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 and allowed books to be produced cheaply and quickly. Although it sounds like a modest invention, Gutenberg’s press was transformative to the process of printing and creating books. The invention 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 enlightening and innovative effects on the world.
Moving Beyond Manuscripts
Although the Renaissance was a time of progress in the arts, sciences and politics, this time period 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. Widely available for the first time, Greek texts became widely accessible. Reading works that had previously only been read in Latin translation, citizens were able to now read texts by authors like philosopher Plato and the dramatist Sophocles.
A New Reading Public
Part of the Renaissance’s transformative power extended beyond the cultural elite and had an affect on 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, as you can imagine, had been costly while printed books were, in comparison, cheap. For the first time, merchants and shopkeepers could obtain wide array of 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
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.