How Did European Communication Change During the Renaissance?

Johannes Gutenberg invented the first European printing press, revolutionizing communication during the Renaissance.
... Images

The Renaissance was a time of great change in Europe, spanning roughly the 15th century to the 17th and characterized by a flourishing of culture and knowledge. This flourishing, however, would not have been possible without the printing press, which changed communication by allowing books to be printed faster, ideas, such as Protestantism, to spread faster, and people in general to grow more conscious of their national identities.

1 The Printing Press

Though the Bi Sheng of China had discovered movable type printing in 1040, Europeans were unaware of the technology. Such printing in Europe came about in 1440 in the city of Mainz, Germany, at the workshop of Johannes Gutenberg, a smith by trade. Gutenberg's invention was the movable type, the first printing press in Europe with a template in which different parts and letters could be easily moved around, allowing the rapid expansion of printing.

2 Spread of Knowledge

By 1480, the printing press had spread to over 100 cities in Europe, and with its spread came the spread of knowledge. Old classical texts, which until 1490 had been preserved in monasteries and copied by hand only by monks, could now easily be spread among the literate classes of Europe. These ancient texts led to the growth of new artistic, literary and philosophical movements throughout the Renaissance. A writer such as Shakespeare, for example, not an aristocrat but just a merchant from a small town in England, was now able to read Greek and Roman texts, which would have a profound effect on his own writings.

3 The Reformation

The printing press also directly contributed to the Protestant Reformation of 1517 by allowing Martin Luther's 95 Theses, which started the Reformation, to spread quickly and move beyond Wittenberg, Germany, in just a few years. Thanks to the printing press, German translations of Luther's theses enjoyed huge sales. Additionally, the printing press allowed for the printing of Bibles, particularly in languages other than Latin, which gave laypeople access to scripture, a foundational tenet of Protestantism and a way to challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

4 Nationalism

Finally, according to scholar Benedict Anderson, the printing press contributed to feelings of nationalism throughout Europe. As he argues in his seminal work "Imagined Communities," the press was instrumental in printing material in local languages rather than Latin, leading large areas to coalesce and feel connected on the basis of common language. For Anderson, the printing press helped unify a region based on language into a nation by developing a culture surrounding that particular written language.

Aatif Rashid writes on international politics and culture. His articles have appeared in magazines such as "The Oxonian Globalist" and online at Future Foreign Policy and ThinkPolitic. He holds Bachelor's degrees in English and history from U.C. Berkeley and a Masters degree from the University of Oxford.