The Printing Press
At the height of the Hussite movement that swept Protestant Reformation in the early 1400’s, the authorities demanded that over 200 manuscripts of heretical writings to be burnt. The people on both sides of this political and religious upheaval quickly realized the significance of their act; that two hundred hand written documents would be not only be extremely hard and time consuming to replace but finding trained scribes were a rare commodity among the largely illiterate populations of Middle Ages. After all, most of these scribes were taught and employed by the Church, and it would seem unlikely that the Church would loan out its scribes to recopy the works of heretics. Even though the Hussites did more than defend their own against the Church’s wrath, their radical movement was confined mainly within the borders of their homeland of Bohemia. One of the main reasons for this limitation was due to the inability to spread the word beyond their homeland borders. A century later this would all change.
Like many other inventions, the printing press was not just the result of one man’s ingenious insight into all the problems to which the press could solve, but rather came along when the right conditions existed at the right time and place. In this case, the right time was in the mid 1400’s in Europe. The invention itself came from the combination of several different inventions and innovations such as: “block printing, rag paper, oil based ink, interchangeable metal type, and the squeeze press” (Jones, 1997). If there were to be one process to thank for such an innovation in the publishing world, it would the rise of small towns across Europe that sparked trade with the outside world. This trade network extended all the way east to China and would facilitate the access to the essential raw materials that Johannes Gutenburg needed in order to create the printing press. The trade network exposed Europe to the three things vital to the invention of the printing press; rag paper, block printing, and, oddly enough, the Black Death. (Kreis, 2004)
For centuries the Chinese had been making rag paper, which was traditionally made from the pulp of water and discarded rags that where then pressed into sheets of paper. The use of cotton aided the absorption of color which would be the ink. The technology of making such paper was spread from when the Arabs had met the Chinese during the battle of Talas River in 751 AD, in which several prisoners happened to be skilled in this art. The technology slowly spread across the Muslim world, north to Spain and eventually to the rest of Western Europe by the late 1200’s (All About Paper).
The Black Death spread to Western Europe thanks to the expanded trade routes, which significantly catalyzed the invention of the printing press in three major ways. First off, those who survived the deadly wrath of the plague, found themselves inheriting the property of those who did not persist the Black Death. Suddenly, many people found themselves a great deal richer, even the peasants. Since the textile industry boomed during this time period which caused an influx of clothes. As the clothes began to wear becoming rags, fourteenth century Europe was left with plenty of old rags which would be turned into rag paper, which was significantly cheaper than parchment (composed of sheepskin) and vellum (composed of calfskin). Both parchment and vellum were used previously to make books. Taking into consideration that it took approximately 170 calfskins or 300 sheepskins to make one copy of the Bible we can only imagine the plunge of paper cost once rags were employed. The Black Death had also killed off many of the monks whom were responsible for copying many of the books, yet due to the overcrowded conditions in the monasteries the mortality rate skyrocketed, even for those devoted to God. This in effect caused the cost of copying books to rise drastically while the cost of paper was...
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