands in 1525?

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Answer

"The Twelve Articles"

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