The Europeans, No 3: Johann Gutenberg
Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg was born at the end of the 14th century in the German city of Mainz. From a family of wealthy merchants, he trained as a goldsmith and is the person most often credited with the invention of printing by movable type. Certainly he is the first in Europe to have exploited the new technique commercially.Gutenberg was active as a printer and publisher for a decade after 1450. After that he seems to have lost control of his business and he died in 1468. We know relatively little about his life, but what he did, and the historical developments his technical innovations facilitated, are more important than the man.
There was already a thriving commercial market for manuscript books in mid-15th century Europe and in places they were produced by a factory system, with scribes working on an assembly line. But technical improvements in the production of paper (replacing parchment) and the possibility that mechanical printing brought of producing a large and theoretically unlimited number of identical copies of a text pushed down costs and prices and vastly expanded the market.
During the first half of the 1450s, the art of printing was known to only a handful of men in a few workshops in Mainz. By about 1458 it had arrived in Strasbourg. In the 1460s it reached Vienna, Basel, Cologne, Subiaco (near Rome) and Venice; the 1470s brought in Paris, Lyon, Florence, Valencia, Budapest, Krakow and London. Dublin printed its first book in 1551, Moscow around 1553, and Constantinople not until 1727.
The rapid spread of print was made possible by the migration of skilled German craftsmen. Wendelin and Johann of Speyer left Mainz for Venice about 1468 and were given a monopoly of printing in the city for five years. Venice was to become the European capital of the book trade and a great centre of humanist learning for at least a generation: the names of 150 Venetian printers active before the turn of the century survive.
Printing tended to give intellectual movements (Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment) a geographical reach they might otherwise not have had, while in Protestant territories in particular the book (normally the Bible and a few other approved religious texts) assumed an aura of authority that had once belonged to the priest: “It says in the book . . . ” were words to quiet dissent. Later, with more books in circulation, it was found they could not always be relied upon to agree with each other.
Not all printing, of course, had to do with learning or humanism. Books did not have to be, and were not always, serious. Almanacs, calendars and handbills were a staple for many firms, while considerable profit accrued in the 1450s to those Mainz craftsmen entrusted with the printing of indulgences issued by the Catholic Church to finance war with the Turks.
The essential novelty of Gutenberg’s invention was that it provided a single, stable text that might be read by thousands of people, a process that helped create a common culture and also underpinned the standardisation of vernacular languages and the making of nations.
With the continuing growth of the e-reader at the expense of the physical book, some analysts fear that the newly dominant players in the market – Amazon and Google – may not have much interest in maintaining a stable text.
The book of the future may well be characterised by a profusion of links, sound effects, interactivity and alternative narrative paths, all of which chime with the jiggery-pokery of postmodernism but are a long way from the intentions of Johannes Gutenberg, whose epitaph well stated that he had “deserved well of every nation and language”.
What to read
John Man’s The Gutenberg Revolution deals with the man himself and the early years of printing. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s The Coming of the Book is the classic scholarly account of the first centuries of printing. Two leading print museums, in Mainz and Antwerp, have interesting information in English and links on their websites: