History of paper – Gutenberg’s Revolution

In the last article we have discussed the very beginnings of paper production and its early use throughout the history on territories of today’s Middle East, Far East and Muslim world. As we said, production of paper came to Europe in 12th century.

The first documented paper mill in the Iberian Peninsula was in Xàtiva in 1151. The art of making paper came from the Muslim world to Iberian Peninsula, and from there spread across France, Northern Italy, Germany, Holland etc. France had a paper mill by 1190, and by 1276 mills were established in Fabriano, Treviso and other Italian towns by 1340. From there paper mills spread to Troyes, France by 1348, in Holland sometime around 1340–1350, in Mainz, Germany in 1320, in Nurnberg by 1390, Switzerland by 1432 and the first mill in England was set up in 1490. Due to their noise and smell, paper mills were required by medieval law to be erected outside of the city perimeter.

Introduction of paper mills, which were powered by the energy of flowing water impacted the most revolutionizing moment in the bookmaking: Gutenberg’s Printing press. A printing press is a device for applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a print medium (such as paper or cloth), thereby transferring the ink. The printing press was introduced to the West in the Holy Roman Empire by Johannes Gutenberg, around 1440. Gutenberg made quite a few innovations in the process of printing and perfected existing ones:

  1. Gutenberg greatly improved the process by treating typesetting and printing as two separate work steps.
  2. A goldsmith by profession, he created his own type pieces from a lead-based alloy which suited printing purposes so well that it is still used today!
  3. He found the formula for an oil-based ink suitable for high-quality printing with metal type.
  4. The mass production of metal letters was achieved by Gutenberg’s key invention of a special hand mold, the matrix.
  5. As printing material he used both paper and vellum (high-quality parchment).
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A leaf from The Gutenberg Bible.

The first major book printed by Gutenberg with the use of these new techniques was the famous “The Gutenberg Bible”. Widely praised for its high aesthetic and artistic qualities, the book has an iconic status. Written in Latin, the Catholic Gutenberg Bible is an edition of the Vulgate, printed by Johannes Gutenberg, in Mainz, present-day Germany, in the 1450s. Forty-eight copies, or substantial portions of copies survived and they are considered to be among the most valuable books in the world, even though no complete copy has been sold since 1978. We won’t tell you what was the price at the time, but we will tell you that if you were to divide the total price by the number of leaves to get the estimate of one leaf, the result would be something shy of $3.300 per leaf. Inflation and taxes not included.

Printing press that Gutenberg presented to Europe started “Printing revolution” also known as “Gutenberg revolution”, a boom in flow of ideas and information facilitated by the printing press. Press has made ideas and information circulate much faster, as the demanded for them has grown with the rise of the middle class. Quality changes in the process of printing ensured the quantitative growth in book production. As an example, by 1500, the printing presses in operation throughout Western Europe had already produced more than twenty million copies.

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A leaf of st. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae, 1493. Inconabula.

Some social scientists even believe that widespread of printed book have made a crucial impact in forming European Nations. One of them is Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson, historian and political scientist. Hi is mostly known for his work “Imagined Communities”, which explored the origins of nationalism. “Print capitalism” is an idea in Imagined Communities in which printers of books in post-Gutenberg world, in order to make more profit (logically) needed to sell more books. In that purpose, they started printing books in vernacular/vulgar (instead of exclusive script languages, such as Latin) in order to maximize circulation, which led to readers speaking various local dialects became able to understand each other, the standardization of language became much easier and a common discourse emerged.
Душан Димитриев
Dušan Dimitriev
Photo (1) property of http://www.lambethpalacelibrary.org/
Photo (2) from our inventory.

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