I believe that everyone has heard the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” This statement I cannot argue, but the point I want to make is that the printing press is the mightiest of them all.
The origin of printing itself was only the first stage in the development of books as we know them.
To understand the modern book, one should know of its history and realize the gradual process it came from since the pre-written manuscript.
THERE WERE FOUR DISTINCT PHASES IN THIS METAMORPHOSIS (Butler xi).
1. In the beginning, this was just a means for performing a writer’s work more quickly, neatly, and cheaply than was possible by hand labor (Butler xi).
2. Only gradually did the early printers and their clients understand to accept the technical limitations of typography and to exploit its peculiarities (Butler xii).
3. The discovery of true publication (Butler xiii).
4. The printed book entered into the fourth phase of its metamorphosis – it became a major factor in history (Butler xiii).
The origin of the mechanical process was the first step in books as we know them today (Butler xi). The earliest scribe, like the public, had learned to read in pen-written volumes and was unaware of anything else (Butler xi). The printer’s problem was to invent a method for producing mass quantities of a standardized product (Butler xi). The printer was not free to produce a new product which might serve the same purpose as the old one (Butler xi). His goal was simply to copy the manuscript but to do this mechanically (Butler xii).
The printer’s task was far more difficult than we imagine (Butler xii). Many parts of the manuscript, which were time-saving and labor-saving tools for the scribe, were only additional hindrances for the printer (Butler xii).
As printers and their customers learned to accept the technical limitations, the book they produced took on new forms and developed new cultural potentials (Butler xii). Calligraphic ornaments were replaced by those of typographic style, and all sorts of new facilities were provided for the reader – title pages, illustrations, maps, tables, indexes, etc. (Butler xii).
The discovery of true publication was different than the manuscript economy. Under the manuscript economy, a writer responded to current demands. He copied books to order, or, if he built up a stock in anticipation of sales, it was of the volumes most frequently asked for – school and university textbooks and standard works in theology, law, or medicine, constantly used by professional students and practitioners (Butler xiii).
The printer, however, soon went beyond this and realized the potential of publication (Butler xiii). To expand his business, he undertook to create new demands (Butler xiii). The printer searched through old libraries for whatever books he thought the people might buy, if they were made available (Butler xiii). He also provided new works brought to him by living authors, and, finally, he came to order on his own, undertaking journalistic accounts of recent happenings (Butler xiii). In response to his initiative, the world learned to read books and not merely to study them (Butler xiii). The publishers made people read for its own sake (Butler xiii). This became the habit of educated men – a practice forgotten since the collapse of Roman civilization (Butler xiii).
Books became a major factor in History. Publishers made known that the book could not only inform and entertain the masses but also affect their thoughts and actions (Butler xiv). It was used to spread new beliefs, to sway men’s opinions, to win their support, and to arouse their passions (Butler xiv). During the first century of printing, the press became a potent weapon of public appeal and propaganda (Butler xiv).
Modern man makes constant use of printed materials (Butler 1). People accept their presence in their lives as a matter of course -almost like the air we breathe and the ground we walk on (Butler 1). Unless our attention is drawn to it, we never notice the extent of our obligations to the printer (Butler 1). Yet, there is hardly a thing that we do or a source of delight that we enjoy that does not involve somehow, directly or indirectly, the use of typography (Butler 1).
Our familiarity with the work of the printer has thus rendered us almost unconscious of their presence, very few of us have much curiosity about the processes which are used to make them (Butler 4). Indifference here is unfortunate: without an understanding of the mechanics of printing we cannot understand its history, and, lacking an historical understanding, we cannot understand the most distinctive characteristics of our own civilization (Butler 4).
We know that until the fifteenth century all European books were pen-written and that ever since that time most of them have been printed (Butler 9). In that same fifteenth century, Western culture laid off its medieval characteristics and became distinguished from others (Butler 9). But we do not make the connection between the technological and cultural changes except that they happened in the same period (Butler 9). There is, of course, a direct correlation between the two things.
To understand what the development of printing has meant, and still means, to our civilization, one must realize what life was like under the manuscript technology and how at each matching point life is different in a period of typography (Butler 10).
It is obvious that copying was a slow and laborious process. Even at best, manuscripts have been comparatively rare and expensive (Butler 12). No civilized society can be sustained without a small amount of records (Butler 12).
It is evident that copying with the pen was a painstaking process (Butler 13). If the scribe let his attention falter, or become worn out, he was bound to make textual errors (Butler 13). In general, manuscripts were always in error and unreliable (Butler 13). Each mistake that once escaped discovery would be copied in every following copy (Butler 13). Scholarship could possess no hard and lasting basis of recorded factual certainties (Butler 13).
Not every writer could also be a skilled draftsman (Butler 13). Usually, he could not reproduce, even passably, the maps, diagrams, and illustrations which might occur in the work he was copying (Butler 13). As a result, there was a strong tendency for the manuscript book to rely on letter text only (Butler 13).
The manuscript technique was as destructive to beauty as it was to the scholarly (Butler 15). The beauty, no less than the textual integrity, of any book was totally determined on the skill and taste of the person who copied it (Butler 15). In scribal practice there was always a tendency to sacrifice legibility and beauty to gain speed and to economize the effort (Butler 15).
A characteristic of the manuscript economy was the way in which it made the future survival of any book depend upon its present popularity (Butler 16). Generally, no text could exist for long in that period, unless each generation cared enough about it to make new copies (Butler 16). The mortality rate of books has always been high (Butler 16). Unless books were constantly replenished, they soon faced an inevitable extinction (Butler 16). Many books lack contemporary appreciation, but become acclaimed and revived (Butler 17).
At every point typographical book production is different from that of the manuscript (Butler 21). While the scribal process was slow and laborious, printing is easy and fast (Butler 21). The accomplishment of the earliest printers is significant to make this point (Butler 21). During the first half century of the press, over eight million books were printed, most likely far more than all Europe had produced during the whole medieval period (Butler 21). The scribe’s effort demands constant attention, while that of the printer is greatly diminished (Butler 21).
If the set type is free of errors at the start, a thousand copies may be struck off without further thought of textual accuracy, with the knowledge that the last copy will be the same as the first one (Butler 22). The legibility and design of our printed works do not depend on the skill and taste of the craftsman who handles the reproduction (Butler 22). Furthermore, the future existence of our knowledge and literature is no longer dependent upon the willingness of the next generation to reproduce them (Butler 23). Lastly, nowadays books are not rare and expensive. They are very cheap and so numerous that we tend to underestimate rather than overvalue their content (Butler 23). We often reject the printed word merely because it is printed (Butler 23). By habit, we are more impressed by the statement of any second-rate notable whom we have heard in person than we are by the written opinions of those who are shown to be superior in intelligence and character (Butler 28). We trust our own judgment against all printed knowledge to the contrary.
The Spread of Printing
When two rival printing offices had been established at Mentz it was impossible to keep the secret the process (De Vinne 492). Printers who handled the types must have felt a weakening of the obligation of secrecy (De Vinne 492). The sad part is that not one of these printers has told us when and how he began to print on his own account (De Vinne 492). What is known about the introduction of printing in many of the large cities has been collected from dates of books and the indirect references of early chronicles (De Vinne 492).
The activity of the early printers is remarkable. The huge task of preserving the literature of the world was adequately done at a very early date (De Vinne 511). There were not many books that appeared to be salable and profitable, and some were hard to get, and copies were obtained with much hardship – but almost every important book was found and printed (De Vinne 511). The attention of the literary world was taken by storm, not by the possibilities of future usefulness in printing, but by the growing inexpensiveness of books (De Vinne 511). The early printers offered their books at lower than the market prices of manuscripts, but in a few years they were compelled to cut prices lower (De Vinne 511). The market was quickly glutted, and the prices fell sharply and irretrievably (De Vinne 511). At the close of the 15th century the price of many books had been reduced by 80% (De Vinne 511).
Many early printers failed to make their business profitable. The failure was caused by the printers’ selection of bulky theological writings which cost a great amount of money, and were salable to a small class (De Vinne 512). It was mistakenly thought that printing would receive its great support from clergymen (De Vinne 512). The first printers printed almost exclusively in Latin, and the books could be read only by the learned, and purchased only by the wealthy (De Vinne 512). It was soon realized that printing could not be supported by the clergy (De Vinne 511). Nearly all books were printed in Latin (De Vinne 512).
In Italy the revival of classical literature opened a new door for the publisher, but the demand for Latin authors was limited (De Vinne 513). In this country and in others, eagerness for books in the native language was made clear; for books that plain people could read; books that represented the life and thoughts of the living and not of the dead [no offense, Jerry Garcia] (De Vinne 513). The world was getting prepared for new teachers and for a new literature – for Luther and Bacon, for Galileo and Shakespeare (De Vinne 513).
As inaccurate as early printed books may have been, they were more correct than those of the copyists. The mistakes of a faulty first edition were soon made known and the faulty editions were made perfect (De Vinne 541). One of the benefits of printing is that it has prevented the accidental or intentional debasement of texts (De Vinne 541).
The inferiority of the tools of the early printing office is glaring when comparing them with those of our time. The improvements that have been made are ones that have been mostly made in this century (De Vinne 541). There has been no change in the theory, and there have been but few changes in the elementary processes of printing (De Vinne 541). Printing is done quicker, cheaper, with more neatness and accuracy, with more consideration for the convenience of the reader, with new features of artistic merit, and in varieties and quantities so great that there is no comparison between early and modern productions – but the fact remains that this is the same kind of work it was in the beginning (De Vinne 541). It has not been made obsolete by lithography, or other inventions of our era (De Vinne 541). The method still keeps its place in history at the head of the graphic arts (De Vinne 541).
From buying concert tickets to paying a couple of hundred dollars each semester for books, printing impacts our lives greatly. It is hard to name an activity in which we do not use some item that is printed.
Butler, Pierce. The Origin of Printing in Europe. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
De Vinne, Theo. L. The Invention of Printing. New York: Francis Hart & Co., 1876. Republished by Gale Research Company Book Tower, Detroit, 1969.