The Printing Press

in the Renaissance


The invention of the printing press came at a time when books were generally restricted to the elite. In medieval Europe, books were rare and expensive; furthermore, they were written in Latin. The lower and middle classes could afford neither the books themselves nor the education required to read them. The period known as the Renaissance was in many ways driven by this invention as it contributed to the modernity of Europe.

For many reasons, the Black Plague of the 1340s played a major role in the spread of the printing press. These deaths made the lower class richer as they inherited the property of the dead; as a result, many were able to move up economically, and so more people could afford to buy books. Members of the lower class were also able to participate in the industry by selling rags from their clothing, which were used to make paper. (Before the printing press, only parchment and vellum were used, which was inefficient -- 170 calfskins and 300 sheepskins were needed to copy the Bible once. All of these skins had to be scraped clean and thin.)

Furthermore, the Black Plague weakened the power of the Church. It killed off the monks who were trained to copy religious texts; after the monks died and many texts were destroyed during the fall of the Church, there was a strong incentive for a cheaper print method. Finally, the spread of secularism that also resulted when the Church fell placed an emphasis on modern painting, which sparked the development of oil-based paint.


The printing press would not have been possible without the rise of trade in Western Europe beginning around the 1200s. Rag paper was a Chinese invention; it was given to the Arabs by a few skilled Chinese workers who had been kidnapped during a battle. By the 1200s, rag paper had spread up through the Muslim world and into Europe, by which time block printing was invented. Metal type was developed in Korea in the late 1300s. In 1451, Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith from Germany, combined these separate and multicultural inventions with his own invention of oil-based ink; the result was a prototype of the printing press.

How does a printing press work?

Printing 101

Important Figures in the Creation & Spread of the Printing Press

Short Term and Long Term Effects

The invention of the printing press made Western culture lose their medieval characteristics and become more modern. Book-making had been a long, tedious process before the printing press, but with the invention of the press, the process of making books was significantly shortened. With this quick process, books also became cheaper, thus allowing more types of people to be able to afford books. Specifically, middle class people could purchase books, and they only wanted more. Books in languages other than Latin and a different variety of books (romance, poetry, and almanacs) started being published. Making music became cheaper too as music could now be printed. The book trade and its related industries, like paper-making, thrived due to this boom in printing, leading to a stronger economy. Also, since reading books was a lot more common for middle class folk, there was more motivation for them to become literate. Additionally, it became harder for the church to censor material as there were too many printing presses for them to control.

It was the printing press that sparked the interest in writing and reading that people had and still have today. As more people began to read, there was more of a need for new material. Reading and writing have become tools for education, work, and entertainment that people have been using for centuries. However, the lower and working classes were largely unaffected by this innovation. Although mostly wealthy males could read and afford to read, it was definitely the start of something new...

Pros & Cons


  • Encouraged literacy
  • Incentive to educate the middle class
  • More frequent circulation of books
  • Texts were more accessible
  • Easier for scholars and scientists to communicate
  • Revolutionized way of life at the time
  • Cheaper books & more variety
  • Governments could publish and distribute laws
  • Distinguished modern way of life and thought began to develop
  • Encouraged spread of humanism and secularism
  • Beginnings of industrialism in Europe


  • Still unavailable to the lower and working classes
  • Only affected the wealthy and the emerging upper middle to middle class
  • Challenged the Church as it started to threaten influence of religious beliefs
  • Toxins in the ink brought potential harm to the labourers

"It is not so much that printing made the Renaissance possible as that the Renaissance contributed to the successful spread of printing." ~Elizabeth Eisenstein


  • How do you think the printing world would be different if the printing press had never been created and the slower and more expensive means of printing had stayed popular? What if the printing press had been created 200 years later?