Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Sunday 28th May 2017 | Manchester, UK

Changing the World- The Printing Press

printing press

Whilst the social and political elite in exclusive universities had held the monopoly on scholarship for centuries, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440 revolutionized the potential for learning for ordinary people. The shift from laboriously copying out manuscript to reproducing thousands of copies at a time drove the momentum towards our current ‘Information Age’, with cheap, accessible material available for anyone, anywhere.
The scale of the change brought about by the printing press is illustrated by the effects it had across the social spectrum. This is shown most emphatically by waning illiteracy rates across Europe; the proportion of literate men doubling in France and German-speaking regions, and tripling in England between the 16th and 18th centuries. With small teaching manuals widely available, expensive formal education was no longer necessary to learn to read and write. However, whilst this serves as an immense development in itself, the ways in which citizens employed their improving literacy must be considered in order to truly appreciate the magnitude of change the printing press triggered.
Within what some refer to as the ‘knowledge explosion’ was the way in which print facilitated access to political debate, particularly for those with little chance of holding a formal position of power. The use of print to justify, persuade and rally support demonstrates its significance among the general populace. The commentaries of Pierre de L’Esolie, a 16th century Parisian collector of literature, provides evidence for this. Far from being passively consumed, Le’Estolie tells of portraits of cardinal de Guise, who was assassinated in December 1588, being carried in immense processions in early 1589.
The growth in popularity of printed petitions was another form in which public opinion could be expressed, an English Quaker women’s petition gaining 7,000 signatures, printed on a pamphlet in 1659. By facilitating more effective forms of protest and expression of the majority of the populace, the printing press increased the rate of progress towards Western democracy, the passive subject transformed into a vocal citizen.
The invention of the printing press eroded the structure and authority of the Catholic Church. Hailed by scholars as the ‘first child of the printed book’, Protestantism was able to leave its mark on Europe through exploitation of this medium. With the written word at the heart of the Protestant campaign, Martin Luther’s thirty publications sold over 30,000 copies, totalling 51% of the total reformers’ works listed in collections of contemporary written material in the 1620s and 1630s, illustrating the success of this strategy. Aside from the hugely influential written works associated with the movement, anti- Catholic cartoons and caricatures spread the Protestant message to the illiterate, indicative of the enormous audience the printing press was able to cater for.
Written information was now, to a degree, more permanent with reproduction on a large scale and standardized content. As an institution that relied on written material such as scripture, the Church was especially vulnerable to the effects of the printing press. With this, contradictions in church policy were exposed, the output of manuals classifying categories of sin a particular focal point for argument. As churchmen found themselves at odds with one another, policy decisions were to be made on an ‘either or’ basis and disagreements were intense and frequent. It follows that whereas the medieval Church had been more generally encompassing of different opinions among its superior members, new doctrine was more exclusive, more consistent and more rigid. In conjunction with the rise of Protestantism, it could be argued that this wider availability of literature undermined confidence in Christianity itself.
As a means to access instruction, fact and opinion, this wealth of information brought about by Gutenberg’s printing press illustrates significant parallels with our twenty-first century go-to source of knowledge – the internet. Whilst the relationship between the antiquated printing press and the familiar concept of the World Wide Web perhaps appears unclear, the sheer breadth of material both offered to their audience were similarly revolutionary upon reception, the press perhaps more so as the first of its kind.
It follows that by encouraging the growth of a more informed, critical society, the printing press facilitated the shift from passive subject to politically active citizen, crucially igniting scrutiny of governmental and religious institutions as a formidable agent of change.

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