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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.

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Reconstruction of printing process 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.


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.





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