Personal books, individual thought: The broad impact of Gutenberg’s printing press

Of the many inventions in human history, printing press in the mid-fifteenth century has had perhaps the most substantial impact on human technological progress and those whose luck it was to be born in the centuries since its invention. Gutenberg’s movable-type press inaugurated a new age of mechanical reproduction in Europe. It accelerated the spread of literacy in the Renaissance, and in so doing transformed politics, individuated culture, and reformed religion and education.

A discussion of the impact of the printing press first requires a look at literacy itself, as the effects of printed materials would have been altogether pointless without it. In Walter Ong’s 1982 book, Orality and Literacy, he explores the distinction between oral and literate cultures at length. Oral cultures are described as tending “to use concepts in situational, operational frames of reference that are minimally abstract in the sense that they remain close to the living human lifeworld” (Ong, 1982, p.49). Members of an oral culture thus tend to experience great difficulty in abstraction or self-examination and evaluation. One of the effects of this phenomenon is that technological development in oral cultures tends to be slow in comparison to highly literate cultures – largely due to the fact that they have no ‘outside help’ from written materials; the information at their disposal extends only so far as their own personal experiences and the experiences of those in their community.

In the first half of the fifteenth century, Europe was in the early stages of the Renaissance, but still a culture of restricted literacy among the general population. “Before the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg and the development of publishing and book-selling as independent practices, literacy was largely the privilege of the upper class, landed-gentry who maintained, through the agency of the Church, a strict control on not only what was read, but who was allowed to read it” (Keep, McLaughlin, and Parmar, 1995, para 1). Literacy was, and is, power. Kept in the hands of wealthy social elites or religious leaders, manuscripts bestowed knowledge and insight upon them which was quite simply unavailable to the masses. But that lack of access evaporated quickly once Gutenberg removed the primary limitation in book production – that all books had to be written by hand. His new invention spread rapidly to every major city center by the year 1500 (Eisenstein, 1979, p.44), and with it, “a delegation of authority from centre to margins,” McLuhan, 1962, p.11). The spread of the press and the many materials it so rapidly produced invariably altered social structures in Europe, shifting the balance of knowledge and power from the elite few towards the general population.

It is important to tread carefully around the idea that the press itself caused these changes independent of human drivers, however. The balance of power between the technology itself and those who implement it is a tricky one, being constantly argued over by astute observers of history on both sides. As Jay David Bolter (2001) put it, “Technologies do not determine the course of culture or society, because they are not separate agents that can act on culture from the outside” (p. 19), an argument which runs counter to a more deterministic view such as Neil Postman, who said, “once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it was designed to do,” (1992, p.7). Elizabeth Eisenstein has her own view of this dilemma, proposing that “The Renaissance probably did less to spread printing than printing did to spread the Renaissance,” implying that both play a strong role (Eisenstein, 1979, p.180). While Eisenstein and Postman privilege the technology itself in their arguments, it is more accurate to suggest that the concurrent rapid expansion of both printing and the Renaissance was a symbiotic co-evolution, neither coincidental, nor propelled more by one force than the other.

The expansion of literacy during the early printing press era began to highlight differences of opinion and perspective and fostered an individuality of thought, somewhat ironically by making mass-produced, identical texts available to everyone. Rather than getting everyone on the same, uniform, mass-produced page (so to speak), mechanically reproduced printed materials and subsequent rising literacy rates had the opposite effect. “Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy,” explained Marshall McLuhan (1962, p. 22), later underscoring the powerful amplifying effect print had on the spread of literacy remarking, “Print carries the individuating power of the phonetic alphabet much further than manuscript culture could ever do,” and calling print itself, “the technology of individualism” (McLuhan, 1962, p.158). It was not long before the de-homogenizing effect of spreading literacy on culture reached the doorstep of what had been up to that point in history the single greatest cultural determiner in Europe: the Catholic church.

As the social and political elites were losing their grip on the masses, cracks in the armor of the church began to show as well. It is no small thing that Gutenberg selected the Bible as the first book in history to be replicated again and again by the movable-type press. The mass production of the Bible allowed ordinary citizens to read and interpret the text for themselves. However, it was when the Bible began to be translated from Latin into the language of the people and subsequently published, most notably by Martin Luther in 1522, that the impact of the press on Christianity in Europe truly began to show (Hendrix, 1983). Elizabeth Eisenstein points to the impact the press had on religion saying, “The desire to spread glad tidings, when implemented by print, contributed to the fragmentation of Christendom,” and on nationalism: “It is no accident that nationalism and mass literacy have developed together. The two processes have been linked ever since Europeans ceased to speak the same language when citing their scriptures or saying their prayers” (Eisenstein, 1979, p.363). To ‘spread glad tidings,’ the Bible needed to be put into the language of the people. Once done however, the meaning of the Bible could no longer be managed and controlled by the church leadership. It was not long before disputes over whether or not church practices were Biblical or not led to the birth of a new brand of Christianity altogether. Protestantism, of which there are now countless denominations, based itself on variations in the understanding of the true meaning of the Biblical account, refusing to allow truth to be dictated down from a religious aristocracy.

Like political and religious structures, education could not escape the dramatic transformational effects of the press.Typographic fixity, as Eisenstein puts it, “is a basic prerequisite for the rapid advancement of learning” (Eisenstein, 1979, p. 113). It provides a certainty that not only do my book and your book provide the same information, but that the language cannot degrade over time from successive copying, as occurs in the reproduction of manuscripts. “The printed book was a new visual aid available to all students and it rendered the older education obsolete. The book was literally a teaching machine where the manuscript was a crude teaching tool only” (McLuhan, 1962, p. 144-155). Because the printed book not degrade over time but in fact it evolved, personal books became a cornerstone of educational practice, and rapidly improved in organizational structure and clarity in order to meet the needs of an ever-broadening readership. “The highly competitive commercial character of the new mode of book production encouraged the relatively rapid adoption of any innovation that commended a given edition to purchasers” (Eisenstein, 1979, p. 52). Each printed copy could be reviewed for typographical errors and then be improved upon without introducing the possibility or further, different errors. This methodical, organised approach to manufacturing was entirely new at the time, and began what Bolter described as the “modern economy of writing with its highly organized and standardized space.” (2001, p. 22). This modern economy of writing has gone through more evolutionary stages than can be recounted here, and continues to change and develop faster than ever today.

The individual cultural and religious histories of the world owe much to literacy and print, and although the uniformly mass-produced pages which Gutenberg’s press produced had a transformative, variegating effect on society, the individual, and the church, it is precisely that diversification in literary production and interpretation which continues to strengthen humanity as a whole, resolutely leading us away from disintegration and collapse, rather than towards.


Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. (1980). The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Cambridge University Press.

Hendrix, Scott H. (1983). “The Controversial Luther”, Word & World 3/4 , Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN

Keep, C., McLaughlin, T., & Parmar, R. (1995). “Manuscript circulation” and “Johannes Gutenberg and the Printed Book” The electronic labyrinth. Retrieved October 21, 2011 from

McLuhan, M., (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: the making of typographic man. Routledge, London.

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and Literacy. Chapters 4 and 5 (pp. 117-155).*

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

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2 Responses to Personal books, individual thought: The broad impact of Gutenberg’s printing press

  1. Jasmeet Virk says:

    I enjoyed your paper. It is amazing how “little” things totally change how people think and behave. Your post kept reminding me about the ‘Arab Spring’. What print couldn’t achieve in the Arab world was done by technology. That is the remediation , I think, Bolter is talking about!

  2. Thanks for your comment Jasmeet, and YES, I was thinking about the Arab Spring as well while writing this paper. It was difficult to remain focused on the changes which occurred during the shift from handwritten to printed materials (though they were significant), in light of the modern age, where a remediation of truly monumental proportions is taking place, and literacy and information access are increasing so rapidly. At the same time, it was fascinating for me to explore just how much the printed word did to spread knowledge and empower people who previously had little option besides just believing what they were told, doing what they were told, etc. Mechanical reproduction, as kicked off by the printing press truly impacted every area of life – community, religion, economics, education, politics – and still does!

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