The early years of book printing

Relief printing, or xylography, is printing using raised surfaces and originated in Asia. They used woodblocks and moveable cut characters. Blockprinting then moved closer to Europe and in the early 14th century, it was used for printing on textiles. It is thought that this practise and the construction of the wooden screw for wine presses, is the background inventions that helped further the idea of typography, printing with types.

The invention of typographic printing often ranks as one of the most important inventions in civilization, near the creation of writing. Writing created the chance of storing, retrieving and documenting knowledge. Typographic printing allowed for an economical and bigger production. This way, knowledge could spread rapidly and to a bigger crowd. This lead to higher literacy. But it was also a growing literate middle class and their demand for books that created a climate in Europe where printing could be possible. Together with the rapidly expanding universities and their students. The clergy’s monopoly on literacy was ending.

Speed was of the essence. It took one scribe four to five months to do a simple 200 page book. And the sheepskins it required, were even more expensive than the labor of the scribe. This wasn’t the way to supply the growing demand on information. So the second thing that needed to change, apart from the text itself, was the material. Without paper, the efficiency of the printing would have been useless. But during the 13th and 14th centuries, paper mills established in Italy and France. So with the availability of paper, relief printing from woodblocks and a growing demand for books; Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg of Mainz in Germany first brought together the complex system of typography around 1450 AD. Gutenberg was a goldsmith apprentice and came with skills in metalworking and engraving. He then printed the first full book, the forty-two-line Bible, circa 1455.

When Gutenberg started to print he chose to mimic the square compact texture lettering style used by the scribes of his day. Most of the early printers tried to compete with scribes by imitating their work as closely as possible. The printing was done so well, and was difficult to distinguish from good calligraphy. Even the pope to be, Pius II, commented on it; “the script is extremely neat and legible, not at all difficult to follow.”. But when the book was brought out to be sold, they attempted to sell them as manuscripts, but when the costumers saw the number and the likeness of the volumes, they thought witchcraft was involved and the printers had to confess and explain to avoid indictment.

At the beginning, scribes in some cities tried to achieve a ban against printing, arguing that the printers were threatening their livelihood, that printing was unfair competition and that it would reduce the demand for manuscript books. Some bibliophiles agreed and called the printed books inferior to the hand written, and unworthy to be in their libraries.
But books at this time was a collaboration between printers and scribes as initials and ornaments were handmade. Space was left for these, and the scribe often used red ink for headings and paragraph marks.

Printing dramatically changed literature into something more vernacular, printed in the native, everyday language. The production centers moved gradually away from the monasteries and and the publications became more bespoke. The elite were not the only ones who could afford books anymore. But the printing also brought out a new behavior within the elite. The luxury book editions that was not to be read. Books that were shelved, displayed and talked about, but not read. These were often fought over and sent across Europe as booty.

To compare numbers a bit; in 1450, Europe’s libraries and monasteries housed an estimated 50 000 volumes. During the incunabula period, 1450-1500, it is estimated that over 35 000 editions were printed. A total of 9 million books.

But to become a printer, you certainly had to have a lot of resources. To invest in a printing shop, at least one printing machine and the wait before you had finished and could sell books was expensive. The process to print an edition of a book could take a long time, and during that time, the project didn’t make any money. Until the very last sheet was printed, all the others were incomplete and unsaleable. To evaluate the market correctly was very important and it was common to print small editions, and if it went well, print another one and then another one. A book first printed by Günther Zainer in Augsburg was reprinted at least 745 times between 1470 and 1650. Many printers had to have some kind of patron to survive. But a lot of printers didn’t make it and went bankrupt.

To make profits, the printers constantly improved their products and techniques. Types were made smaller, was set tighter and with less margins. The paper became finer and thinner and the paper moulds was made bigger to fit two sheets at the same time for higher efficiency. Small prints for commercial, social or political purposes were usually prioritized. They sold faster and the income was more certain.

Even though Gutenberg was trying to keep the technology a secret, others were quick to copy. By 1470 printing presses worked in fourteen European cities. Just ten years later, 110 cities published printed books. But it was still mainly a German undertaking. Even the first printers in Italy were German. They moved to find new grounds and by 1500, there were printers in 80 towns and cities in Italy and only 64 in Germany.

The fast growth of literacy also created a big demand for writing masters due to an expansion of government and commerce. This created a need for calligraphers who could draft important business and state documents.
A lot of financial, civic and bureaucratic forms were printed, but in many cases, these documents didn’t have any authority until the blank parts were filled in by hand and/or signed and validated with written marks or words.

Typographic printing reduced a book’s price to a fraction of it’s previous cost and turned a shortage of book into an abundance. And not only the books themselves, but the knowledge within them. Printing is said to have stabilized and unified languages, contributing to the spirit of nationalism and the development of the nation-state. Books, posters and pamphlets were powerful ways to spread ideas and the access to knowledge radically changed education. The access gave more people the opportunity to learn, but the learning also became more private. With each person reading on their own rather than a communal process.

One specific type of studies that changed things were the increased studies of religious texts, like the Bible. Edition after edition was printed and people all over Europe could do their own interpretations instead of relying on the established authority. When Luther posted his 95 theses, they were passed to printers and just 2 months later, his ideas had been circulated throughout central Europe. It is doubtful that the Protestant movement of the Reformation could have happened without typographic printing. Big changes like this of course led to the church and state wanting to keep their control. So during the 16th century, censorship became a growing problem for printers. Propagating for ideas often led scholar-printers to conflicts with royalty and religious leaders. Conflicts like these also led to the spread of printers, when they sometimes had to flee to escape religious disputes, rigid trade laws and censoring.

/Honorable Lady Gele Pechplumin
(Magdalena Morén)

The information is coming from the following sources:
Meggs, Philip B. & Purvis, Alston W. (2016). Meggs’ history of graphic design
Raven, James (red.) (2020). The Oxford illustrated history of the book
Suarez, Michael F. & Woudhuysen, H. R. (red.) (2013). The book: a global history


Leave a comment

Filed under 15th century

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s