Stupid Printing Press…Gutenberg Made Me Do It

2010 December 10

by Roy W. Bakos

Earlier this evening, I finished writing a paper for the European History class that I am taking this semester as I move towards the completion of my Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature.  As I was reading the paper over, it seemed to answer the question of why do I do this that I occasionally find myself reflecting upon.  Spreading ideas is why.  Discussing ideas is why.  Provoking thought is why.  Blame Gutenberg for The Moose. Here is the paper.  I hope you enjoy it.

It’s in the Book (and in One’s Ability to Read it)!

During the course of the Semester, we have talked about (Western) European History from the mid 15th Century until the beginning of the 18th Century and the myriad changes that swept through the Continent (and the British Isles) during this time.  In a contemplation of the “Most Important Change” that happened within this 350 year period, one could be tempted at first to go with the biggest changes.  The Reformation.  The Enlightenment.  The Discovery of the New World and the rise of Colonialism.  Capitalism.  Mercantilism.  Increases in technology and the rise of Science and Reason.  The rise of Navies.  The power shift between the “Kings” and the “People.”  The French Revolution.  Heliocentrism.  Education of the “masses.”    Philosophers.

While all of these are indeed important and revolutionary in their own right, there is one thing that made all of this possible and that is the spread of literacy throughout the general population due to the invention of movable type and the Gutenberg Printing Press by Johannes Gutenberg between 1439 and 1450.

Before Gutenberg, books were either hand-copied (usually by Monks) or were printed using wood-block printing and both of these were processes that were quite time consuming and expensive.  Books (and all of the ideas contained within them)  were tools of the extreme minority of literate people that usually came from the noble classes or were part of the organized Catholic Church; in other words, the elite.  The average person could not afford books and really did not want them because the average person could not read.  The tools of philosophy, science, religion, and education belonged to the literate few who shared their knowledge with the illiterate many on their terms and only when they wanted to.  The Dark Ages were metaphorically dark because the brains of most people were absent of the light of written language and the ability to communicate ideas outside of earshot.  The printing press and the “literacy boom” of the following centuries changed all of this and made all of the changes listed above possible.

Change comes from ideas and the ability to communicate these ideas to others that wish to hear about them.  By inventing a way to make printing cheaper and the proliferation of books possible, Gutenberg also provides the force that will shape all of the other changes that come afterward: mass literacy.  After this invention sweeps Europe and becomes commonplace in the 16th Century, literacy rates across the region dramatically rise.  People can now read the Bible for themselves (and commit  numerous heresies because of this).  People can now be educated in the classics of Greek and Roman history, philosophy, and literature.  People can now start to communicate ideas through letters and pamphlets that lead to the spread of even more ideas.  This rise in literacy also sees a rise in Universities where more and more people become educated.  Basically, all of the advances (and many of the things that can be considered de-evolution: better ways to kill and maim your fellow man; ideas like eugenics and nazism; the dehumanization and genocide of the native people in the New World, Oliver Cromwell…there is a dark side to knowledge that one must be aware of as well according to Master Yoda) that result in the movement of European civilization into the “Modern” era come about because of the rise in literacy and the information revolution that is ushered in with the invention of the printing press.  In the words of the indomitable British Pop Star Paul Weller and his band, The Jam:

What kind of a fool do you think I am?
You think I know nothing of the modern world
All my life has been the same
I’ve learned to live by hate and pain
It’s my inspiration drive
This is the modern world that I’ve learnt about
This is the modern world, we don’t need no one
To tell us what’s right or wrong -

Movable Type opens up the Pandora’s Box of knowledge and the whole of Europe and it’s ensuing history is pulled right along with it; slogging all of us into what we now know as the complex “Modern World.”

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