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Before the 14th century, books were much too expensive for the common people. Churches had their Bibles and scholars had their precious copies of books. Books were rare. There were often people who disagreed with the Church, or perhaps believed slightly differently than the Roman Catholics did. These variations in belief and criticisms of the Church climaxed in what is now called the Protestant Reformation, which is often recorded as starting with Martin Luther. But, some historians may push back to John Wycliffe, John Huss, and the invention of the printing press. For the printing press helped spread the ideas of the Reformation quickly, without it the religious reforms would not have spread as quickly nor as far as they did.
Even before the invention of the printing press reached Europe, there were people pushing for reform in the Roman Catholic Church. John Wycliffe pushed for clerical poverty and believed that “personal merit…was the only basis of religious theory.” His followers, called the Lollards, used the vernacular Bible and advocated clerical poverty. This group was focused in England (Kagan 306-307). In Bohemia, a similar movement was occurring around the same time. John Huss supported Wycliffe’s teachings. He and the Czech reformers “supported vernacular translations of the Bible and were critical of traditional ceremonies and allegedly superstitious practices,” especially that of the sacrament of the Eucharist. The Hussites wondered how valid a sacrament was if performed by a priest “in mortal sin” (Kagan 307). Though these two groups pushed for reforms and had contact with each other, the reforms did not spread to other countries. One reason for this could be that there were not enough copies of their writing and that it was a hard and lengthy process to make copies in the late 1300s/early 1400s. It is “one of the reasons that the Lollards had failed to consolidate widespread support while a century and a half later their evangelical successors did” (MacCulloch 72).
How were books written and copies made at that time? People used either handwritten copies, or a process called block printing. Both processes were time consuming and expensive. For a scholar to have access to a text he needed, he had to spend much of his life copying the original or another copy by hand before he could even use the text (MacCulloch 73). This would be a painful job to have, and many of the educated had to devote time to this activity. Also, the percentage error would be high because with all the copying they would get hand cramps meaning that mistakes can be easily made.
Block printing originated in China. “Characters or pictures were carved into a wooden block, inked, and then transferred to paper” (Kreis). Sometimes clay was used rather than the usual wooden blocks (Martin 457). Reproduction was expensive because every picture or phrase was written on a different block. “A new block had to be carved for each new impression” (Kreis). Also, the woodcuts were not sufficient. After repeated use, they could split in the press. Once a block was deemed unusable either because of splitting or needing to use a somewhat altered imprint it would be discarded (Kreis). Even though block printing was still time consuming, it “was much faster than handwriting” (Martin 457). However, printing could, and would, be faster still.
Many people have heard of the Gutenberg press, or learned about it in their European History class. But in learning about the press, people often forget to learn about the man who invented it. Johannes Gutenberg was born in the German town of Mainz, “a center for goldsmiths and jewelry workers” (Hobar 2: 486) and would also be “the center of printing for the whole of western Europe” (Kagan 338). He was born into an aristocratic family, meaning that his family was wealthy and he most likely received a good education. His “uncle was a metal coin maker” (Hobar 2: 486). He gained work experience as a stonecutter and a goldsmith (Kreis).
He started his famous Bible project in 1452 (Kreis) meaning that he probably started working towards devising a movable type press in the mid-1440s. “Gutenberg devised an alloy of lead, tin and antinomy that would melt at low temperature, cast well in the die, and be durable in the press” (Kreis). These pieces of metal were then molded with a shape of one letter from the alphabet, which was simple because when European alphabets are compared with the Chinese alphabet there are far fewer letters to worry about (Martin 457). He based his frame for the printing press on that of a cheese press. Mirror-image letters of the alphabet were embossed on each small block. Blanks were inserted where needed to separate words. He would lay out all the letters needed to form words and sentences for one page on one day and the next day he would start the printing. The layout would be patted with ink, a piece of paper laid out on top of the layout, and then the press, which was a heavy block, would be screwed on top of the paper. He could soon “print 200 to 300 copies of one page of a book in a day” (Hobar 2: 487). This new press of Gutenberg’s could reproduce books at a much faster rate. Diarmaid MacCulloch writes, “Movable-type text on paper was radically cheaper than a manuscript to produce and, once the rather laborious process of setting up the pages was completed, it was exhilaratingly easy to reproduce large print-runs” (72). The simplicity of Gutenberg’s new press made possible his printing of the famous Gutenberg Bible.
Though Gutenberg tried to hide his new technique, it spread throughout Europe quickly. Before the year of 1500, about 2500 European cities obtained their own presses (Kreis). Millions of printed books were in existence by 1500. Though the “German masters held an early leadership…the Italians soon challenged their preeminence” (Kreis). Printers of the sixteenth century were viewed as scholars and that industry as a “learned profession” (Hulme 532). The rapid proliferate of the printing press spread the new ideas of humanism and religious reform swiftly and with great influence (Kreis).
Martin Luther is one of the most noted religious reformers of the sixteenth century, although Ulrich Zwingli also played a large role. Martin Luther was born in what is now called Germany in 1483. His father was “a successful Thuringian miner.” His family made sure that he received a good education; He learned from the Brothers of the Common Life in Mandsfeld, Magdeburg. He later attended the University of Erfurt, from which he graduated in 1505 (Kagan 357). Hobar writes, in volume three of The Mystery of History, that he “planned on being a lawyer” (89). He never made it into lawyer school for on a trip a lightning storm overtook him. He cried out to St. Anne for help, promising to become a monk should his life be spared (Kagan 387). As pupils learn about him today in their history classes, one can conclude that he lived. After the lightning storm experience, he joined an Augustinian monastery in 1505, and “by 1507, he was ordained a priest” (Hobar 3: 89).
Through his struggles as a monk, Luther began to recognize the details of the Roman Catholic Church which needed to be changed. Perhaps the detail that he is most well-known for is his attack on the indulgences used by the Church. He was afraid “that people might misunderstand the marvelous grace of God” (Hobar 3: 90). He addressed the selling of indulgences in his 95 Theses which he posted for others to see. He also believed in the idea of “justification by faith alone,” or that a person is saved not by his works but by the faith he puts in God. The Church often used works as a means of justifying a person from his/her sin (Kagan 387). Luther promoted the authority of “Scripture alone” over all other authorities, even the Pope. Of course, the Church did not take kindly to this and there were often “disputes over doctrine and practice.” He even went so far as to suggest “that the papacy might be the Antichrist spoken of in Scripture” (Edwards 90).
All of Luther’s beliefs, and those of others, probably would not have gotten the Church into such a rage if it had not been for the press. The press caused the debate to spread rapidly. The debate “was no longer just between theologians” but “moved into the streets, the shops, the taverns, and the churches. Everyone was talking about it” because it was available (Hobar 3: 106). Since it, that is books and pamphlets in print by the hundreds, was available, lay people were stirred to learn how to read (Kreis). Also, MacCulloch writes that “there was a great popular hunger to encounter the book on which the faith and worship of the Church was based – the Bible” (73). Bibles were actually attainable, and with people such as Luther translating it into vernacular languages, the people wanted to be able to read it themselves. They could read about all sorts of subjects, and it was affordable. In this way, having caused a yearning among the uneducated to at least be able to read, “the printing press was a powerful to bring the ignorance of the Middle Ages to an end” (Martin 458). It was more worthwhile to take the time to learn how to read with so many books of so many kinds available (MacCulloch 74).
Thus it is that the printing press advanced the Protestant Reformation. When an observer looks to other attempts at religious reform, before the printing press, he/she will discover that those reforms did not spread very far as in the cases of John Wycliffe and John Huss. When the printing press was designed by Gutenberg, knowledge grew. Books were more affordable and much more easily attained. Not only were books being printed, but also pamphlets, brochures, letters, sermons, and documents as well. With all this reading material available, the ignorant people started learning how to read. As more people were at least able to read, they were exposed to the religious reform papers, pamphlets, etc. that were being printed. Copies could be sent to family or friends in other countries, spreading the newly attainable knowledge around Europe. The printing press helped enhance the Reformation, and the Reformation helped further the printing press.
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