The Importance of the Printing Press for the Protestant Reformation, Part One

Johann Gutenberg and the Technology

This article is the first of two that will consider the importance of Johann Gutenberg's movable type printing technology for the Protestant Reformation and how the new technology was employed effectively by Martin Luther in Germany. Part one will deal with the technology, and part two will consider how it was used by Luther in Germany.

Johann Gutenberg is credited with having developed the movable type printing process sometime before 1450 while living in Strassbourg, but due to the limited information available about him the year is not certain. Gutenberg was born in Mainz about 1397 and, after developing his printing innovation in Strassbourg, he moved to his hometown and opened a print shop. His trade was goldsmithing, which would have given him the skills needed for making movable type via casting and then tooling lead. Sadly, eventually Gutenberg lost his printing business to a creditor and died in1468. As an aside, some have speculated that there were others working on the printing process around the time of Gutenberg. This may well be the case, but, for the moment, we will leave this question to the side.

Gutenberg's invention made the printing of lengthy texts possible by continuing to use existing materials. The difference was that Gutenberg improved their utility. Paper, ink, the screw press, and imaging techniques were used and improved as movable type printing increased in use. By the mid fourteenth century, paper had become commonly available in Europe and was enjoying increasing use by 1450. The availability of paper is quite remarkable in itself which merits further attention.

The production of paper consisted of two steps. First, the raw material, usually linen rags, was broken down into its constituent fibers. Second, the fibers were then formed into a durable sheet of paper. A slurry of suspended fibers was created by pounding the rags in water. After the pounding, the fibers were then ground into pulp on stones and processed into a pasty liquid in a vat of water.(1)  The paper maker then lowered a sheet of metal mesh into the slurry covering the mesh with the linen cellulose paste. The mold was lifted above the slurry as it was gently shaken allowing the excess moisture to drain. The delicate, damp sheet was then carefully removed from the mold and placed between two pieces of felt on the flat table of a screw press.  Then, the process was repeated and another wet sheet was added to the stack and topped by felt, and so on until a suitable stack of paper and felt separators was achieved. The stack was then squeezed with the press to purge as much water as possible from the sheets of paper.  The sheets were then hung up to dry on a line similar to a clothesline. The extraordinary amount of work it took to produce paper at this time has certainly paid off - the reason that the pages of early paper paged books have survived into our time is greatly due to the non-acidic processing of the paper and the high quality and durability of linen fibers.

Inks used for printing were similar to inks used up until comparatively recently. Lampblack, which is the carbon residue from a flame (i.e. soot), was blended with varnish and/or boiled linseed oil. Essentially, the ink of Gutenberg's era was a black oil paint similar to that used by artists of the era.(2) Printers often mixed their own ink and in some cases had secret ingredients to make their ink look unique.
Interestingly, the press was probably the least of Gutenberg's technical problems as he worked out the details of printing with movable type.(3) Not only was the screw press used for the crude printing of the era, but other technologies of the era, such as wine making and book binding, employed it as well.  A typical press
... consisted of two stout upright pieces of wood joined by two horizontal beams.  A screw, working in the upper beam and turned by a long bar, exerted pressure downward upon a wooden plank placed on the paper....  The pitch of the screw was made [steep] ... so that the necessary rise and fall was gained within the quarter turn obtainable with a fixed bar. The twisting motion of the turning screw was counteracted by suspending the platen (the wooden plank) from a hollow wooden box that slid inside closely fitting guides while the screw turned freely within. The upright beams were frequently braced to the ceiling to keep the press steady.(4)
The press used in Gutenberg's technology was simple and of the one-pull design; the single pull press required a series of steps to print one-half of one side of a sheet of paper per press cycle.  The process began with inking the forme (the device with the type that will print the text), aligning and setting the paper, using the screw pressure to force the platen onto the paper to press it onto the forme, raising the platen, removing the paper from the forme, and then repeating the process. Gutenberg had to do four complete single pull press operations to print both halves of both sides of a sheet. The paper used for the Gutenberg 42 line Bible measured approximately 17 by 24 inches, and when it was folded once it made two leaves measuring 12 inches by 17 inches. When one sheet is folded in half to make book pages, the book is called a folio; if folded twice, a quarto; and if folded three times, an octavo.

The reproduction of images had been accomplished for years primarily with woodcutting, but a recently developed new imaging technology called engraving came along in the fifteenth century. As the name implies, woodcut printing involved the cutting of wooden blocks in such a way as to form the images one wanted to print. Woodcut images were made by carving the image into the wood so that the peaks of wood remaining after excavation would hold the ink for printing the lines of the image onto paper. Tessa Watt notes that a quality wood block could yield several thousand copies and that one particular woodcut block made of pear wood survived for ninety years and was used to produce a total of five to six thousand copies.(5)  

Engraving involved cutting an image into a sheet of copper with a sharp tool. Costs for engraving were higher than woodcutting due to the price of the metal and the greater skill required for tooling the image. Engraved printing runs were limited because early engravers could not excavate the grooves deep enough to produce more than a few hundred copies before image definition deteriorated.(6) By far, the way to reproduce images in the era of the Reformation was woodcutting; engraving would not become cost effective until the mid to late seventeenth century.

In order to understand Gutenberg's contribution to printing, it is important to understand how the technology of movable type worked and why it was such an important innovation. Gutenberg exercised his goldsmithing skills in the making of the movable type "sorts." A "sort" is the individual character, whether it is a number, letter, or punctuation mark. The first step in the process was to make a punch from a hard metal upon which the character was tooled to project from the end of the punch. The second step was to take this punch and stamp it into a block of softer metal, known as the matrix. Third, the matrix was then clamped into the casting fixture.  The fixture was used to mold each sort in a standard size so that the rows of type would align (the irregularity of the lines of text of some early books shows quality control problems).  The cavity created by the casting fixture, with the character impressed in the matrix at the bottom, shaped the sort. The fourth step was to pour a molten alloy of lead and tin into the cavity created by the casting fixture. Finally, after the casting cooled, the fixture was opened, the sort removed, and then it was de-flashed to remove metal that had leaked from the casting cavity.  The casting fixture could then be reused to make another identical copy of the sort or another sort for another character could be inserted depending on what was needed. The beauty of this technique is that it yielded many copies of fairly consistent type quickly.

The printer, after casting multiple copies of each sort of a complete font, could then go about the work of printing. The individual sorts were made into words and aligned in rows until enough type had been set to produce a page. As the type was set in the forme it was aligned from right to left, starting at the lower right-hand corner. The forme was at an angle above horizontal, at waist level, and facing the typesetter so he could clearly see what he was doing as he set and aligned the type. It was necessary to set backward letters, in backward words, making backward lines, which then produced proper pages when the completed forme was placed in the galley of the press, inked, and pressed to paper. The more copies of each individual character a printer had, the more efficient he could be in his operation. As the printer completed pages of text, the formes would be broken down by an assistant who would reuse the type to set more formes for the next pages. Sometimes when printers ran out of copies of a sort they would substitute a more abundant sort that looked similar to the depleted sort, which is one of the reasons why early printed books often suffer from spelling inconsistencies within a page.

From Gutenberg's era into the first half of the sixteenth century several improvements were made to the printing press. These included a sliding table for the forme to speed printing both halves of the paper's side, the tympan and frisket assembly which held the paper firmly while increasing press efficiency, and then the two-pull press supplanted the sliding table and further improved and expedited printing. A final improvement made to the press was the changing of the wooden press screw to one of metal. The early presses used a massive, heavy, wooden screw to activate the pressing operation. It is believed that the wooden screw was changed for a metal screw sometime around 1550 by Leonhard Danner, who was a screw maker in Nürnberg.  This innovation greatly reduced friction and thus eased the pressman's operation of the press.(7)

An important result of the movable type printing process is the speed at which multiple copies of any printed work could be reproduced. As printing technology improved from the mid-fifteenth-century into the early sixteenth-century, the rate of printing improved as well. When considering press rates several factors enter into the equation including the skill of the operator, the quality of the print, the features of the press, the number of workers in the shop, the paper and ink, the weather, and the number of breaks taken by the workers. Michael Pollak has concluded that each wooden press could produce as many as 1,500 sides per day and that higher quality work reduced the rate considerably.(8) A reasonable rate of production for normal printing was about 1,250 to 1,500 sides per day. A simple one-sided publication might have a run of 1,500 sheets in a single day. If the document was a portion of a full sheet, even greater quantities could be produced.

It can be generally stated that there were two types of printed materials, each of which targeted different segments of the culture. The first type of printed material was illustrated simple publications designed to reach those who could not read; the second type of publication was the text dense books and pamphlets for the literate.(9)

One illustrated publication was the broadside, also known as a broadsheet, which was a single sheet publication that is similar to our modern day poster. The early broadside was heavy on the graphics and used text minimally if at all.(10)  Keep in mind here that the iconography of the time had been used in the church to teach the people because the mass of the population could not read and were prevented from learning to read. Before movable type, these publications were produced using woodcuts, and after movable type came into use, broadsides were made using a combination of type and woodcuts. Broadsides were often published for the explicit purpose of catechizing and teaching scripture lessons. Due to the high cost of Bibles, the broadside became a poor-man's Bible.

The price of books was high at this time, but not as high as the old manuscript editions. One factor that contributed to the high price of books was the cost of paper, which constituted as much as three-quarters of the material costs of the book.(11) One of the reasons why many early books extant today do not have their blank end papers is because they were cut out by the owners to be used for letter writing or other purposes. Paper was expensive. Generally, books were luxuries that were purchased by the wealthy.(12) Though movable type had vastly improved book printing efficiency, books were still a rarity; books were cheaper, but they were still relatively expensive. Gawthrop and Strauss tell us that the ordinary artisan living in 1522 would have to work for one week to pay for a New Testament in German. To purchase a complete German Bible required a common laborer's toil for a month.(13)
Another publication was the pamphlet, which was a brief unbound book dealing with topical or time sensitive subject matter. It seems that the Germans were especially involved in the printing of pamphlets - which Luther used skillfully.(14)  He was able to respond quickly to his opponents because pamphlets could be produced expeditiously. Before 1518 there was minimal pamphlet activity in Europe. Six years later in 1524, there is indication that the production of pamphlets had increased one-thousand percent and much of the increase was due to Luther.(15)  Pamphlets were effective publications because they made efficient use of paper.

By the end of the fifteenth-century, movable type books were distributed throughout Europe.  The new movable type books were sold through the same channels as the manuscript editions.  As book sales grew it became necessary to establish distribution outlets in the major cities of Europe.(16)  Printers did their own advertising and distribution because, "As self-serving publicists, early printers issued book lists, circulars, and broadsides. They put their firm's name, emblem, and shop address on the front page of their books."(17) From the 1480's on, international trade became a reality for large printers like Koberger in Nürnberg and Cranach and Döring in Wittenberg.(18)  The bookshop was uncommon until late in the sixteenth century, except for in state capitals and large cities.(19)  Gutenberg's press had given rise to a growth industry in Europe.

In the years that passed from Gutenberg's era to Luther's, the printing industry expanded and improved. The press itself enjoyed improvements in its mechanism resulting in increased productivity. The German printing industry had grown from mom-and-pop businesses into multi-facility operations. It would continue to enjoy growth as more and more material was written and printed during the years of the Reformation. Even though printed goods, particularly books, were expensive, creative entrepreneurs increased their printing of the more economical and profitable broadsides and pamphlets. With increased use of printing came increased demand and greater demand necessitated greater means of distribution. In God's providence, the scene was set for the printing mogul of the 1520's named Martin Luther.

1. Lucien Febvre and Jean-Henri Martin, The Coming of the Book (New York: Verso, 1990), 33.  This book was translated from the French edition of 1958 into English in 1976.

2. Victor Scholderer, Johann Gutenberg: The Inventor of Printing (London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1970), 23.

3. Michael Pollak, "The Performance of the Wooden Printing Press," The Library Quarterly 42 (April 1972):  220.

4. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1963, "Printing Press"; there are some videos of the operation of a press similar to Gutenberg's available on the Internet.

5. Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 141, n. 48.

6. Watt, 142.

7. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1963, "Printing Press."

8. Pollak, 262.

9. Richard G. Cole, "The Dynamics of Printing in the Sixteenth Century," in The Social History of the Reformation, ed. L. P. Buck and J. W. Zophy (Columbus:  Ohio State University Press, 1972), 95.

10. G. H. Putnam, Books and their Makers During the Middle Ages, vol. 1, 476-1600, 2nd ed. (New York:  The Knickerbocker Press, 1898), 350.

11. Watt, 262.

12. R. A. Houston, Literacy in Early Modern Europe:  Culture and Education, 1500-1800 (New York:  Longman, 1988), 185. 

13. Gawthrop and Strauss, "Protestantism and Literacy in Early Modern Gemany" Past and Present 104 (1984):  31-55.

14. Richard G. Cole, ed. H. Koehler, "Reformation Pamphlets and the Communication Processes,"  Flugschriften als Massenmedium (1981):  150-51.

15. Cole, "Reformation Pamphlets," 149.

16. Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 57-58.

17. Eisenstein, 59.

18 M. H. Black, "The Printed Bible," in The Cambridge History of the Bible:  The West from the Reformation to the Present Day, ed. by S. L. Greenslade (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1963), 429.

19. Houston, 169.