Essay: The Printing Press: Renaissance Invention that Changed the World

The Printing Press:

Renaissance Invention that Changed the World

by A.D. Shaffer

{Graduate Studies; originally written for Humanities 530 Spring 2015}

The collaboration of the printing press issued forth a movement of literary zeal and a resurgence of the human capacity to reason. Physically, the machinery granted man the ability to mass-produce texts in a cost effective way. Mentally, the printing press brought unlimited possibilities for the human mind to consider. Spiritually, the movement shook the foundation of the Christian church on two fronts: first, allowing the people the ability to own their own bible, and secondly the grander meaning of literature – the breathing room to interpret the scripture for themselves without the aid of a priest.

Jensen notes the printing press “had a greater effect over a longer period of time and upon more people {…} Some scholars have pronounced it the single most important development of the Renaissance and perhaps of the entire world” (Jensen 217). Since the 12th century, typographers were skilled in using hand-carved wood block plates to copy manuscripts, but the process was long and served only the intended copy.   Johannes Gutenberg’s contribution to the printing press – movable letters – the canvas itself required updating to better accommodate the costs. Moving from parchment and vellum to processed linen afforded works to be completed en masse: “A cheap, durable and easily produced material was required to match the mass-production capabilities of the printing press, and the printers found it in paper” (Chamberlin 164). Linen-paper is seen as early as the twelfth century to accommodate the growing universities throughout Europe, and with the inclusion of the printing press man-hours for paper production spiked. This created a demand for workers, paper producers as well as goldsmiths, in need to create many movable type letters for the growing presses throughout Europe. Another area of work inside the book itself developed during Elizabethan times – advertising. Without the staunch support of the nobility, publishers turned to other business to lessen their expenses of publication by providing advertising through illustrations: “In this instance, the printer placed the illustration after the headline, so the illustration became part of the title page itself, followed by the printer’s device and retail information. {…} assisted in advertising and promoting the pamphlet” (Voss 739).

The Greek classics were reproduced, once Hellenistic manuscripts were found, and a renewed desire for ‘pre-original sin’ theory flourished. Renaissance man discovered in the classics the importance for humanity and avenues to freely express man’s desires – without the judgment and restrictions of church doctrine (Manchester 105). This, in a sense, permitted man to value the human experience instead of devaluing life in hopes of death as Christian claims insisted that happiness and love were found only in heaven. Even though the church demonstrated strict limitations to advancement, Manchester notes that the institution was not penalized: “The Christian faith was not repudiated, but the new concept of the cultivated man was the Renaissance homo universal, the universal man: creator, artist, scholar, and encyclopedic genius in the spirit of the ancient paideia” (Manchester 105).

Typographers, scribes, and copiers were preferred by the upper crust as class held snobbish designs on common people controlling the press: “The invention of printing was denounced by, among others, politicians and ecclesiastics who feared it as an instrument which could spread subversive ideas” (Manchester 95-96). A copied manuscript was a work of art that took numerous months to complete. While a copy of work, handwritten manuscripts were original and unique reproductions. The printing press attempted to mimic the artistry of copied works by including illuminated initials and hand-drawn rubrics, but “The new craft did not at once cause the collapse of the copying industry; wealthy scholars were at first prejudiced against the use of print, deeming it an unworthy method to enshrine the thoughts of the great” (Chamberlin 166). The true distaste lay in the wealthy snubbing the thought of the common people experiencing life as grandly as they could, and possibly a fear of knowledge bridging the gap between the classes.

Works Cited

Chamberlin, E. R. Everyday life in Renaissance Times. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons,


Jensen, De Lamar. Renaissance Europe: Age of Recovery and Reconciliation.

2nd ed. Lexington, Massachusetts:   D.C. Heath and Company, 1992.

Manchester, William. A World Lit only by Fire The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance:

Portrait of an Age. Boston, Massachusetts: Little Brown and Company, 1993.

Voss, Paul J. “Books for Sale: Advertising and Patronage in Late Elizabethan England.”

The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 29, No. 3(1998), pp. 733-756. Accessed 6

March 2015.

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