How Printing Changed the (Medieval) World

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Johannes Gutenberg would have been honored with the Nobel Prize if he were alive during the 20th century. He would even be marveled at offset printing or wide format printing, either of which evolved from his printing press. 

The German blacksmith introduced printing to Europe during the 15th century. Prior to that, there were neither public records nor journals to tell what was of Gutenberg. What printing consultants knew was he had personal problems and was going through financial difficulties when he unveiled his invention, printing with a movable type, during an event in Strasbourg.

Gutenberg didn’t became an instant celebrity after his printing press was operated, but he achieved fame many years later, partly thanks to Pius II, who wasn’t a pope yet when he saw what wonders printing could do; in 1455, in a letter to Cardinal Carvajal, the soon-to-be pope can’t contained his impression:

“All that has been written to me about that marvelous man seen at Frankfurt is true. I have not seen complete Bibles but only a number of quires of various books of the Bible. The script was very neat and legible, not at all difficult to follow—your grace would be able to read it without effort, and indeed without glasses.” 

When the printing press came out, there were signs of unrest in Europe. The Vatican struggled to assert its authority, as not a few questioned their religious beliefs. It was also the Age of Exploration, and the discovery of new lands and people other than Europeans piqued the curiosity of many. Then over the East, The Byzantine Empire was on its final years, as Constantinopole was about to fall to the Ottoman Turks. Now, what do all of those have to do printing?

Information back then was a privilege shared by nobles and religious figures. The masses were in a dark (so to speak). No brochures to disseminate information quickly, but printing back then allowed the publication of materials that allowed the release of literary materials and other readings that awakened the majority. In other words, a printing revolution took place. It was something that neither Gutenberg nor printing management would have anticipated.

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Printing was the cellular phone (or e-mail) of the Late Middle Age. Neither peint broker nor print finishers, but the simple, movable machine that Gutenberg first introduced in Strasbourg. What happened next was never seen in Medieval Europe, a series of events that changed the continent socially, politically, and culturally. To be more specific: 

  • The Renaissance came in, an era where there was renewed appreciation on Greek aesthetics.
  • The Reformation paved the way for Protestantism.
  • If not for printing, the Age of Enlightenment wouldn’t happened at all.

Printing undergone lots of changes afterwards, with the end of 20th century witnessing the introduction of digital printing. It showed that its success – and survival – depended on the demands of the society – and on print management, as well. Nonetheless, those who will have a first glimpse of printers will be awed after they know about its storied past.

3 (Old) Trivia about Printing

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If you’re about to enter the printing industry or have your own printing business, then it’s a must to know its history. Keep in mind that knowledge makes a competent employee/employer. 

You wonder if such knowledge is beneficial, but if you pause for a moment, then you’ll notice that the industry has gone a long way. Technology changed the (printing) landscape, such that most equipment require little supervision. The presence of technicians trained in printing maintenance is still needed, though, as that’s the only thing that the industry then and the industry now have in common. 

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You don’t need to know everything there is to know about the industry’s history. You don’t have to visit some museums to see some antiquated equipment either. Out of curiosity, it’s nice to know what’s printing back then, but to make us the best in the industry, it’s great to find out how printing evolved. So here are three that changed the course (of printing):

  • Woodblock. This technique orginated from China, with the earliest example dating back to 200 A.D. If you travel to East Asia, you might stumble upon some locals still using this old method. Old it is, but it’s still a popular choice in that part of the world. A block is carefully prepared as a matrix, the areas to show (in white) are cut with a knife. The block is cut along the grain of the wood. It’s necessary to ink the block and bring into contact with a paper in able to achieve an acceptable print.
  • Movable. This system of printing was first introduced around 1040 A.D., during the Song Dynasty. Bi Sheng invented it, paving the way to movable type technology. If not for Shen Kuo, a scholar during that era, Bi Sheng’s achievement wouldn’t be known nowadays. In his book, “Writings Beside the Meng Creek”, Shen gave details on that technology that would changed the printing world back then. Here’s an interesting part:

“He took sticky clay and cut in it characters as thin as the edge of a coin. Each character formed, as it were, a single type. He baked them in the fire to make them hard. He had previously prepared an iron plate and he had covered his plate with a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ashes. When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type.”

Anyone in the (printing) industry would knew the rest. 

  • Printing Press. This technique uses applied pressure to an inked surface resting upon a paper or cloth, thus transfering the ink. In some ways, this revolutionizes the industry, and credit goes to Johannes Gutenberg. A goldsmith by profession, the German introduced the first printing press in 1440. It will be nice if that equipment is still around, but it’s not. However, some materials similar to what Gutenberg used are currently on exhibit. These will remind everyond of printing’s humble beginnings – and the long road. 

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