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The Book as Print Culture: 15th-16th Century

In his book Print, Manuscript, and the Search for Order: 1450-1830, McKitterick (2003, 8) provided an overview of print culture during this time period including

"wonder at printing, and in particular at its speed of production and its ability to produce multiple copies of apparently the same text; a period of innovation, experiment and compromise."

Before the introduction of movable type, books were handwritten. Using the often inaccurate and painfully slow process of creating manuscripts by hand, it could take years to reproduce a few hundred copies. On the other hand, the printing press could produce thousands of copies quickly.

The Shift from Scribal Culture to Print Culture

Elizabeth Eisenstein (2012, xvi) stressed that the high costs of duplicating manuscripts by hand led to the need for a more cost effective tool for information duplication. The printing press allowed rapid distribution of ideas making knowledge difficult to destroy. The printing press allowed permanent libraries to be established and materials to be widely accessed even after shifts in philosophy or leadership. Eisenstein concludes that it wasn't until the printing press that these changes in society took place. The printing press allowed the dissemination, standardization, and preservation of information.

The shift in book production from handwritten manuscripts to print duplication had a tremendous impact on the number of copies that could be produced as well as the availability of books. According to Elizabeth Eisenstein (2012a, 14), "The marked increase in the output of books and the drastic reduction in the number of man-hours required to turn them out deserve stronger emphasis. " Eisenstein (2012a, 22) continues that "the initial increase in output did strike contemporary observers as sufficiently remarkable to suggest supernatural intervention."

According to Downs (2004, 14),

"during the first half-century after the invention of printing there appeared in Europe approximately ten million books, comprising forty thousand titles, with hundreds of printers busily turning out new works."

Prior to the invention of the printing press in the mid 15th century, those interested in reading books had to be of an elite class with access to the limited number of manuscripts available or be involved with a learning experience where information was conveyed orally. According to Elizabeth Eisenstein (2005, 34),

"After the advent of printing...the transmission of written information became much more efficient. It was not only the craftsman outside universities who profited from the new opportunities to teach himself. Of equal importance was the chance extended to bright undergraduates to reach beyond their teachers' grasp. Gifted students no longer needed to sit at the feet of a given master in order to learn a language or academic skill. Instead, they could swiftly achieve mastery on their own, even by sneaking books past their tutors."

The Renaissance and Printed Works

chaucerDuring the Renaissance, knowledge spread quickly. The rise of universities brought new thinking in art, architecture, and philosophy. The printing press arrived at the perfect time for Renaissance intellectuals who wanted to share their novel approaches to thought.

Rather than new works, many of the first books printed during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were Greek, Latin, and other classical materials. Humanists of the Renaissance favored the study of humanities and the ancient texts. However the Renaissance authors realized that many more people could access these works if they were translated into vernacular languages. This was particularly true of the Bible.

Other early documents were also reprinted such as the Magna Carta originally written in 1215. This document was widely read by the increasingly literate English and colonial people. It later serves as the foundation for documents like the Declaration of Independence.

The introduction of the printing press permitted much faster propagation of ideas and information. Although these texts were still too expensive for the middle and lower classes, it did allow more access to books and begin the process of democratizing learning. In addition, ideas and innovations could be transmitted much more rapidly across Europe. Each region would take these new ideas and adapt them to fit their local culture. These adaptations would then be quickly replicated and shared.

Printers like William Caxton published English language books that would appeal to an increasingly literate society. Works like Le Morte d'Arthur, or Arthurian Knights, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and other books based on legends were mass produced.

Individuals sought out books for pleasure as well was learning. As a result, a wide range of books from sonnets and satire to essays and scientific reports were published.

Printing and the Protestant Reformation

The spread of the printing press as well as the expansion of Renaissance ideas and the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire contributed to the Protestant Reformation. According to Edwards (2004, 1) in Printing, Propaganda and Martin Luther,

"The Reformation saw the first major, self-conscious attempt to use the recently invented printing press to shape and channel a mass movement. The printing press allowed Evangelical publicists to do what had been previously impossible, quickly and effectively reach a large audience with a message intended to change Christianity... Not only did the Reformation see the first large-scale 'media campaign,' it also saw a campaign that was overwhelmingly dominated by one person, Martin Luther. More works were printed and reprinted than by any other publicist... During Luther's lifetime these presses produced nearly five times as many German works by Luther as by all the Catholic controversialists put together."

Reformers used the printing press to produce inexpensive pamphlets and books to share their movement. For instance, Martin Luther (1483-1546) published The Ninety-Five Theses (1517) providing a catalyst for change. The controversy widened when friends translated the document in 1518 into German and distributed it more widely. It only took a couple months for it to spread across Europe.

The image below shows a page of The Ninety-Five Theses.


With the success of quick printing and distribution, the number of religious publications exploded with millions of copies of thousands of publications by 1530. As the number of publications grew, so did literacy. People wanted to be able to read these books. According to Elizabeth Eisenstein (2012, 155),

"There is considerable irony about the enthusiastic reception accorded to printing by the church. Heralded on all sides as a "peaceful art," Gutenberg's invention probably contributed more to destroying Christian concord and inflaming religious warfare than the so-called arts of war ever did."

The success of the Reformation showed that print was an effect tool for propaganda. In addition, use of the German language rather than Latin contributed to the success. Another contributing factor was the availability of teaching materials such as Martin Luther's Small Catechism for parents and Larger Catechism for pastors. These could be used in teaching and further dissemination of the message. Finally, the use of illustrations in books and distribution of hymn books expanded interest to visual and auditory channels of communication.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) illustrated the German Bible and other popular religious materials.

The image below is a color version of the Whore of Babylon from Martin Luther's 1534 translation of the Bible.


In the second half of the 16th century, unrest in the church impacted print culture. Many Protestant printers left France for Geneva fleeing religious persecution. According to Lommen (2012, 141),

"Protestant notions that laymen (and even women) should study scriptures led to demands for greater education and smaller, cheaper Bibles."

Sharing and the Beginnings of the Scientific Revolution

The printing press was a factor in the establishment of a network on scientists who could easily disseminate their work to a large audience. The sharing of research and discoveries allowed scholars to feed off the work of their peers (Love, 2006).

The Reformation combined with the use of the printing press created an atmosphere where early modern scientists felt comfortable sharing their work. Scientists across fields were conducting studies, making discoveries, formulating theories, and publishing their results. During this time Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo were working with space science, Harvey with medicine, and Bacon with planned experimentation.

With quicker and easier distribution of information, authorship became more important. A writer could more easily share their ideas and experience financial gain. The printing press allowed more consistency in the book as a knowledge. The printing process allowed the standardization of books. Pages were numbered, tables of contents created, and indexes developed allowing each reader to have the same experience. As a result, readers and writers could reference page numbers and quickly locate passages. Individuals who made the discoveries and wrote about their findings could more easily be praised and cited. Titles pages and author identification became a more common practice.

brainThis sharing across academic disciplines and geographic regions created synergy in the scientific community. It also created controversy. For instance, explorers like Christopher Columbus were challenging the classical world view. When observations didn't match earlier published literature, scientific doctrine was being questioned.

The study of chemistry and biological sciences were replacing natural philosophy. This shift in thinking created by a large body of new books led to major advances in the sciences.

Books like De humani corporis fabrica, or On the Workings of the Human Body (1543) by Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) encouraged the use of observation in anatomy and De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, or On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543) by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) stressed combining mathematics and observations in drawing conclusions in astronomy.

The image on the left is from De humani corporis fabrica.

The Example of Tycho Brahe

As an example, Eisenstein (1979) described the importance of having authoritative, readily available science texts available for research. Astronomer Tycho Brahe was able to read the works of Copernicus and Ptolemaeus then build his own astronomical instruments and make his own measurements. By comparing all the works available, Brahe published the book On the New Star in 1573. He encouraged other astronomers to submit their observations on his form thus centralizing the collection of scientific data.

Johns (1998, 14) notes that Tycho represents "perhaps the purest example of a particular kind of printing, and a particular way of using the products of the press." Johns (1998, 20) expressed concerns that Eisentein's example is too clean and doesn't consider the wide range of print experiences of "different print cultures in particular historical circumstances... (books) cannot compel readers to react in specific ways." Rather than placing the emphasis on the printing press and book as artifact, Johns suggests putting culture and society at the center and examination of "print culture".

The Impact of the Printing Press on Society

People who lived during this time were well aware of the changes in society happening around them. Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was an English philosopher, scientist, and author. He saw the practical uses of the printing press. In his book Novum Organum, he states

"We should note the force, effect, and consequences of inventions which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, namely, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world."

Based on research using primary source documents from the 16th century, Carlo Ginzburg (1992, xii) used the term "circularity" to describe print culture. This contradicts the idea that peasant culture had absolute autonomy. He states that

"between the culture of the dominant classes and that of the subordinate classes there existed, in preindustrial Europe, a circular relationship composed of reciprocal influences, which traveled from low to high as well as from high to low."

For the most part, the printing press was received positively. Eisenstein (2012b, 6) describes a 1455 letter written to a Spanish cardinal by a future pope indicating "the printing of a sacred text was welcomed without reservation by highly placed churchmen." Eisenstein (2012b,7) also suggests that there is "little or no evidence of absolute rejection in the fifteenth century, while there is much evidence of 'committed acclamation'".

On the other hand, there's evidence that the printing press didn't immediately impact all levels of society. According to Eisenstein (2012a, 35),

"Given the large peasant population in early modern Europe and the persistence of local dialects which imposed an additional language barrier between spoken and written words, it is probable that only a very small portion of the entire population was affected by the initial shift. Nevertheless, within this relatively small and largely urban population, a fairly wide social spectrum may have been involved... It also remains uncertain whether one ought to describe the early reading public as being 'middle class'."

Read Ucerler, M. Antoni (2013). Missionary Printing. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Fool Literature

foolGerman Sebastian Brant (1457-1521) published Das Narrensciff or Ship of Fools in 1494. This satirical best-seller contains some of the first humorous illustrations published. It contains references to classics, but also humor of the day. It even includes some of the first references to Columbus's discovery of America. Harthan (1981, 63) notes that

"the text contains allusions to Horace, Persius, Juvenal and other Latin writers but is aimed at a new reading public, urban, skeptical and ready to be entertained."

The popularity of the book quickly spread throughout Europe and shows that literate members of society were reading a variety of texts. In other words, for Ship of Fools to be meaningful, readers needed to be aware of the classics and current events. While some of this information came from oral experiences, much of this knowledge came from reading.

The image on the right is from Ship of Fools.

This type of "fool literature" was popular during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. However most of these books trace their roots to Ship of Fools. Court jesters and others viewed as "fools" could get away with open criticism of the church and other organizations. The concept of foolishness was a way for pre-Reformation writers to voice their opinions without being sanctioned by the church. In Praise of Folly (1511) by Erasmus is another example of this type of writing.


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