Conventionally, Middle Ages relates to European history from the fall of Rome in the second half of the 5th to the 15th century, when Renaissance thrived. Likewise conventionally, Middles Ages are regarded as a chaotic period, dominated by political instability, wars, terrible epidemic outbreaks, and strict religious dominance. However, far from being a dark interval between the glories of the Roman Empire and the magnificence of the Renaissance, Middle Ages is the epoch when Europe, and by extension, Western civilization, was forged (Landes 45).
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During the Middle Ages, the first central governments and bureaucracies cropped out in France and England, scientific experimentation started, and merchant tradition created the basis for further development. These seeds would have eventually bloomed to define some spread traits main across Europe, contributing to set a certain level of coherence within Western civilization (Stearns 70-73). These characteristics include the idea of national states, scientific thinking, and the rise of the merchant.
Similarly, many reforms, inventions, and discoveries that occurred during Renaissance and Early Modern Period stemmed from the experiences gained during the Middle Ages and shaped the Western culture in such a profound way that their influence is still recognizable today. The introduction of the printing press in the mid 15th century, between the Middle Ages and Renaissance, changed the course of European history in many ways, raising fortunes, decreeing the following fall of some professions, spreading religious precepts and political ideas.
This paper will deepen the early history and the development of press printing, outlining some traits which have contributed to making Western civilization coherent and consistent. A critical review of literature about press printing will also be developed, showing how it had a unique role in shaping Europe, different from any other culture.
How the Invention of the Printing Press Shaped Western Civilization
Conventionally, the invention of the printing press is made to coincide with the publication of the Bible by Gustav Gutenberg between 1452 and 1455. The introduction of the printing press, encouraging literacy, is one of the main motors of the rise of the West during the sixteenth century (Stearns 76).
The invention has projected Europe towards the Modern era by providing an exceptional vehicle to the diffusion of ideas, scientific progress, geographical discoveries, and literature. In the following half-century, millions of incunabula were published in Europe (Landes 52). Incunabula refer to those books printed in Europe before 1501. Some authors, however, suggest that the incunabula period should be extended at least to 1550 (Steinberg 19). The date of 1501 is too arbitrary for a real understanding of a period that has shaped Western civilization deeply and in many ways.
The first century of the diffusion of the printing press decreed the standardization of the types. The types in the first printed books followed the same style utilized by the scribes in compiling manuscripts. The reason can relate to a conservative attitude of the public, yet it contributed to the spread of the Latin alphabet and the roman and italic types in a supra-national way (Steinberg 29).
This aspect might seem banal, but the consistency of the alphabet and types in printed books is a trait that brings coherence to Western civilization. Second, the massive diffusion of printing presses and published books across Europe had some political implications that moved European nations towards the idea of national states, even if in the long run. Most books were written in vernacular, overturning the monopoly of Latin (Landes 52). The printing press contributed to strengthening national identities by fostering the development of national languages.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Martin Luther showed the considerable power of the judicious use of the printed press. In 1517 Luther gave birth to the Protestant Reformation by attacking the Roman Church and its policy of indulgence in his 95 Theses (Luther). Indeed Luther became the spokesman of a widespread feeling, but one of the reasons for his overwhelming success was his ability to understand the significant potential of the printing press as a medium to create consent. Over the years following the publication of the 95 Theses and until his death in 1546, Luther created a true media campaign to reshape Western civilization (Pettegree xiii).
The consequences are epochal: besides having changed the course of European history, the Reformation suggested that adequate diffusion of ideas could be used to move and even manipulate masses, a trait which is still topical in Western culture. Summing up, the spread of the printing press had broadly contributed to the development of common characteristics across Europe, including cultural uniformity and the rise of nationalism.
Literature Review. Why the Printing Press is Peculiar to Western Culture
In the previous section, some supra-national aspects related to the diffusion of printed books have been developed. However, most literature dealing with the early period of the printing press has a local perspective approach. The focus is on the diffusion of printing presses in Europe, explaining how these plants developed technologically and changed the fortunes of towns and geographical areas (Steinberg 37).
Other authors have broadened the perspective to show how the printing press in Western culture has played a unique role (Landes 52, Stearns 76). The introduction of the printing press in Europe influenced almost every area of daily life in such a way that it is not comparable to any other civilization.
For example, even if printing was initially invented in China, it did not witness there the same diffusion as in Europe. One of the reasons was the difficulty of reading ideograms, which made paintings much more popular (Landes 51). Also, China had a unique geopolitical situation which suggested that the Mandarin culture had some interest in preventing the circulation of new ideas (Stearns 32). Other civilizations, such as those that were flourishing in Muslim nations, opposed the printing press (Landes 51). The reason was religious, as the idea of a printed Koran seemed to be in contrast with the divine will. While Western civilization has been significantly influenced by the diffusion of the printing press, other cultures have given the press a different meaning and role.
Since its introduction in the mid-fifteenth century, the printing press has been a strong source of shaping and transforming Western culture. A high level of literacy, common alphabet and font types, and the broad availability of knowledge are some of the traits that give coherence to Western civilization. Also, the printing press has contributed to create and spread national languages, hence, to the development of the idea of sovereign states, another typical characteristic of the Western world. Since the Protestant Reformation, the diffusion of printed books and ideas has highlighted the significant potential of the printing press to move and manipulate. This last aspect appears especially crucial today, as the multiplication of media increases this potential exponentially.
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Landes, David S.. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Norton & Company, 1998.
Luther, Martin. “95 Theses”. Uncommon Travel Germany. Web.
Pettegree, Andrew. Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe and Started the Protestant Reformation. Penguin, 2005.
Stearns, Peter N.. Western Civilization in World History. Routledge, 2003.
Steinberg, Sigfrid H.. Five Hundred Years of Printing. Dover Publications, 2017.