The Social Impact of the Printing Press

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., Universtity of Tennessee

The printing press created by Johann Gutenberg was one of the most revolutionary inventions of all time, with far-reaching effects that have shaped life as we know it today. While the impacts of the press were felt on all spheres of life—scientific, religious, and economic—perhaps some of the most significant and rippling effects were felt in the social sphere. 

Image of manuscript in old book
Johann Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized the world as it existed, creating huge ripples in social, cultural, religious, and intellectual paradigms. (Image: elen_studio/Shutterstock)

To really understand the pervasive impact that the printing press had on society, it becomes imperative to have an idea about what society was like before the invention. 

Life Before the Printing Press

Long, long before the printing press was ever even conceptualized, a man was not equipped with the instrument of writing. It was only the spoken word that was passed on. Memory was the tool that was relied on. As a result of this, when writing began to enter the mainstream world, it was condemned by a lot of people, including Socrates, who felt that it would just create forgetfulness and create a ‘show of wisdom without reality’. 

This opinion, of course, was extremely ephemeral, though, and soon thereafter, writing had become very common. Still, it remained at the jurisdiction of the elites of society, preserving the written word on papyrus or vellum. In monasteries, cathedrals, and universities of the medieval world, the writing was not done in ordinary language; a special, holy language, Latin, was used for the purpose. This further restricted access to writing to only those who were learned in Latin. 

Over the years, the libraries of monasteries became repositories of rare, exquisite, and sometimes, unique texts. Whenever copies were required, they would be made in a special scriptorium, the room of the scribes, where a scribe, usually a monk, would try his best to replicate the text as closely as possible, without making errors. Despite his best efforts, there were often inadvertent errors in the texts. Despite this, copying was seen as holy labor, and many men devoted their lives to it, creating, over the years, some beautiful products, such as the Book of Kells. 

But even though the work tried to avoid variability, there were changes that gradually came about. A crucial one that had taken place by the start of the middle ages was the shift from scrolls to codices, the form in which we are acquainted with our books. By reducing the wear and tear that was inevitable from the constant rolling and unrolling of scrolls, the codex made the written word more accessible, and for that, many historians believe it to be an even bigger revolution than the printing press.

Bookselling also became a much bigger vocation in the later middle ages, with stationery shops sprouting up around the young universities of Medieval Europe, around 1350. Here, scribes would copy books on demand.

With the entry of the Gutenberg printing press, all of this, and several other social systems, went through a major overhaul. 

Effects of the Gutenberg Printing Press

Gutenberg’s press had strong associations with the Christian authority. He saw the catholic world as a serious market for his products and began to print Bibles. These newer, ‘approved’, and more uniform bibles became a show for Papal authority, and warded off rival popes, maintaining, and in fact, strengthening authority over Christendom. 

Later on, Gutenberg’s printing press was used to print copies of the Catholic priest, Martin Luther’s works, including his Ninety-Five Theses, calling for changes within the church, which were read in huge numbers, technically making Martin Luther the first-ever best selling author. In this manner, the printing press was of paramount importance in spreading the protestant reforms. 

While the importance of this influence can not be undermined, Gutenberg’s press had some other effects that were felt and understood far more dramatically at the time. 

Learn more about Gutenberg’s Print Revolution.

Democratizing Access to the Written Word

Printing had revolutionized the speed and range of distribution of texts. It permitted books to be printed at extremely high speeds in comparison to hand copying, potentially ushering in the age of bestsellers. As the technology proliferated further throughout Europe, costs came down with mass production, cutting costs to as much as one – eighth of the former costs. In this manner, it managed to democratize access to texts, which had earlier been under the purview of religious institutions. 

Eventually, public libraries began to spring up, with the first one coming up in Florence, bookselling exploded, and book fairs began to become increasingly common. Eventually, all of this resulted in the creation of a mass audience for the printed word in the form of books, newspapers, and journals. 

As a direct consequence of democratized access to text, the printing press aided in the creation of new communities that were based around common readings, and the discussion of their ideas.  The creation of this discourse gave birth to a new individual, the intellectual, who communicated on the basis of shared ideas, reading and writing, and did not necessarily belong to the clergy or religious orders. 

This created a virtual network, often of international members, referred to by different names, such as the Learned commonwealth. Since printing shops became gatherings for such people, printers began to become public intellectuals. Ben Franklin, for instance, was a printer and an intellectual.

Reimagining Hand-written Text

While the print revolution was, doubtlessly, a turning point in history, publishers of new texts were working to reassure contemporaries that the process was not completely new, or radical, often by referring to their work as ‘artificial writing’, which sounded more familiar in comparison to newer, technical terms. 

Printers tried to make their work look like manuscripts, and followed the scribal design, such as by using two-columned pages. 

At the same time, scribal work had not vanished overnight. In fact, the prestige of handwritten texts endured, as more exclusive and rare books began to rise in value to the tasteful customer. 

In fact, some scribes had to copy printed books in order to meet demand, strange as that sounds. In this manner, the position of handwritten books in the market had, although not completely changed, been repackaged as an exquisite luxury.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Further Outcomes of the Printing Press

As can easily imagine, and well understood now, the effects of the printing press did not stop at that. As stated already, printing played a key role in the proliferation of the protestant movement. 

Printing shaped the linguistic world as well, by creating a shift from Latin to vernacular languages in a bid to cater to the masses. These, when standardized, became the languages we know and use today.

Printing was also of supreme importance in the later Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the growth of national communities. While the Renaissance came much before the print revolution, it was the printing press that brought it back to life. 

Similarly, even though the intellectual movement far predated the printing press, the press helped humanists revive classical knowledge by supplying classic texts, ironically becoming the new technology that helped to revive antiquity. 

Printing sped the Scientific movement, allowing the publishing of Copernicus’s work on the geocentric model, often seen as the launching work of the movement.

 All these were extremely well-known movements, whose effects are with us still, and are likely to stay for the foreseeable time, and with them, so are the effects of the print revolution and Gutenberg’s printing press. 

Learn more about The French Revolution.

Commonly Asked Questions about the Social Impact of the Printing Press

Q: Why was the printing press so important?

The printing press enabled a large number of socioeconomic, religious, scientific, and cultural changes to take place in the medieval world, whose effects are felt to date.

Q: What was the impact of the printing press on the Renaissance?

Even though the Renaissance began much before the printing press was invented, the press provided a significant impetus to the Renaissance, notably also hastening the propagation of new ideas.

Q: What was the impact of the printing press on linguistics?

The printing press democratized access to the written word, and in order to appeal to the masses, printing was started in vernacular languages instead of Latin, thus standardizing them, and giving birth to the languages used today.

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