The invention of moveable type by Bi Sheng in China in the early part of the 11th century and the later development in 1439 by Johannes Gutenberg of his own device for producing manuscripts at an accelerated rate relative to the age-old method of hand-copying texts revolutionized European societies. For the first time in human history, information could be disseminated on a mass scale—all things being relative—and this development allowed for the dissemination of ideas that changed the world. Gutenberg’s invention and his use of moveable type to produce Bibles presaged the later use of the printing press by Martin Luther as part of the latter’s enormously consequential role in facilitating the Reformation. As European history is inseparable from the evolution of organized religion, the importance of the printing press to that history cannot, then, be overstated.
Humans take for granted today the instantaneous dissemination of information, whether through texting, email, telephone or transmittal of video imaging. This was not, obviously, always the case. Until the invention of the printing press, documents had to be painstakingly transcribed by hand. Widespread distribution of the written word or drawn image, therefore, was physically extremely limited. [Today, the Jewish Torah, the holy text believed to be handed down by God, is still written as it was thousands of years ago, by hand on special parchment.] Martin Luther understood that, for his declaration of war against the Church’s practices to take hold, his objections to those practices had to be disseminated as widely as possible. The printing press was the instrument by which he accomplished that objective. The resulting Protestant Reformation, of course, represented one of the seminal events in European history and the effects continue to be felt today.
In addition to the distribution of religious texts and arguments, the invention of the printing press facilitated the development of academia in general by allowing for the far greater availability of scientific texts as well as of literature. Information and ideas were more widely shared which allowed for greater levels of intellectual discourse which, in turn, provided for greater mass involvement in society. A population more exposed to alternative theories or ideas is a population less disposed to accept unquestionably the portraits of reality dictated from above, the “above” mainly meaning monarchs and myriad societal elites. In short, then, the invention of the printing press had enormous ramifications for European societies.