August 25: Happy Birthday, Gutenberg Bible!
How the world changed on an August afternoon in 1456
Just like today, over 500 years ago, an ageing clergyman gets up from his table that is covered in rags, pieces of paper, pens, ink, little flakes of gold leaf and pots of glue. He looks down at the work he has just completed: a massive book of over 350 pages lies on the rough workbench. Heinrich Cremer does not hear the barking dog in his yard. He does not hear his wife calling him to lunch. His eyes are fixed on the smooth brown leather of Gutenberg’s book, lying in a pool of golden sunlight. It’s finished. It’s done. The first printed book in history is finally ready. It is the 24th of August, 1456. A moment later the bells of St. Stephen’s will toll as they do every hour, of every day, of every year. But things will never be the same again.
We are fond of thinking that our age is special. We say things like: “The Internet is the biggest change that has happened in the history of mankind.” Or: “The computer has changed the world like no invention before it.” But is it true?
Before Gutenberg invented printing with moveable type, each single book had to be copied by hand. Monasteries had writing rooms full of monks who all day were busy copying books. Even so, books were extremely rare. Only the richest people had ever held one in their hands.
Teachers and scientists memorised what they needed to know. Plato had written his philosophy in dialogue form, partly to make it easier to memorise the texts. When you learned a text, you owned it: it was, literally, contained inside your body. This kept sources fluid: people changed things, misremembered them, or intentionally altered them to fit their own understanding and opinions. Knowledge was alive and personal.
Plato himself didn’t have a high opinion of the invention of the written word:
All this changed on that day in 1456. The first printed book was soon succeeded by others. Just fifty years later, there were around 13 million books in Europe, for a population of 84 million people. Immediately translators went to work translating books into all the spoken languages across the continent. 30 years later, 80% of the books printed in England were printed in English rather than the (official) Latin.
If printing strengthened the different languages across Europe, it did not in the same way benefit local dialects. Almost every big city across Europe had its own spoken dialect that was different from the next city’s. But one could not print books only for the population of one city. So, slowly, the printing of books (like, much later, radio and TV) created a common language among people of the same nation. The new languages became the mark of the educated people, while the dialects were mainly used by the uneducated, those who couldn’t read.
Another change was very similar to what happens with social media today. Freed from the monks who acted as gatekeepers of knowledge, women and silenced minorities finally gained access to the new technology and became able to express and publicise their ideas. By the 16th century, Bibles were printed in the languages people spoke (rather than Latin), sparking an interest in reading and literacy and making the teachings of the church for the first time accessible to everyone.
As a consequence of that, people realised that schooling was a good idea and school systems took off. Scientists could now directly access the public and inform the citizens of new discoveries. Medicine profited from books with correct anatomical images. Previously, the knowledge of the human body had been patchy, as most doctors did not have access to dead bodies that they could dissect to learn from.
Just a few decades later, literacy had become so widespread that governments could begin keeping written records of births and deaths. The first written licences for inns, doctors and nurses appeared along the first official, written records of land ownership, which finally gave us today’s bureaucratic, modern states.
The Gutenberg Bible was not just a religion’s holy book. It was a bomb that tore apart the world around it, so that from the pieces a new world could rise: our world.
Happy Birthday, Gutenberg Bible!
Thanks for reading!
Some facts for this piece were taken from: Ian Mortimer: _Human Race. 10 Centuries of Change on Earth. _Vintage Books, 2015. This is an affiliate link. If you buy through this link, Daily Philosophy will get a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks!