Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press around 1448 had a significant impact on the spread of ideas in Europe and beyond. Printing technology traveled quickly across Europe and, at a time of great religious change, played a key role in the success of the Protestant Reformation. Reformation leader Martin Luther could only preach to a small number of people, but the printed word could spread his message to thousands more, points out Mark U. Edwards of Harvard Divinity School.

Cost of Books

The printing press drastically cut the cost of producing books and other printed materials. Prior to Gutenberg’s invention, the only way of making multiple copies of a book was to copy the text by hand, an laborious and intensely time-consuming occupation usually performed by monks. The materials involved were also costly: Monks wrote on treated skins, known as vellum, and a single copy of the Bible could require 300 sheepskins or 170 calfskins. Printing onto paper made copying cheaper and faster.

Religious Books

The first books Gutenberg printed with his press were copies of the Bible. The Gutenberg Bibles were immensely popular, and all 200 copies were sold even before the copying was complete. The text of the Bible has changed through time, and Gutenberg based his version on documents used in the Rhine area of Germany in the 14th and 15th centuries. The newly printed version Gutenberg created became the standard version and the basis for most future Bible texts.

The Reformation

Gutenberg’s printing press “meant more access to information, more dissent, more informed discussion and more widespread criticism of authorities,” observes the British Library. As such, the printing press played a key role in popularizing ideas associated with the new Protestant faith during the European Reformation, allowing the press to “shape and channel a mass movement,” says Edwards.

Reformation Texts

Protestant thinkers used the printing press to spread their ideas across Europe, mainly through pamphlets. In the very early years of the Reformation, German-language printing presses produced hundreds of pamphlets by Reformation leader Martin Luther, outnumbering Catholic writers five to three and making up 20 percent of all pamphlets published between 1500 and 1530. The invention of the printing press removed control of written material from the Catholic Church and made it difficult for the church to inhibit the spread of what it regarded as heretical ideas.