History and Technology

History, Technology, and the Written Word

Stephen Fry documentary on Gutenberg’s development

Gutenberg & the Origins of Modern Printing 

Printing as an idea has been around, in essence, ever since the act of writing was developed; there is no exact date, therefore, when it was invented. But it was the genius of Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century – “a turning point in the history of civilisation”[1] – in developing printing as we know it, which went on to revolutionise all aspects of life in developed countries by the beginning of the sixteenth century, and would continue to have a dominant role and inspire dramatic change right up to the present day.

The elements which Gutenberg combined to develop the basis of modern printing were, in fact, present across Europe by the early fifteenth century. Paper was a more viable material than vellum, in terms of cost and wider availability, for use in printing; this arrived in Europe from China in the twelfth century.[2] By this time, a European alphabet (based on Latin) had been developed too; language was previously a hindrance when developing type which would have a use across national borders and, therefore, limited book production. Gutenberg’s knowledge of metal work also, due to his training as a goldsmith,[3] was invaluable in developing the type essential to his printing process. The refinement of all of these aspects, plus other sub-technologies (such as finding a suitable press, and how to transfer the type onto it) by Gutenberg, is proof that he was the key to the development and spread of letterpress printing across Europe and, later, globally.

Although some aspects of the technology used by Gutenberg (such as the development of paper, an alphabet and movable type) had been developed in Korea and China,[4] it was the combination of these elements with the social situation present in Western Europe in the fifteenth century, which meant that Gutenberg’s technology really took off across the continent (William Caxton being the first printer in England, for example).[5] Wider literacy across Europe, and the growth of intellectual centres (such as Strasbourg in France,[6] Mainz in Germany[7] and Westminster in Lond[8]) meant that there was an increased demand for books; Gutenberg’s technology thrived as, unlike books copied by scribes, each copy was identical and could also be produced more quick[9] (as seen with Gutenberg’s legendary 42-line Bible) – here, therefore, lies the basis of later developments in print technology (which have cut production times to mere minutes). However, as demand increased, the old technology – the basis of which continued to be used in the printing industry until the early twentieth century – was unable to cope,[10] suggesting that the success achieved by Gutenberg and his printing, for books was only temporary, as a problem with lack of production speed was an issue.

The impact which early development in printing had upon history (not just technological history) was radical. For the first time, it ensured that identical, exact copies were available on mass. Without the developments which occurred in the fifteenth century which gave a vast audience access to books, then surely literacy would not have been so widespread across Europe, leading to latter developments – such as the political revolutions of the nineteenth century – being delayed. The technology also oversaw the first break away from church control over publications, due to printing occurring outside religious establishments, in contrast to the monastic scribes who had previously had total control over what they copied. This, therefore, could be said to have inspired the mass break with the church, across all sections of society, which occurred during the Renaissance period.

Overall, therefore, Gutenberg and his development of the technique of printing from metal movable type was heavily reliant on solving many issues which had prevented printing from being developed earlier. The utilisation of an increased range of technologies available to Gutenberg to solve problems proves his individual genius, and why he can truly be considered to be the father, but not the inventor, of printing.

Further reading

Clair, Colin. A History of European Printing. (London: Academic Press, 1976)

Steinberg, S. H. Five Hundred Years of Printing. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1955)

Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Man, John. The Gutenberg Revolution. (London: Transworld Publishers, 2009)

Twyman, Michael. The British Library Guide to Printing. (London: The British Library, 1998)

Caxton’s Trace: Studies in the History of English Printing. Edited by William Kuskin, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2006 – Introduction (1-31) & Chapter One (35-68)


[1] S. H. Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1955), 24

[2] John Man, The Gutenberg Revolution (London: Transworld Publishers, 2009), 107

[3] Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing, 27

[4] Man, The Gutenberg Revolution, 107

[5] Colin Clair, A History of European Printing (London: Academic Press, 1976), 94

[6]  Man, The Gutenberg Revolution, 103

[7] Man, The Gutenberg Revolution, 14[8] Clair, A History of European Printing, 94

[8] Clair, A History of European Printing, 94

[9] Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 2005), 3

[10] Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing, 29

Going Viral in the 16th Century: Martin Luther and the Reformation

Martin Luther nails the 95 Theses to doors of Wittenberg Cathedral

On October 31st 1517, an obscure Augustine monk by the name of Martin Luther hammered a document to the doors of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, part of Electoral Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire. In doing so, he sparked the most profound religious upheaval in Europe since Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313AD. This document, known as the 95 Theses, was nothing short of a sensation, estimated to have spread across Germany within two weeks and across Christendom within a month, reaching both the nobles and ordinary people alike.[1] As Derek Wilson emphasises: “it would be difficult to identify any other individual who, without wielding political power or leading armies, more decisively changed the course of history”.[2] In today’s language Luther had gone viral, igniting the seeds of discontent and shaking the religious establishment to its core. 

The rapid spread of Lutheran ideology in the 1520s and 1530s is staggering: of the 7 million pamphlets printed in the first decade of the Reformation over a quarter were by Luther, and spread far and wide across Christendom.[3] Yet it was a new technology that enabled the spread of the Lutheran cause not only far beyond original expectation, but also at unprecedented speed: the printing press. Up until the mid-15th Century, the copying of text was largely done by religious scribes, slow, painstaking work that often resulted in errors and ensured a level of religious censorship to the spread of new ideas. However, by 1500, printing presses were present in every major town in Christendom, with 64 in Germany alone, thus enabling mass reproduction of a wealth of new ideas and writings, in addition to a marked increase in literacy rates. This level of mass production and participation combined with distinct anti-clerical sentiment to create a potent atmosphere in which Luther’s writings would prove catalytic, striking resonance with people from all areas of society.

However, the question remains as to why Luther struck such resonance through his writings and why they spread so far and so fast; in order to understand this, the nature of the Holy Roman Empire must be examined in more detail. At the dawn of the 16th century, Germany was nothing more than a collection of electoral states and cities; the larger states were ruled by seven princes who in turn elected an emperor. In theory, he ruled over the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, however in practice the balance of power was hugely complex. The ambition of the princes to hold greater influence coincided neatly with Luther’s 1520 pamphlet Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation which emphasised the role of hierarchy in Lutheran doctrine and urged the princes to act as the spiritual heads of the church, in place of the Pope, who was commonly perceived as a ‘foreign ruler’ and ‘antichrist’. As such, Luther’s writings gained the crucial support of four of the seven princes by 1544, though it is important to note that this support was as much political as it was religious. The most notable of these princes was Frederick the Wise of Saxony, who took Luther under his protection as early as 1518. This princely support ensured Luther’s survival during the immensely volatile years of the early reformation, particularly at the Diet of Worms in 1521, in which Frederick secured safe conduct and afterwards ‘kidnapped’ him in order to avert Luther sharing the same fate as Jan Hus in 1415.

Johann Tetzel: "the father of lies" (M. Mullett)

Luther’s writings effectively tapped into a vein of German nationalism and anti-foreign sentiment, which echoed with the princes and ordinary people alike and as such, his writings spread like wildfire. Germany was commonly labelled ‘Rome’s cow’ due to the abuses of German indulgences by both high-ranking clergy such as Albrecht Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz and ordinary friars such as Johann Tetzel. As a result, there was a huge amount of underlying anti-clerical sentiment by the time Luther published his 95 Theses. The rapid spread of Luther’s writings, estimated to have been printed 300,000 times between 1517 and 1520 alone, show the scale of support, or at the very least widespread exposure to Lutheran ideas.[4] The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther’s second pamphlet essentially rejected the power of the Catholic Clergy, arguing that the Bible was the sole source of authority – Sola Scriptura. Whilst Luther’s third pamphlet of 1520 – Freedom of a Christian Man – elaborated on his previous work and focussed on the idea of Sola Fide, further expanding Lutheran doctrine and undermining the importance of penance in Catholic theology. Thus between the three pamphlets of 1520, Luther cemented his doctrine for a reformed Lutheran Church, putting his ideas down in writing and enabling them to spread through the use of the printing press.

Luther at the Imperial Diet of Worms, 1521

However, there is a vivid debate raging in the schools of academia as to Luther’s usefulness from 1521 onwards. Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms in 1521, following several attempts by the Catholic Church to quiet him in the years previously, including the Leipzig Debate in 1519 and the Papal Bull of Excommunication in 1520. The Diet was a step onto the international political stage and Luther faced a trial before the Electoral Princes and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. However, there was a considerable degree of doubt as to whether Luther would emerge from this meeting alive: Jan Hus, a Czech theologian writing in the early 15th Century was also assured safe conduct to a meeting on religious reform; he was arrested and burnt as a heretic. Luther, well aware of this precedence committed himself to writing his doctrines down in the hopes that his teachings might continue after his death. With this in mind, Andrew Pettegree’s argument that after 1521 “it is likely that Luther would have been a more powerful symbol dead than alive” seems highly likely.[5] Hus’ execution gave way to the bloody Hussite Wars 1419-1434, if Luther too had died a martyr, he would be firmly cemented in legend, his writings carrying his beliefs forwards against the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. By 1521, Lutheran theology had spread across Europe with the aid of the printing press through the halls of kings and the homes of the ordinary people, they reached so wide and so many that the Catholic Church had little hope of extinguishing the flames of reformation, as it had done previously. From this point onwards, it was the political pragmatic of the electoral princes which carried the Reformation forwards: Luther’s writings had ignited German Nationalism on an unprecedented scale, undoubtedly through their widespread circulation as a result of the printing press. They had reached the ears of those that would promote them until the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, where the emperor conceded that each ruler could choose his own faith, thus transforming the religious composition of Christendom.

There is no doubt over the importance of Martin Luther to the Reformation. His writings spread far and wide and sparked religious revolution in Germany, Norway, Sweden, The Netherlands, The Baltic States, and paved the way for further reform in England, Scotland, and the Swiss Confederation before the end of the century. What enabled his ideas to spread so far was undoubtedly his use of the printed word, the social media of its day and it was immensely successful, enabling the reformation to continue with or without him. As Simon Lemieux remarks, the reformation was “the first modern historical movement in terms of its media” and succeeded in capturing the attention of Christendom, dividing it, and captivating it to this day.[5]

Bibliography and Further Reading

Chadwick, Owen. The Penguin History of the Church: The Reformation. June 1990.

Lemieux, Simon. The Medium and the Message: Evangelical Propaganda. History Review, Issue 65. December 2009.

Pettegree, Andrew. The Execution of Martin Luther. History Review, Issue 24. March 1996.

Social Media in the 16th Century: How Luther went viral. The Economist. December 17, 2011. http://www.economist.com/node/21541719.

Stanton, Philip. AQA History AS Unit 1 Reformation in Europe, C1500-1564. Edited by Sally Waller. United Kingdom: Nelson Thornes, 2008.

Wilson, Derek. ‘The Luther Legacy’. History Today, Volume 57, Issue 5. May 2007.

[1] The Economist. ‘How Luther Went Viral’. December 17, 2011.

[2] Wilson, Derek. ‘The Luther Legacy’. History Today 57, no. 5 (May 2007).

[3] Stanton, Philip. AQA History AS Unit 1 Reformation in Europe, C1500-1564. Edited by Sally Waller. United Kingdom: Nelson Thornes, 2008. p.58

[4] Stanton, Philip. AQA History AS Unit 1 Reformation in Europe, C1500-1564. Edited by Sally Waller. United Kingdom: Nelson Thornes, 2008. p.37

[5] Pettegree, Andrew. ‘The Execution of Martin Luther’. History Review, no. 24 (March 1996).

[6] Lemieux, Simon. ‘The Medium and the Message: Evangelical Propaganda’. History Review, no. 65 (December 2009).