The World of the Renaissance Print Shop
by Merry Wiesner-Hanks
Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Though some scholars argue that the most important technological change of the Renaissance was the development of new weaponry using gunpowder, and others argue that it was the development of navigational instruments and ships allowing sailors to sail out of sight of land on the open waters of the Atlantic was the most important, I would give this honor to the development of printing with movable metal type. It had tremendous social, political, intellectual, religious and educational ramifications, beyond those even of the new weaponry and the new tools for navigation.
There is some dispute about the actual "invention" of the press with movable metal type, for along with Johan Gutenberg, who is usually the one credited, other artisans working in Mainz such as Peter Schoeffer and Johannes Fust were also important. The city of Strasbourg also disputes Mainz's claim, for there is a large statue of Gutenberg in Strasbourg, where he lived for a short period of time. What is not disputed is that there was no major dramatic breakthrough, but that Gutenberg and his assistants -- wherever they were living -- adapted and perfected existing technologies. The press itself was adapted from wine-presses, presses which stamped patterns on fabrics, and presses which squeezed the water out of paper. The ink was adapted from Flemish artists' ink. The idea of printing most likely came from wooden block prints which were already being sold and manufactured in Europe--both block prints for single sheets like playing cards and broadsides (small posters) and block prints which were bound together in small booklets. The type itself was adapted from the types goldsmiths and silversmiths used to stamp their marks on finished products, though it was usually made of lead and lead and iron alloys. Gutenberg himself had been trained as a goldsmith, and he and other smiths were adept at working with metals and stamps.
The most important of these contributory technologies was paper, for if books would have had to be printed on the materials available to Europeans in the High Middle Ages, they would have been so expensive that they would have never seen a wide market. Throughout the Middle Ages, manuscript books were produced in Europe on parchment (stretched sheepskin) or vellum (stretched calf-skin) both prohibitively expensive. They were stronger and more attractive than paper, but a large book such as a Bible would have required 170 calf-skins or 300 sheepskins. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the techniques of paper making spread into Europe through Spain from the Arabs. Paper was made from linen rags and hemp (which came from old rope) shredded in water and stamped until the fibers had broken apart. These fibers were then mixed with more water, and a large flat wire sieve was dipped into this pulp. The pulp was smoothed out over the sieve, the water was pressed out, and the wet sheet of paper was placed on a felt sheet. This whole thing was squeezed in a press, hung out to dry, and then often covered with a sizing. The industry needed a tremendous amount of clean water, so papermilk were often upstream of towns or at the upstream end of rivers that flowed within towns. Manuscript books and other documents, especially small pamphlet-sized manuscript booklets, were beginning to be written on paper by the 14th century, and most of Gutenberg's books, and those of other early printers, were printed on paper. (Some of the most important books, and official documents, continued to be produced on parchment and vellum, however. Some of the copies of the 1455 Gutenberg Bible, of which there is a facsimile in the exhibition, were printed on vellum and others on paper.)
The books exhibited in "The Infancy of Printing" make clear that Gutenberg and other early printers did not view what they had done as a dramatic change. Instead they viewed it as a faster way to copy, and the earliest printed books look as much like manuscript books as possible. Only slowly did printers add such things as title pages and tables of contents, and only slowly did they begin to stop abbreviating so heavily and adding more space between words and more punctuation.
Along with the technological advances which contributed to printing, printing and the mass production of books needed a market, which was provided by the rise in literacy throughout Europe during the Renaissance. Only this can explain why these technologies were first combined only in the mid-15th century and not earlier, and why printing spread so quickly.
The technology of printing spread from the area around Mainz and Strasbourg, up and down the Rhine Valley to Swiss cities such as Basel and cities in the Low Countries such as Antwerp, then into the Danube Basin to cities such as Augsburg and Nuremberg, then to Italy, particularly to Venice where most of the modern typefonts were developed, as well as fonts for printing in Greek and Hebrew. It spread to England, especially to London, and to France, especially Paris and Lyon, in the 1470s, and by 1480 about 110 cities in Europe had presses. It continued to spread to Spain and Scandinavia, and by 1500, roughly 50 years after the first printed books, over 200 cities and towns in Europe had presses.
The amounts printed were absolutely fantastic compared with medieval production. Scholars estimate--and this is a very hard thing to agree on -- that there were somewhere between 8 million and 20 million incunables, or books printed before 1500. This, of course, vastly exceeds the number of books produced in all of western history up to that point. The amounts were so fantastic that some people saw printing as an invention of the devil. This opinion did not halt the spread of printing, however, and by 1600, scholars estimate that there had been about 200,000 different books or editions printed, in press runs that averaged about 1000 copies each. (This might seem like a small press run if you compare it with modern blockbusters, but it is roughly comparable to the size of a press run for a normal academic monograph published today.) By 1600, printing had also spread to the European colonies and empires in the Americas, India, Japan and China.
In Europe, the early book trade was tied together by an international book fair, held twice annually in Frankfurt am Main, and still held today. At this book fair, authors, printers, publishers, papermakers, bookbinders, and illustrators all came to find each other. Loans were floated, contracts made, books stored. Because of the book fair, the city of Frankfurt became an island of toleration in the religious disputes, which split Germany beginning in the 1520s.
The financing of early print shops often came from private patrons or government leaders, for books required a large initial investment for equipment and supplies, and the product often took years to sell. Early on, printers also diversifed their products, alternating large fancy works with small pamphlets, forms, and posters which would sell quickly and give them a quick return. Many printers also searched for patrons who would finance the entire cost of publishing a book, which is why you often see flowery prefaces thanking various patrons in so many early printed books. (The authors also often worked for patrons, so the author's patrons also have long prefaces added to those of the printer.)
Printers themselves became men--and a few women--who bridged many "worlds" of the Renaissance. They were trained through an apprenticeship program in the way that artisans were -- in the first generation often as goldsmiths or silversmiths, and then directly as printers. A boy contracted himself (or his parents contracted him) to a master-printer as an apprentice; he worked for five to ten years in this capacity, then became a journeyman printer, and worked another five to ten years. Then, if he had the capital to establish his own shop and could make a masterpiece acceptable to other printers, he opened a shop and began hiring apprentices and journeymen. Women who became printers were generally not formally apprenticed, but learned the trade from their fathers or husbands. Women printers were not numerous, but there were often a few women in most large printing centers, usually widows, who published books independently and whose names appear on the title page. (For people interested in women printers and in women whose written work was published, I recommend the collection, Going Public: Women and Publishing in Early Modern France, edited by Elizabeth Goldsmith and Dena Goodman, Cornell, 1995.)
Despite their training as artisans, printers had connections to the world of politics, art, and learning that many other artisans did not. They depended on local and state governments for contracts and patronage, and needed to keep a close watch on what those governments might object to in order to prevent confiscation of the materials they were printing. (More on this later.) They needed artists to produce woodcuts and engravings for insertion in their major works, and to paint colors and gold leaf on pictures and letters once these works had been printed. (There is a good example of this in the exhibition, a copy of Honorius of Autun's De Imagine Mundi printed by Anton Koberger in 1472 in Nuremberg. Koberger ran a huge establishment, with many presses, and had artists on staff to do the illustrations and illuminations. Gold leaf illumination in particular was often done by women who were the wives of goldsmiths. Their husbands had access to the raw material, and these women also often spun gold thread as well as doing book illuminations.)
Printers also needed close and regular contacts with the world of scholarship and learning, and, just as they had artists on staff, major printers also often had scholars-in-residence. The most famous of these was the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, who spent most of the later years of his life working in the printshops of various printer-friends in Basel. Erasmus was widely regarded as the most learned man in Europe, but spent his days copy-reading his own and others' work, along with translating and writing. Print shops became gathering places for scholars and those interested in new ideas, and often, after the Reformation split Christian Europe, places where emigres and refugees met. Some of this atmosphere carried over to early printers' shops in the American colonies, the most famous of which is that of Ben Franklin.
Thus, printing was in many ways a new type of occupation, combining intellectual, physical, and administrative forms of labor and skills. The world of the Renaissance printshop was one where many different types of people met and gathered, and where many different types of people were encouraged to become authors as well as readers.
What did printers of the Renaissance produce? The easiest way to answer that is--anything that would sell. Printers were very quick to discover what there was a market for, both among the general reading public and among specialized groups of readers such as physicians and lawyers, and to tailor their offerings for these markets. They produced books for lawyers, such as classical legal codes like that of the Roman Emperor Justinian, collections of customary laws, and legal commentaries, all bound in fancy leather bindings in matching sets. They produced books for doctors, surgeons, pharmacists and midwives, such as herbals, books of instruction, and classical medical treatises. They produced books for students, such as manuals of language instruction, grammars, dictionaries, cheap editions of the classics, often bound in paper in smaller formats so that students could easily carry them to class. They produced books and other printed materials for members of the clergy: Latin missals, breviaries, and psalters, and indulgence forms in which the name of the person whose sins were being forgiven could be filled in later.
Their major market, however, was what we today term the "general reader," the urban literate middle classes. And what did general readers of the Renaissance want to read? Mostly they wanted to read religious materials; the best-selling authors, particularly after the Reformation in the 1520s but even before, were religious. This was both because people were very interested in religion in general and in their own salvation, and also because religious works were cheap, lively, illustrated, and gory. Of course there were plenty of extremely expensive whole Bibles, but things like Luther's sermons or those of popular Catholic preachers such as Bernhard of Siena were published in very small paperback editions of one, two, or three sermons, putting them well within the reach of most literate buyers. In terms of their tone, they were much more like a modern political debate -- the sort of thing that occurs now on television, not in the press -- than a complicated theological treatise. Particularly after the Reformation, religious opponents were often harsh in their invective, with lots of name-calling and scandal-mongering. Here for example, is Luther: "Next one should take the pope, cardinals, and whatever servants there are of his idolatry and papal holiness, and rip out their tongues at the roots as blasphemers of God and nail them on the gallows, although all this is insignificant punishment in relation to their blasphemy and idolatry." The illustrations in religious pamphlets were often just as dramatic, with woodcuts or engravings of Luther as the Anti-Christ or the Pope as the Whore of Babylon. The pamphlet from which the above quotation is taken has a woodcut illustration by Lucas Cranach showing four cardinals hanging on a scaffold with their tongues tacked up beside them. Not only was religious invective bloody, gory, and violent, but even books of saints' lives describe not only their good deeds and acts worthy of emulation, but also their violent and tragic deaths. These were extremely popular: the best selling book in English for many years was John Foxe's Book of Martyrs which described in drippy, ghastly detail the deaths of many Protestants during the reign of Mary Tudor.
Thus, judging by the religious books that sold well, it is clear that people not only got religious inspiration, but also what we might call religious titillation from them.
People did not spend all their time reading religious materials, however, and printers recognized very early that there was a market for other types of books and pamphlets. They printed historical romances, such as those of King Arthur and Tristan and Isolde; they printed biographies of historical and contemporary figures, and the more scandalous the better. How-to manuals were very popular, such as herbals and books of home remedies for everything from headaches to the plague. There were guides on how to manage your money, how to run a household, how to write love letters and business letters. There was pornography, graphically illustrated, and of course cookbooks, also often illustrated. There were guides for travelers with handy phrases, discussions of the weather, and descriptions of the strange customs of foreign lands.
After the voyages of discovery, printers discovered that people liked to read about the experiences of more adventurous travelers, and Columbus's notebooks were reprinted frequently along with those of other travelers. Enterprising publishers frequently gathered together the most bizarre and exciting stories in one volume -- "Tales from Foreign Lands" or something similar -- often neglecting to mention these were gathered from many sources and often contained totally fictitious accounts mixed in with real ones. Among this kind of travel book, those that concentrated on strange animals and creatures were especially popular, called "bestiaries." They described normal animals like hedgehogs and porcupines (although giving wild stories about their habits and abilities), real ones someone had heard about such as giraffes or rhinoceroses, and fictitious ones like centaurs, mermaids, and cyclopses. All of these animals were listed in alphabetical order, with no distinction made between those that were real and those that were not.
Most of the secular works I've been describing so far were what we would call "books," that is, they were bound in cloth or leather and had 64 or more pages. These were meant to last a long time, and were often passed around or handed down from one generation to the next. They are mentioned in wills and inventories, showing that books were still quite valuable. Wills and inventories, by the way, are one of our best sources for what people were actually reading, or at least what they had in their possession, indicating that someone thought they should be reading it. Wills of quite ordinary people begin to mention printed books in the late 15th century, so we know these incunables were not simply in some monastery or noble library.
In addition to books, printers also produced much smaller, cheaper booklets, both religious and secular. These had 8, 16, or 24 pages, and are often called "chap-books." They are the equivalent in some ways of our modern newspapers and magazines, for the first newspaper in England was not published until 1620. They were written in very simple language with a small vocabulary, and were often illustrated, so those who were illiterate or barely literate could also get something from them. They were sold by wandering peddlers who often sold other things such as pins, needles, marbles and (printed) playing cards. It is difficult to tell how many of these chap-books were produced or exactly what they contained, as they had paper covers and were very ephemeral. From those that have survived and from discussions of them in other sources, we can tell that many of them were about recent battles and heroes--the equivalent of Time and Newsweek -- or about new inventions, tools, techniques for farming and building -- like Popular Mechanics -- or about famous people and what was happening to them -- a Renaissance version of People--or about freakish events, strange occurences, babies and animals born with birth defects that were perceived as monsters-- the Renaissance version of The National Enquirer. Printers realized that people were so interested in "monsters" and in certain recent events that they often printed single-sheet broadsides to get the news out as quickly as possible. These were usually illustrated and then sold on street corners. Most of them have not survived, but occasionally one has--one I ran across in my own research was from Nuremberg. I was reading city council minutes from the early 16th century--huge handwritten books, bound in leather--and the city secretary noted that a baby with a monstrous head had been born in a small village outside the city. An artist was dispatched to draw it, and the city council debated what the religious meaning of this event might be. What did it indicate or foretell? Normally this is all I would have known about the incident, but someone--probably at the time--had stuck the printed broadside about the baby in the volume. So there was the poor thing, which looked to me as if it was hydrocephalic, and a description of its mother, the village, and the exact line-up of the stars at the time of its birth. The description noted that it died shortly after birth, but that many people had traveled to see it before it was buried. The artist or whoever wrote the description did not have a clear idea of what this birth might mean, however, as nothing bad had happened to the village and the mother was a perfectly honorable woman.
Beginning in the 16th century, printers began to gather all of these things together into almanacs, adding witty sayings, moral maxims, humor, horoscopes and other astrological predictions, long-term weather forecasts, and agricultural advice. We often think of Benjamin Franklin as the inventor of the almanac, but he was following a long line of distinguished printer-predecessors in recognizing the market for this among a largely agricultural society.
These small books and broadsides provided printers and publishers with a quick return on their investment, and allowed them also to print fancier and longer things, the type of things that are in the exhibition, which sold more slowly and were much more expensive to produce.
What were the effects of all this on European culture? I think we can see these in six major areas:
- There were effects on scholarship: Print halted the corruption of texts by copyists, giving everyone identical texts. It spurred on the already existing search for the oldest and the best copies of any work, and the production of critical editions. It helped the recovery of Greek and other ancient languages, such as Hebrew, among western Europeans. The concept of indexing, which only made sense once there were 1000 identical copies, made the retrieval of information much easier.
- There were effects on science: Scientific research became a more collaborative effort, with results published quickly. Public dialogue in print became standard, with results of experiments corroborated by others, all of which sped up the development of ideas.
- There were effects on education: Learning to read was made easier as print was standardized and made clearer. Individuals could now afford to own books, without having to copy them themselves, so university lectures were no longer simply someone reading a book aloud. Books freed one from the need for constant memorization.
- There were effects on art: Engravings and prints reached a much wider audience, so some artists became known throughout Europe. Manuals with illustrations, such as those of plants, animals, and machines, gradually became more lavishly illustrated, and greater care was taken to make all illustrations completely accurate.
- There were effects on national languages: The distinction between a language with printed literature and one without became much sharper, so languages with extensive literature came to be considered national languages; and those without printed materials, local dialects. Once this happened, the borders between two languages, such as that between French and German or French and Spanish, became sharper. Once national languages were printed, people began to call for purifying and codifying them, and for the first time were bothered by such things as spelling irregularities. Printing also slowed down the rate at which languages changed.
- There were effects on law: The concepts of copyright and plagiarism gradually emerged, the idea that one could have monopoly rights over ideas or words. Related to these were government attempts at controlling these ideas and words, attempts at censorship that began almost as soon as printing began. Governments all over Europe attempted to control printers in a way they had not controlled copyists, for they, perhaps unlike the earliest printers, recognized that having 1000 copies of something was very different than having only one. Governments attempted to control printing in a variety of ways: through giving one printer the exclusive rights to print a certain book or type of book (termed privilege); through issuing government seals of approval, which were termed copyright (the only one of these that still survives is the papal imprimatur); through laws against books, authors, or booksellers, the most famous of which is probably the Papal Index of Prohibited Books, begun in 1559. None of these were very effective, and books were printed clandestinely, with fake title pages, authors and places of publication, and smuggled all over Europe.
Along with these very specific effects in certain fields, we can also see more nebulous effects in many areas. Printing accelerated the diffusion of ideas, enlarged and invigorated every issue. It reduced the need for interpersonal contact, especially among scholars, and aided in the decompartmentalization of knowledge. It reduced one's dependence on the immediate senses and strengthened the imagination. For better or for worse, for the first time in Europe there was mass culture. People in all parts of Europe could hear the same music, read the same poets, listen to the same sermons (printers often printed sermon manuals for pastors and priests who couldn't come up with their own), made the same dresses (the first printed dress pattern book I know was printed in 1513), idolize the same kings and ladies, recognize the same artists. Print brought with it both the chance for greater diversity, because one could know how other people all over the world thought and acted, and much greater uniformity, as now many thousands of people could come to know exactly the same things.
The ultimate implications of this are only being recognized as we come out of the typographical era into the electronic. We are, perhaps, at a peculiarly fortunate time in terms of understanding the early years of printing, as we can not only see those years in exhibits such as "The Infancy of Printing", but we can also watch the early years of another type of communication all around us. You can see in the books on display how print was shaped by manuscript, and see as you communicate through e-mail, chat on the World Wide Web, or even find a book in a library's electronic catalog how print has shaped what has come after.