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Printing in the 16th Century

By Adrienne Rivera. Jun 1, 2024. 7:20 PM.

Topics: Book History, History

One of the most important innovations in human history, printing, was the ability to reproduce copies of the written word for mass consumption and distribution. Printing has taken many forms over the centuries, dating back to ancient Sumer, when documents were pressed into clay using cylinders. Methods of printing patterns onto cloth evolved into means of printing, and in ancient China, woodblock printing and eventually movable type made book printing possible throughout China, Japan, and Korea. The 16th century was a period of massive change within the printing world as new inventions and methods revolutionized how people read.

One of the largest printing revolutions was the invention of John Gutenberg's printing press. With the printing press, greater production and distribution became possible, leading to widespread changes in the way people produced, consumed, and interacted with books.

The invention of the Gutenberg press at the end of the 14th century precipitated a great change in the world of books, helping to usher in an age of unprecedented industry within the world of books and printing.

Printer_in_1568-ceNot long after the invention of Gutenberg's famous press and the publication of the beautiful and renowned Gutenberg Bible, the press's shining example of its beauty and possibility, use of the press became more widespread throughout Europe.

While the press didn't offer the exact same level of clarity and quality as hand-lettered and hand-illuminated manuscripts, it did allow for an efficiency that many printers of the time were eager to adopt. At the end of the medieval period, most manuscripts were produced by monasteries or universities as the highest concentration of literate people could be found there, as could those with the resources to produce books. But even with their long history of hand-producing books, numerous monasteries came around to the press. In fact, the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco in Italy had a Gutenberg press, which they later moved to Rome, then Venice, the epicenter of the European Renaissance.

Throughout the earliest part of the sixteenth century, books were still handwritten by priests and university personnel, but other methods were also gaining popularity. One of the earliest forms of printing was the chiaroscuro oil technique. This early form of color printing was made possible by printing line art and colors on various woodblocks that are then layered to reproduce colored artwork. Chiaroscuro was a popular method throughout the early 16th century but waned as a movable type, and the Gutenberg press gained popularity.

The invention of the movable type allowed publishing houses to be established. 1534 King Henry VIII granted Cambridge University permission to establish a printing press. Cambridge University Press is still in operation today, making it the oldest functioning press in the world. As more and more presses were established and printing and mass production became more common, massive changes occurred in reading and literacy.

For the first time, writers could make a career out of writing. Literacy became more widespread as home libraries became possible for the first time, and people had access to books outside the church and schools. Where before, there was little to consume besides church notice, suddenly the ability to produce pamphlets and travel guides, novels and poems, histories, recipe books, sheet music, and much more existed. Printing flourished. There was a new call to produce books to teach people how to read, a product that wasn't necessary before because there wasn't much to read anyway.

With literacy rates increasing and more available to read, it became much easier for factual information to spread and misinformation disproved. Reading, education, and information, once only in the purview of the wealthy and privileged, finally became available for everyone.

Adrienne Rivera
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She currently lives in southern Indiana.


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