Background: Johannes Gutenberg (c1398 to 1468) and the development of printing
The early 1450's was a time of rapid cultural change in Europe. The speed of change fuelled a growing need for the quick and cheap production of written documents. Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith and businessman from the mining town of Mainz in southern Germany, borrowed money to develop a printing technology that could address the serious economic bottleneck caused by the dependence on hand-copied documents. From its European debut in the 12th century, paper had gradually proved to be a viable alternative to the animal-skin vellum and parchment that had been used previously. The need for documentation continued to increase with expansions in trade and in the growing scope and complexity of governmental process. Scribal monks sanctioned by the Church had overseen the maintenance and hand copying of sacred texts for centuries Now the many writing shops, employed virtually every literate cleric who wanted work.
Gutenberg foresaw enormous profit-making potential for an economical printing press. He saw a strong market potential in selling indulgences, the slips of paper offering written dispensation from sin that the Catholic Church sold to fund projects devoted to expanding its dominance. In fact, press runs of 200,000 indulgences at a time were common soon after the handwritten versions became obsolete.
Gutenberg developed his press by combining features of existing technologies used for textile, papermaking and wine presses, but his most significant innovation was the efficient moulding and casting of movable metal type. The width of the lead base varied according to the letter's size (‘kerning for fonts’ on a computer). This emphasized the visual impact of words better than evenly spaced letters. Gutenberg designed a Latin print Bible which became his signature work. He launched a run of some 300 two-volume Gutenberg Bibles which sold for 30 florins each, or about three years of a clerk's wage. Despite the dramatic success of his invention, Gutenberg managed to default on a loan and lost his whole printing establishment. His techniques were made public and his creditor won the rights to the proceeds from the Gutenberg Bibles.
The clergy were eager to take advantage of the power of print. Printed indulgences, theological texts, even manuals for conducting inquisitions became common tools for the spread of the Church's influence. But the Church had even more difficulty controlling the activities of printers than they had with the secular scribes. The production and distribution of an expanding variety of texts quickly became too widespread to control. Printed copies of Martin Luther's theses, for example, were widely and rapidly distributed. They prompted far-reaching opposition to the Church's role as the sole custodian of spiritual truth. Bibles printed in everyday languages rather than Latin, fuelled the Protestant Reformation, based on the assertion that the Church should not interpret scripture for the people - an individual's relationship with God should be, direct and personal.
In 1476, William Caxton set up England's first printing press. He had been a prolific translator and found the printing press to be a marvellous way to promote popular literature. Caxton printed and distributed a variety of widely appealing titles including the first popular edition of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. Caxton's contributions as an editor and printer won him a good portion of the credit for standardising the English language.
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