Printing Revolution

Updated Thursday 1st September 2005

Before the printing revolution, books had to be written by hand, making them very expensive. Afterwards books became consumer products.

Quill Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Reconstruction of printing process Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Before printing was invented around 1450, it could take up to two years to hand write a book.

Copying was initially done in monasteries, but demand was such that by the 14th century much copying was done by professional scribes. Still prices were prohibitively high.

The scale of latent demand meant that the expansion of the printing industry was rapid. By 1476 William Caxton had set up the first printing press in England, and by 1500 there were more than 1000 printing shops across Europe.

The written word became widely accessible, leading to an increase in literacy. It facilitated critical thinking and unprecedented social debate, with science and religion among favourite topics.

At first press runs were small, two or three hundred copies. The thousand copy edition was commonplace by 1480. The three to five thousand copy editions were there by the end of the century.

At that point anyone with a little extra money could aspire to owning a book.

Martin Lowry believes that for the image conscious, owning a book in the 1480s and 90s was the equivalent of owning a mobile phone in the 1980s and 90s.

Evidence

Tax records and account books are used to compile statistics of the spread of the printing process.

After the 1480s books began to be used with greater ease rather than being regarded as objects to be revered. There's very little annotation in copies of Gutenberg's Bible, but more can be found in bibles printed many years later. Books became part of people's lives in a way that manuscripts had never been.

People began to use books professionally. Doctors began to write case histories in the margins of books about medicine, students began to use books for annotation during lectures, legal specialists and lawyers began to write long commentaries in their legal works and extend views of it.

Thinking History

Q. What sort of books were being printed?

Who decides what is going to be printed? Were printers supported by wealthy patrons? How much did the market determine output? After all, in the long run printers had to print what they could sell, or they would go bankrupt - but who were they targeting, how many people could read, what did these people want to buy?

Inevitably there was going to be a lot of trial and error here! How did the market change over time? How much control could the authorities expect to maintain over printing presses when they could proliferate so quickly?

The variety of books on secular subjects did grow rapidly, outstripping those concerned with religion by the end of the 15th century - though religious tracts could still command the biggest print runs.

Renaissance scholarship was particularly well served by the new technology. Renaissance humanists laid great emphasis on the critical editing of texts, and this was made immeasurably simpler by having printed texts which could readily be compared.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

BookCrossing Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BookCrossing, Inc. article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

BookCrossing

Connecting people through books.

Article
Time to turn a critical eye on the self-help industry? Creative commons image Icon Catherine Pain under Creative-Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Time to turn a critical eye on the self-help industry?

Meg Barker looks a little deeper at what can be done to alleviate human suffering.

Article
Richard Morris' story Creative commons image Icon Serenity / CC BY 2.0 under Creative-Commons license article icon

Nature & Environment 

Richard Morris' story

Explore the personal side of climate change with Richard Morris' diary entry.

Article
What Did Gutenberg Invent? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

What Did Gutenberg Invent?

Gutenberg is credited with having invented printing using movable type. It has been assumed that the process he invented around 1450 was the method that continued to be used for another 500 years. But Paul Needham and Blaise Aguera y Arcas have made a new discovery that throws doubt on that.

Article
What Do We Mean By Health? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: OU (course book) article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

What Do We Mean By Health?

Course extract from Preparing For Development - What Do We Mean By Health?

Article
Origin Day lecture: Sandy Knapp response Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Sandy Knapp video icon

History & The Arts 

Origin Day lecture: Sandy Knapp response

Sandy Knapp offers a response to Professor Wilson's lecture

Video
10 mins
Health Care Options in Renaissance Florence Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

Health Care Options in Renaissance Florence

For the Rennaissance Italian patient here was a vast array of health care options because the practice of medicine was not seen as an exclusively professional business - anyone could do it.

Article
Transistors and thermionic valves Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

Transistors and thermionic valves

Without the valve and the transistor there would be no radio, no television and no computers. How did these vital inventions come about?

Article
The Birth of (Synthetic) Dyeing Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: OU article icon

History & The Arts 

The Birth of (Synthetic) Dyeing

Today, the world’s dyestuffs industry produces around 500 000 tonnes of synthetic dye each year. It’s come a long way since William Henry Perkins discovered mauve.

Article