The Invention of Printing and the Spread of Literacy

Materials and facilities required
Social origins of the need for printing
The revival of commerce
The changing role of the church
The new manuscript trade
The rise of printing
Conclusion
Sources Consulted

The relationship between printing and literacy can be viewed in two ways. We can look at the effect printing had on literacy. Though reliable data is not available, writers generally agree that the advent of cheaper printed books facilitated the growth of literacy (Ferguson, 108). Katz estimates that the number of books printed before 1500 at about 20 million (Katz, 106). Part of this was overproduction, which saw the demise of many printing houses, but it seems safe to assume that with reduced cost, more people were reading. Certainly more people owned books. We can also ask if literacy affected the development of printing. Given the success of incunabula and the cost of not only setting up a printing business in the fifteenth century but also of developing the technique, there must have been a large, but as yet, untapped group of book buyers if such a venture were to be profitable.

What was truly revolutionary about the invention of moveable type in Germany about 1450 was that it succeeded. It was not the first such invention. Moveable type was used in eleventh century China and in Korea in the thirteenth century, but enjoyed limited success. The cost in relation to the available market for printed goods was not favourable. As McMurtrie has pointed out, printed books became successful when they had the two conditions “prerequisite to the development of a creative idea into a useful invention.” (McMurtrie, 123) Firstly, facilities and materials are needed to convert the idea into physical form and, secondly, a social need or demand must be filled. By examining both these conditions I hope to show that a rising literacy rate during the late middle ages and Renaissance created a demand that was necessary before printing with moveable type could succeed.

Materials and facilities required
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McMurtrie identifies four essentials required for printing as it developed in Europe. One was an abundant supply of readily available paper. The second was the development of ink that could be applied to metal and then transferred to paper. Third was a device to press the plate and paper together. Finally, and most importantly, was the technology to form dies, construct molds and cast type. All of these elements were available for centuries in some form before the first printing press, as we know it, was built.

The new process of making paper was first reported in 105A.D. in China. It can be made in much larger quantities from “cloth” plants such as hemp, flax or cotton at less cost than vellum or parchment. From China, the use and production of paper spread westward. It reached Chinese Turkestan by 150, Kashmir in the sixth century and Samarkand in 751. Here, Moslem invaders learned the technique from Chinese papermakers held prisoner. Samarkand produced a great deal of hemp and flax, and paper eventually became an important export. Moslems, in turn, took paper to Baghdad in 793, where it was diverted through the Islamic Empire before entering Western Europe.

Paper reached Egypt in the ninth century and began replacing the millennia old papyrus, the use of which was in decline by 850. An Egyptian letter written late in that century closes somewhat apologetically with “pardon the papyrus” (McMurtrie, 65). Egypt had grown flax for centuries and woven linen. Flax was perfect for paper production as were, apparently, scavenged linens in which mummies had been wrapped. Before moving on to Fez, Morocco in about 1100 paper adopted the name of the papyrus it replaced.

Papermaking crossed the Mediterranean into Moorish Spain at Jativa in 1150 and arrived in Christian Europe at Fabriano, Italy in about 1270. From there it spread northward to Nuremberg in 1390 and England by 1494.

Artists developed ink suitable for the new process in the fourteenth century. Earlier water-colour inks, a mixture of lampblack, gum or gluten, and water, would not stick to metal print. Those mixed with oils worked well.

The mechanical press had been around as long as olives or grapes were pressed. It had more recently seen use in pressing the moisture out of paper in the new European paper mills.

The idea of printing was not actually a new development at all. Printing with stamps or seals was done in the fifth or sixth century in China. The Chinese word vin used to describe printing of any kind is the same as the word for seal. The oldest surviving printed book was printed May 11, 868 in China. This was a wood block print, but the Chinese also developed moveable earthenware type in the eleventh century and used wooden types in the twelfth century. In 1314, Wang Cheng was said to have had 60,000 different wooden types. The large number of types required by the complexities of written Chinese is one possible reason this technique did not last.

There are records of printing with moveable type in Korea as early as the first half of the thirteenth century. A revival of printing began during the new dynasty of Korean rulers established by General Yi after the Mongol invasions. In 1392, a department of books was established that was responsible for “the casting of types and the publishing of books” (McMurtrie, 97). Metal type was used during this revival and the department started work in 1403 at the private expense of Tai T’sung, General Yi’s son and successor.

For centuries before Gutenburg, printing on textiles was used to stamp patterns on clothing as well as on altar cloths and other church decorations as a cheaper alternative to tapestries. Similar techniques were used in woodblock printing, which existed in Europe in the late Middle Ages. Printed playing cards were in use in Germany in 1377. The church discouraged gambling, but encouraged the production of prints of sacred images. Both these media were manufactured by the same printers and sold to the same lower and middle classes.

Eventually, these same techniques were used to produce wood block books, which were basically picture books, with a few words possibly cut into each block. These books were often modeled after manuscript illustrations and depicted biblical stories in medieval settings to make them more understandable to the illiterate. Ars moriendi (on the art of dying becomingly-surely a hit during the Plague years) and Apocalypse were two major woodblock prints from the mid-fifteenth century.

Developing the techniques of manufacturing moveable type was the most challenging aspect of the invention of this type of printing and the one that likely took the most time, effort and expense to effect. Paper and ink could be purchased and any modifications to an existing winepress were at first minimal, but pressing type into paper was possible only after new techniques were developed to, firstly, craft the type, and secondly, to hold them together while printing. Letter stamps cut in relief had been used by bookbinders to stamp initials in leather bindings and punches were used by founders to mark metal objects. The challenge for Gutenberg was to carve much smaller dies from which a mold could be made. Mold making techniques of jewelers were adapted to make these molds in which the types were then cast.

Gutenberg did not document this process and we can only speculate about his activities based on the public record that is left. Although Gutenberg was from a middle class family and was living comfortably on an inheritance, he evidently did not have enough money to finance the development of printing on his own. What we know of him during the time that he was working on his invention comes from court records, where he is sometimes involved in some sort of dispute over financing with business partners, or from borrowing records. He borrowed money from the parish of St. Thomas in Strasbourg in 1441 and the considerable sum of 150 gulden in Maintz in 1448. Between 1450 and 1455 he borrowed over two thousand gulden from Johann Fust, who took Gutenberg to court in 1455 to recover his investment. In court documents, Gutenberg mentions workmen’s wages, house rent and the purchase of parchment, paper and ink as expenses devoted to “the work of the books” (McMurtrie, 140). Fust and his son-in-law Peter Scoeffer took over the business and became prominent printers. The last mention of Gutenberg in the public record occurred on February 26, 1483 when Dr. Konrad Hummery of Maintz gave the archbishop a quittance describing printing equipment that he owned and that had been used by Gutenberg. He seemed to be eking out a living printing on borrowed or rented equipment.

The sorry financial reality of Gutenberg’s life during and after his development of printing demonstrates how capital intensive such a business was. To realize a return on this investment a large market was needed to justify the mass production that was necessary to achieve an economy of scale. I will now investigate the factors affecting that demand in order to satisfy McMurtrie’s condition that an idea must fill a social need or demand in order to become an invention.

Social origins of the need for printing
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In order to understand what demand there was for books at the dawn of printing, it is useful to examine the society that wanted them and the means previously used to satisfy that desire.

Following the demise of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, Western Europe shifted from an imperial society centered around and ruled by cities to an agrarian feudal society. Feudalism arose in the ninth century as a solution to the chaos of the times. By the eighth century Moslem conquests had cut off Western Europe from commercial contact with the Mediterranean. Because of primitive economic conditions, the Carolingian Empire was unable to provide protection from the Scandinavian Vikings and Magyar horsemen who were then ravaging Western Europe. To ensure their own safety and survival, common people became vassals of manorial lords who exercised authority locally around their manors. Trade became very localized while money and commerce became less important as a system of bartering and paying directly with goods emerged. Feudalism’s “golden age” was from the ninth to the eleventh centuries. With the decline in the use of money, central control was further weakened, as the transference of resources by taxation became increasingly difficult.

From the fall of the Roman Empire to the eleventh century there was not a large demand for books. Literacy and the collecting of books was confined largely to medieval monasteries where Christian scriptures and the Greek and Latin classics were studied and copied. Education and literacy were so synonymous with the church that the words clerk, cleric and clergy all have the same origin in the Old French word clerc. The church’s interests in liturgical prayer, bible reading and the development of canon law all created a need for books. The demand for books was thus largely internal to the monasteries, which were able to supply their own needs.

The revival of commerce
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Commerce saw a revival in the eleventh century, possibly as a result of the increased trade with the Byzantine Empire occasioned by the Crusades. This revival had deep political and social as well as economic effects. There began a shift away from the dominance of agrarian society and a return to the growth of towns. The exchange of goods gave way to the exchange of letters of credit. As a money economy developed, the feudal nobles were forced to share their control of the economy with the newly arising middle class of merchants and bankers. Tempted by the availability of new luxury goods and unwilling or unable to reduce their lavish lifestyles despite a reduction of income, some lands and feudal rights passed from the nobility to creditors. The privileges of wealth were no longer confined to those of noble birth.

The growth of a money economy facilitated transfer of resources, which became a boon to more centralized governments. Before the end of the fourteenth century, French kings, under stress from the Hundred Years War, had acquired the right to levy non-feudal taxes. More centralized governments could provide greater security and public services than the feudal systems had, while increasing employment opportunities in the expanding civil service.

The arising middle class could not only afford to pay for an education, it was often a requirement of employment. Skill in bookkeeping, business correspondence and credit transactions became increasingly important. Italian cities were opening schools at public expense as early as the twelfth century. By the fifteenth century nearly every German and Dutch town had grammar schools preparing students for careers in business or university entrance. Universities themselves began to be established in the twelfth century in Italy and in Germany by the fourteenth century. Those that followed patterned themselves mostly on the institutions at Paris and Bologna.

The changing role of the church
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This demand for more education was not solely the result of economic factors. The Italian Renaissance that occurred at about the same time as trade began to increase started with a rebirth of interest in Greek and Classical literature in the monasteries. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the clergy began to collect as much ancient learning, which suited their needs, as they could. The church continued to educate those willing to commit their lives to the church. Not everyone took their vows as seriously as their desire for an education. Some wandering scholars or “hedge priests” (Katz, 126) took to the roads rather than the cloister, further spreading learning beyond the major centres.

Although the church united the feudal societies of Western Europe through a common faith and language, the influence of the church started to change. The authority of the pope was weakened by the Babylonian Captivity spent in Avignon in the fourteenth century and the Great Schism of two popes that followed. The church’s role, like the society of which it was a part, was becoming increasingly secular. The first universities were cathedral schools that supplanted the medieval monastery as the centres of learning. Monasteries had been the only important source of book production. Not only were they unable to keep up with the increasing demand for books brought about by the increase in education and literacy, they were hostile towards some forms of popular secular literature.

Other changes within the church led to the establishment of orders of mendicant friars whose purpose was evangelical rather than academic. Unlike the monastic orders, they did not produce books, but added to the demand by requiring their own books, without producing any. The Brothers of the Common Life, however, were established to bridge the gap between church and secular society. Their purpose was “to support themselves by the production and sale of books of popular devotion in the vernacular and of school texts” (Harrington, 121). They also educated a great number of men, the most famous being Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, who loved them, and Erasmus of Rotterdam, who was irritated by them (Sarton, 60).

The establishment of secular education had another consequence on the demand for books. In a monastery, one book served many students and was sometimes used by students who were forced to travel in order to read books of their choice. Students and masters in the new universities were more apt to own their books, keep them while studying, and take them with them when they left. Monastic scriptoria were unable to produce a sufficient number of books to meet this external demand. The production of books evolved. Lay scribes were brought into monasteries to help with the work and, conversely, monks hired themselves out to private producers. Eventually stationers developed in conjunction with universities to cope with the demand of their own staff and students. Like the monastic scriptoria they replaced, they concentrated their efforts on supplying their own needs and were followed by private stationers who attempted to satiate the appetites of an increasingly literate public for reading of a more recreational than intellectual nature.

The new manuscript trade
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Copying books by hand could be tedious work and mistakes crept in. To prevent such mistakes from multiplying, an exemplar of each work being produced was established. University stationers were sworn to insure all copies duplicated the exemplar. This was one problem that was nearly eliminated with the development of moveable type. A reproduction need only be checked once to produce as many copies as were printed. Mistakes could even be edited out in subsequent reprints.

By the beginning of the fifteenth century the social and intellectual movements that began in the preceding centuries placed an increasing strain on the existing system of producing and distributing books. Changes were afoot within the industry, for that is what it had become. When medieval manuscripts were produced for strictly scholarly use, there were regulations about how they could be sold or traded. To insure access to those who yearned for knowledge, it was actually illegal to profit from the trade of books. By the dawn of the fifteenth century, that had changed, and book publishing had become a lucrative business.

No longer were books painstakingly copied for the internal use of monasteries. Wealthy merchants and nobles such as the Medicis and the Countess Clair had their own copyists, as did Chaucer. Manuscripts copied on paper began to appear. Paper was not well accepted by everyone at first, particularly the upper classes. At one point legal contracts signed on paper were not considered legally binding. Elizabeth Eisenstein speculates that in the last century before printing was a time when “the literate man was likely to be his own scribe” (Eisenstein, 11).

The rise of printing
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It was this tremendous increase in demand for books, which had been brought about by the spread of literacy in the three centuries before 1450, that set the stage for the possibility of the success of printing with moveable type. As we have seen in the case of Gutenberg, the development of the techniques of printing was a long and costly process. Without patent protection, he ended up just another not so successful printer. Those who followed knew the risks involved in this new capital-intensive industry, which was only profitable with large sales. As Steinberg has so astutely pointed out, printers have always had to base their business “on the support of organized institutions or of relying on the fairly stable market of a literate, book-loving, and book-buying clientele of sizable dimensions" (Steinberg, 43).

In the case of Korean printing in the thirteenth century, financing was provided by the emperor T’ai Tsung. Perhaps another reason print did not catch on at that time was it needed a broader base of financial support. Renaissance nobles and the emerging bourgeoisie were not about to provide it. These connoisseurs looked down on printing as “artificial writing” (Harrington, 132). In 1479, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere had Appian’s Civil Wars hand copied from a printed edition. And so it was to the increasingly expanding class of new readers and people of more moderate means that early printers turned.

These printers took their place in an already existing business of book production. At first, they copied the manuscript conventions and their books were designed to resemble manuscripts. But the trade in luxury volumes was limited. Anton Koberger published Liber chronicarum in 1493 with 1800 woodcuts. In 1509 he had unsold stock of it in a dozen European cities from Florence to Budapest. The lower cost per copy of more modest books gave them a distinct advantage in the marketplace. Lower costs to the consumer also meant more people could buy and read books, further expanding their markets. The real fly in the ointment was “cost per copy.” Printing not only solved the problem of producing many identical copies, its business reality demanded it. Printing was still very capital and labour intensive and could only succeed if many copies were sold. It is no surprise, then, that the most successful early presses thrived not in university towns, but in the centres of commerce. These cities provided not just an affluent local market, but also the means of distributing their products to distant markets.

Conclusion
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The development of printing in fifteenth century Germany succeeded because of a number of complex and inter-related factors. Increased trade and prosperity, the decline of feudal society, the Byzantine influence, the revival of learning in the Renaissance and its resulting spread of literacy each played a part. The conditions were right. The facilities and materials needed to convert the idea into physical form existed. Paper, ink and press were available, as was the technology to create type. A large, broadly based market insured that this new enterprise filled a social need. Thus we see the effects of the spread of literacy on the development of printing were as profound as the reverse and were, in fact, responsible for printing's success.

Sources consulted
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Daly, Lowrie J., S.J. The Medieval University. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1961.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

Ferguson, Wallace K. The Renaissance. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1940.

Harrinton, John. The Production and Distribution of Books in Western Europe to the Year 1500. High Wycomb, England: University Microfilms, 1956.

Katz, Bill. Dahl’s History of the Book. 3rd English ed. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1995.

Manguel, Roberto. A History of Reading. Toronto: Knopf, 1996.

McMurtrie, Douglas C. The Book: The Story of Printing & Bookmaking. London: Oxford UP, 1967.

Sarton, George. “The Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress during the Renaissance” The Renaissance: Six Essays. New York: Harper, 1953.

Steinberg, S.H. Five Hundred Years of Printing. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1969.


This paper was originally prepared by Terry Donovan
(contact me) for LIS 586: History of the Book
at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta.
Originally prepared December 2002
Revised March 2003 for MLIS Capping Exercise

Page last updated April 22, 2003