The Printing Press and the Cultural Emancipation of Early-Modern Europe, 1450-1800

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The Printing Press and the Cultural Emancipation of Early-Modern Europe, 1450-1800

Merriam-Webster's English dictionary defines emancipation as the, "...[freedom] from restraint, control, or the power of another, and [freedom] from any controlling influence." The cultural emancipation that began in early-modern Europe prior to the Renaissance had a deep effect on the lives of its constituents. The printing press, invented in 1455 by Johannes Gutenberg, presented the public with a new forum for book production as the very first method of mass publication. Previously, should multiple copies be printed, each would have to be transcribed by hand, a task which would be both labour-intensive, and take place over a large stretch of time. Due to both of these factors, the cost of purchasing a manuscript was astronomical, and limited to the privileged few who pertained to the upper-class, possessing small fortunes which could be spent frivolously. Prior to Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention, individuals were taught by religious leaders and could seek no information on their own. The printing machine led to an increase in the number of books and decreased the price of them dramatically. There was a large demand for books but they were constructed very slowly by virtue of the fact that they were made by hand. The new efficient production method made the books accessible to common people for the first time. This accessibility quickly led to an increased number of literate and more educated individuals. These books became the wheel for the vehicle of cultural expression and emancipation from the choke hold of the church and state. The printing press has been the main influence on an information revolution that has created drastic change in the lives of all individuals involved. It has given people the opportunity to spread their opinions and read about those of others, changing the landscape of mass communication, which has acted as a catalyst to the introducing and spread of new culture that is defined by the ideology of the majority.

The history of the printing press is rooted in central Europe but has origins in the Far East as well. Printing presses were known in China but were not used, despite their efficiency. While it was invented over three decades prior to Gutenberg's metal printing press, the benefit of the new system was not as evident as there are thousands of Chinese characters, a far stretch from the simple 26-character modern alphabet used in European languages. While Gutenberg began by using wooden blocks to produce text, he transitioned to metal typography or letterpress printing in 1430 after moving to Strasbourg. The metal lettering could allow for quicker reproduction since one mold would need to be produced and replication would become less difficult. The new printing presses, despite Gutenberg's attempts to conceal them spread through Europe quickly. The books were being printed on cheap paper and no longer cost a fortune. Before the new printing presses, Cambridge’s publishing house owned a total of 122 books in its library. Each of these books cost the same as a small farm home or a vineyard. By 1499 publishing houses were developed in more than 2500 locations in Europe allowed for an ease of publication that had never been seen up-to-date. The landscape for literacy has evolved quickly. As mentioned in an article on the cultural effect of the printing press, "Fifteen million books had been flung into a world where scholars would travel miles to visit a library stocked with twenty hand-written volumes." While the number of volumes released to the public is debated by scholars, as mentioned in the article itself, it is the effect of this increase in volume of books that is the truly staggering observable change. With a population hungry for knowledge, the new books were eagerly accepted and literacy rates began on a path of steady increase in most regions of Europe between the 16th...
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