In 1452, German engraver Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and changed the course of history. Before Gutenberg’s innovation, books were copied by hand in manuscript form — the process was costly, time-consuming and left much room for human error. The printing press used movable type to transfer words to the printed page. It allowed books to be produced cheaply and quickly. Although it sounds like a modest invention, Gutenberg’s press was transformative. It shaped a historical period of great importance that was flourishing at that time, the Renaissance. Some think that without Gutenberg, the Renaissance would not have had the same transformative influence.

Moving Beyond Manuscripts

Before the invention of the printing press, books were hand-copied, often in monasteries.
Before the invention of the printing press, books were hand-copied, often in monasteries.

Although the Renaissance was a time of progress in the arts, sciences and politics, it was driven by a belief in the nobility of the individual and human intellect. Scholars known as “humanists” thought the key to attaining this nobility was the study of ancient Greek and Latin writers. However, the writings of those ancient authors were not always easy to find — many humanists traveled across Europe in search of manuscripts containing their work. The invention of the printing press made it possible for ancient texts to be disseminated widely and without the errors native to scribal copying.

Reclaiming Lost Authors

The printing press did not just allow humanism to flourish. It also changed the very shape of knowledge. Before Gutenberg’s invention, humanist study suffered because the works of ancient Greek writers remained elusive. In 1495, Venice-based printer Aldus Manutius published a work by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. It was the first time that Greek texts became not only available, but widely accessible. It suddenly was possible to read works that had only been read in Latin translation, including texts by the philosopher Plato and the dramatist Sophocles.

A New Reading Public

Part of the Renaissance’s transformative power extended beyond the cultural elite. It also affected lower classes. This impact was due in part to the printing press, which did not just make books available for intellectuals; it also made them available for an entirely new audience. Manuscripts had been costly. Printed books were, in comparison, cheap. For the first time, merchants and shopkeepers could obtain books — from popular stories to political treatises. At the same time, more people were learning to read; Western Europe was gaining a literate public.

From Renaissance to Reformation

'Sola Scriptura' was part of the doctrines of Martin Luther, founder of the Reformation.
'Sola Scriptura' was part of the doctrines of Martin Luther, founder of the Reformation.

Literacy and the printing press arguably inspired one of the greatest features of the Renaissance to emerge: doubt. No longer content to accept information second- or third-hand, the public wanted to read for themselves and form their own opinions — and the book they most wanted to read was the Bible. By making the Bible more accessible, new ideas about religion began to grow. In fact, one of the key ideas that motivated the Protestant Reformation sprang from the belief that spiritual connection must come "sola scriptura," from the text of the scripture, not the church leaders.