Background: The Printing Press and the Spread of Ideas

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Background: The Printing Press and the Spread of Ideas

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Gutenberg. For an invention that so radically transformed history, we know remarkably little about the early development of the moveable-type printing press. All that can be said for certain is that it was a gradual process that culminated in the German city of Mainz sometime between 1445 and 1450, when several people, including a former goldsmith named Johann Gutenberg, contributed to the earliest workable prototype. Although it would be an exaggeration to say that Gutenberg invented moveable-type printing, it is true that his press was the first to publish a lengthy, substantial printed book, the famous Gutenberg Bible, 14541456. From Mainz the printing press spread rapidly, first through Germany and then into other areas of Europe. By 1500 more than one thousand presses had been established across the continent, and they had collectively produced more than nine million copies of more than forty thousand separate book titles. Europes commercial center, Venice, likewise became the continents capital of printing, as the city alone housed nearly one hundred printing shops.

Literacy and the Book Market. The cultural impact of the printing press in late-fifteenth-century Europe was enormous. Widespread availability of standard copies of the works of ancient and modern writers alike meant, above all, more rapid transmission and dissemination of ideas than had been possible in previous centuries, when books had been produced and copied only in manuscript form. In addition the explosion in the availability of books made possible by printing responded to and in turn contributed to increasing levels of literacy among the population of Europe. Reacting to the demands of Europes largely devout reading public, the early book market was dominated by prayer manuals, Bibles, and other religious works. Besides religious books academic readers called for printed copies of the works of ancient Roman and Greek thinkers, including many of those that had only recently been recovered by the scholars of the Italian Renaissance.

Availability of Books. As in other fields of inquiry the availability of printed books greatly facilitated dissemination of geographical knowledge and theories. Europes growing book market in the late fifteenth century provided a critical point of connection between the shifting worldviews of Renaissance intellectuals on the one hand and the enterprises of European sailors such as Christopher Columbus on the other. Spanish and Portuguese navigators, for example, could easily find in the bookstores of major port cities such as Seville and Lisbon copies of the works of both ancient and modern geographers and scientists. Columbuss personal library, for instance, included printed copies of Ptolemys Geographia, Marco Polos thirteenth-century travel accounts, and the highly influential 1410 geographical summary Imago Mundi (Image of the World) written by French clergyman Pierre dAilly. Drawing their information from sources such as these, European scholars and sailors alike regularly engaged in lively debates regarding the size of the earth and the relative positions of its landmasses.

Source

William D. Phillips Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992).