Movable Type

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Reproduction of Gutenberg-era Press on display at Printing History Museum in Lyon, France.

Few inventions have had the impact movable type has had on human history. The invention of the printing press in 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg marked the beginning of a revolution in the way information was accessed, preserved, and shared. While other civilizations had developed early versions of the printing press, the European rendition of this innovation would be the first to see widespread adoption and influence. This sudden shift to a literate society was influenced by a complex mix of social, cultural, and economic factors. This essay will give a concise history of movable type and illustrate its immediate impacts on reading and writing cultures.

The Historical Development of Printing[edit]

Before the movable type, most written material in Western Europe was produced by hand. The production of a manuscript was a long, laborious process that had remained relatively unchanged since before 1000. Scribes wrote on parchment, using goose quills, and once the text was copied it would be subject to further post-processing with illumination, rubrication, and binding – all contributing to the manuscript’s high cost and rarity.[1]

The rapid spread of printing in Western Europe can be attributed to the conditions that existed prior to Gutenberg’s invention. The main underlying factor was the rise of large towns and urban centers: in Western Europe, excluding major cities, only two large towns had populations exceeding 20,000 at the beginning of the 13th century. By the end of the 15th century, 22 towns exceeded this amount, and 8 of them had populations exceeding 50,000. [2] These towns became centers of trade, necessitating written communication, and soon literacy was perceived as a precondition to wealth. Increasing demand for education led to the establishment of the first universities, and consequently, a greater demand for books.[3]

In the mid-1400s, German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg began development of the first movable type in Europe, and by 1450, had successfully developed a machine that could produce extensive printed works consistently and efficiently. First, metal types were cast with a mirror image of an alphabetical letter. These types were arranged (composed) in frames or “formes” and placed on the bed of the press, inked with leather balls, and drawn under the platen. Sheets of paper, dampened beforehand, were placed on a hinged “tympan” and folded above the typesetting before being pressed down by the platen. The final product was hung to dry before the other side was printed, and sheets of various sizes could be produced.[4]

A demonstration of its usage can be found here.

The 42-line Bible[edit]

(Figure 1) A page from an early copy of the 42-Line Bible.

The first major undertaking by the Gutenberg press was the 42-line Bible, which was intended to resemble a manuscript Bible as closely as possible. In Figure 1, the Latin text has been divided into two columns and leaves ample space for margins, with some copies possessing detailed illuminations in those spaces. The font style itself intentionally mirrors that of missals found in churches, with a large, dense type called ‘textura’ that gave the page a woven look. The hand-inked rubrication is simple but practical: each capital letter is in red, the initial letters are blue, and the headline and chapter numbers are in red and blue. The large font and color made it easy for fast navigation, especially in dark church interiors and lecterns where it was intended for use.[5] To conserve space but remain faithful to the manuscript appearance, Gutenberg used a total of 290 different characters for upper and lower case letters, abbreviations, and ligatures.[6] Most early printed books, or incunables, such as these tried to emulate manuscripts as closely as possible, requiring that the compositor had a nuanced understanding of Latin.

The printing press spread rapidly across Europe after its invention, making prominent inroads in large urban centers, and with it came a massive increase in the number of books printed. Scholars have estimated the number of incunable editions printed before 1501 to be around 27,000 to 29,000. An average print run for each edition would have been around 500, meaning the total number of printed books in circulation in Western Europe likely exceeded 15 million.[7] This mass production of books drastically lowered their cost and rarity and enormously impacted the way people regarded the acquisition and perception of knowledge itself.

The Impact of Printing on Perception and Reading Cultures[edit]

Marshall McLuhan notes that “the invention of typography confirmed and extended the new visual stress of applied knowledge, providing the first uniformly repeatable commodity, the first assembly-line, and the first mass production”.[8] In other words, the invention of movable type not only transformed the book into the first mass-produced commodity, but also created social and psychological revolutions marked by a transition from oral to visual conceptions of knowledge. With the rapid proliferation of printed material, knowledge had suddenly been reduced to a homogenized experience akin to that of a film: experiences were reduced to purely a visual, linear, and sequential series of letters. Elizabeth Eisenstein also emphasizes the impact of movable type on thought processes, claiming entire systems of thinking emerged as a direct result of printed books. For example, the alphabetical ordering of data grew in popularity considerably thanks to the ease at which indexes could be copied repeatedly, changing the way people codified and systematized information on a large scale.[9]

Eisenstein contends “the fact that identical images, maps, and diagrams could be viewed simultaneously by scattered readers constituted a kind of communications revolution in itself”.[10] Prior to the mass production of books, knowledge stored in manuscripts was vulnerable to corruption from human error during the scribal copying process. The medium itself was subject to natural degradation, and the manuscript’s rarity meant that many written works were inevitably lost over time. With the ‘democratizing’ effect of printing, the sheer number of books copied meant that their contents could be preserved at a far greater rate and distributed consistently to readers across the continent and beyond.[11] One of the most significant impacts of this ‘typographical fixity’ was the ability to accumulate, add to, and revise established scientific knowledge. Less effort was spent copying books by hand, and more time was spent reading and refining existing maps, diagrams, and texts, giving rise to scholarly practices such as cross-referencing and peer review.[12]

The dynamics between author, reader, and printer were also subject to radical upheavals during this shift. The printer took an active role in the production chain of the book, responsible for negotiating complex realities between reader, author, and those involved in the creation of the physical book.[13] The notion of ‘author’ took a turn with the advent of movable type as well. Prior to its development, the manuscript was an organic, collectively-written composition that sought to bring forth its message in corporeal form. Authorship, according to McLuhan, was “in a large degree the building of a mosaic”.[14] Because of the scribal nature of manuscript production, one could not ascertain for sure if what a writer wrote was his own work or the copy of another book. Movable type effectively solved these issues, and with it came the notion of the individual author who could be recognized for his or her writing talents. The commodification of books meant that text itself had become a good, and authors competed to produce works that would garner mass popularity and acclaim.[15]

The Impact of Printing on Text and Content[edit]

Perhaps the greatest impact of printing on the nature of the book was that it had become a uniform, mass-produced commodity subject to market realities.[16] In an effort to cut down production costs, printers began to make innovations in the paratext of books that distanced them from their manuscript progenitors. Colors and illumination were done away with, and the characters used in typesetting were simplified. However, printers wanted to market their books as unique and desirable items; to that end, the title page was invented, usually with a crest to identify the printing shop. Navigational aids such as foliation and pagination were developed, and the title page often marketed the book’s desirable features, such as indexes and illustrations.[17] In addition, these printers simplified the printing process, further reducing costs and making full use of the technology's potential.

Aldus Manutius and the Aldine Press[edit]

One of the most famous early printers was Aldus Manutius of Venice who, in 1502, formed a partnership with several Renaissance intellectuals to form the Aldine Press. Manutius made several notable innovations in printing, such as the development of Roman italics that mirrored the handwriting of humanists.[18] Manutius also did much to promote the works of classic Greek writers, using Greek typeface to publish the works of Sophocles, Herodotus, and Plutarch, among others.

(Figure 2) The title page from Moralia, 1509. A handwritten ownership mark indicates it was owned by Filippo Gundelio.
(Figure 3) A preliminary page from Moralia, 1509. Note the colophon above the table of contents.

One such example is the Aldine publication of Plutarch’s Moralia, the first of these essays to be printed in Greek.[19] The two pages shown here are from an original Aldine edition dated to 1509, from the University of Pennsylvania's Rare Books Archive. The title page, Figure 2, bears the well-known crest of the Aldine Press, a dolphin encircling an anchor. According to Barbier, the dolphin “was a sort of manifesto of the intellectual choices of the group of humanists gravitating round the workshop”.[20] It conveys the purpose of the Aldine Press to the reader as a platform for intellectual gathering and appreciation for the Ancients, while simultaneously marketing the book as a quality product from a reputable publisher. At the top is the title of the work, and below is a short description of its contents. The pages immediately after are preliminaries written in Latin (Figure 3), and contain a colophon – a short line detailing the date and place of publication – towards the end. At the bottom of the page is a brief table of contents written in Greek.[21]

This copy is interesting in that it possesses an informal ownership mark on the cover, indicating it was owned by a Humanist scholar named Filippo Gundelio of Vienna. It is thanks to casual writings such as these that we are able to trace the provenance of such printed books. Furthermore, it possesses numerous notes and writings in the margins with varying levels of darkness, indicating the book was re-read multiple times (Figure 4). Despite this, the interior of the copy is astoundingly well-cared for; though the leather bound exterior is flaking and falling apart, there are no visible tears or smudges on the pages of the text. Although the paper is far thinner and cheaper than that of the 42-Line Bible, it is still tough and durable. Evidently, printers like Manutius were aware of the reading styles of such scholars, intentionally widening the margins and sourcing high-quality paper to accommodate this. Furthermore, the sharp divide between printed text and handwritten notes in the margins is an interesting departure from manuscripts, where additional commentary was easily assimilated into the original text.

(Figure 4) Interior pages from Moralia, 1509.

Without even looking at the contents or comprehending the text, several observations be made: the book was published in Venice by the Aldine Press, and is likely marketed to scholars of Greek Classics who would find the inclusion of these paratext features useful. It is also worth noting the stark contrasts between the 42-line Bible analyzed earlier and Moralia. The Bible was a shadow of the past, an attempt to imitate the stern structures and styles associated with Catholicism and Medieval scribal practices. Its attempt to closely replicate a manuscript Bible illustrates that Gutenberg and his contemporaries were not yet fully aware of the full range of capabilities afforded to them by movable type. The Moralia, on the other hand, is printed mostly in Greek, with its pages bereft of color and its Latin preliminaries in a far simpler typesetting. Its contents were pagan and secular, of interest to the Renaissance intellectuals of the day. In one aspect, however, Manutius’ vision was in concordance with Gutenberg’s: the emulation of hand-written script in printing. He experimented with different typefaces in the 1490s, ultimately developing a simplified version that can be seen in the body of Moralia.[22]

Manutius’ role in the creation of the book is significant because it demonstrates the newfound power printers had over the dissemination and contents of printed media. His personal passion for the Classics was what led him to develop simple yet elegant fonts for Latin and Greek. Furthermore, Manutius played a key role in promoting the octavo format of books, publishing classics that were compact, affordable, and authoritative. This departure from the traditional folio format of incunables to a “handier” format marks, according to Helen Barolini, “the true link from the ancient world through the medieval and into the beginning of the modern era.”[23]

The Impact of Printing on Historical Developments[edit]

In brief, the printing press catalyzed the Renaissance Humanist movement already in motion in Europe, having tremendous effects on the spread of accurate knowledge and preservation of texts. The Humanist movement emphasized a shift towards a deeper understanding of the human condition and secular matters, with a return to the study of Greek and Roman classics. The press enabled these works to be distributed consistently in editions and anthologies, and the efforts of printers such as Aldus Manutius, mentioned earlier, led to affordable and convenient formats easily accessible for study and research.[24] It is disputable whether or not the Renaissance was contingent on the invention of movable type. McLuhan, for instance, believed that societies were often unaware of the impact technological innovations of their time had on perception and awareness.[25] Likewise, Eisenstein’s assertions that technology gave rise to new modes of thinking are examples of technological determinism in that movable type shaped the course of the humanist movement.

Scientific and technical knowledge prospered as well. Eisenstein’s concept of typographical fixity applies in the case of Nicholas Copernicus, who “had an opportunity to survey a wider range of records and to use more reference guides than had any astronomer before him.”[26] A contemporary of Manutius, Copernicus’ work as an astronomer meant that he needed access to charts and maps distributed over long intervals of time, often compiled centuries before him. The proliferation of standardized material meant that he could now cross-reference and compare his findings with those made by observers past, then record and distribute them himself through print. Furthermore, the extensive cataloging of scientific literature by printers represented a bibliography that Copernicus could use to efficiently navigate the astronomical knowledge of his time.[27]

Printed media also served as a vehicle for the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and demonstrates the disruptive powers of print on culture. German theologian Martin Luther is famous for his 95 Theses, in which he criticized the Catholic Church’s practice of promising salvation to Christians through the sale of indulgences. The essay spread rapidly, and although the Church attempted to suppress Luther’s Reformist ideas, it could not prevent him and his supporters from printing and distributing pamphlets and multi-page leaflets. Of particular importance is the fact that the Reformists wrote in easy-to-read vernacular and dialogue-based prose, easing the transmission of their message to the average layperson. With the popularity of the Reformation, production of pamphlets rose to 17 percent of total print production by 1517.[28] Luther’s movement is significant not only because it shows how print could be utilized to dissent against established systems, but because it is one of the first large-scale instances of attempting to communicate with a general audience. In other words, movable type made possible the conceptualizing of a ‘public’ sphere.

Movable Type and the Electronic Age[edit]

It is difficult to identify whether the advent of electronic media in the twenty-first century represents a ‘revolutionary’ shift in perceptions the same way movable type was, or simply marks an evolutionary transition of the act of printing from paper to screen. There are certainly similar features shared by both technologies, only intensified and accelerated in the case of electronics: fast dissemination of information through the Internet, preservation through mass production (though not in physical form), and accessibility of consistent information regardless of time or place. Parallels can be drawn to the Incunable period following the invention of movable type – namely in that society is still transitioning from imitating past forms of media to newer, more experimental formats. The full extent of the capabilities afforded to us by this technology are yet to be seen.


  1. Barbier, Frédéric. Gutenberg's Europe: The Book and the Invention of Western Modernity (Malden, MA: Polity, 2017), 46-47.
  2. Ibid., 13.
  3. Ibid., 24-25.
  4. Füssel, Stephan. Gutenberg and the Impact of Printing (Aldershot [England]: Ashgate Pub., 2005), 15.
  5. Newton, A. Edward, Johann Gutenberg, and Johannes Fust. A Noble Fragment: Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, 1450-1455 (New York: Gabriel Wells, 1921)
  6. Füssel, Gutenberg, 18-22.
  7. Barbier, Gutenberg's Europe, 248-249.
  8. McLuhan, Marshall, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), 124.
  9. Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution In Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) 70-72.
  10. Ibid., 24.
  11. Ibid., 88.
  12. Ibid., 97-98.
  13. Ibid., 28.
  14. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 132.
  15. Odin, Jaishree K. “Print Revolution.” Hawai`i Creole English, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1997,
  16. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 163.
  17. Barbier, Gutenberg's Europe, 205.
  18. Ibid., 223.
  19. Lowry, Martin. The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship In Renaissance Venice (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979), 239-240.
  20. Barbier, Gutenberg's Europe, 231.
  21. Plutarch. Moralia. Vol. LXXXXII. (Venice: Aldine Press, 1509), 1-5.
  22. Lowry, The World of Aldus, 131.
  23. Barolini, Helen, Aldus and His Dream Book: An Illustrated Essay (New York: Italica Press, 1992) 82-83.
  24. Füssel, Gutenberg, 72-75.
  25. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 3.
  26. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution, 231-232.
  27. Ibid., 231-236
  28. Füssel, Gutenberg, 164-170.