Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words

John Man
New York: John Wiley & Sons, inc., 2002
187 pp., $24.95 hc

Bill Janus
Western Montana College-UM

The printing press is one of Western Civilization's great inventions. The dissemination of information suddenly became easy, affordable, accessible, and common. Because of it the power of communication was wrested away from a handful of scribes, the Catholic Church, and nobility. Access to information became more egalitarian. This technology also is one of the most enduring of discoveries to remain relevant. Exaggerated reports of its demise seem unfounded, and E-books do not threaten to make the printing press an anachronism any time soon. Therefore, a study of the father of this revolutionary and significant invention, Johann Gutenberg, is both appropriate and important.

John Man's Gutenberg is not a critical scholarly work. Instead, it is a pleasant exploration of hypotheses about Gutenberg's life and why and how he invented the printing press. It also exposes the reader to many interesting anecdotes regarding religion, science, politics, and society in late medieval Europe.

As light entertaining reading, Gutenberg finds a niche. Written in the style of Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman, we have an interesting story. In 1450, it took two months to copy a book by hand. Gutenberg's discovery allowed for 500 copies to be produced in a week. This effectively broke the monopoly that the aristocracy, the monarchy, and the Church maintained in publishing. Now any burgher in Europe with the financial means to purchase a printing press, could become an independent publishing magnate. More importantly, burghers, and potential political and religious dissidents, could now avoid the censorship this former monopoly also exercised. Since so few books could be produced earlier, a handful of expensive texts could easily be checked for their religious and political orthodoxy. These texts also most likely were written in Latin rather than in a vernacular. By 1500, however, millions of books were being printed, including works of literature and poetry, political, religious, and historical tracts, technological and scientific manuscripts, and many were in the vernacular. Thousands of printing presses were founded throughout Europe. Sometimes the themes of these books were subversive, helping shape a more rational and egalitarian Europe. This is why the printing press is such an important invention, because it is only after it comes into existence that Europe has the ability to become modern.

The most immediate example of radical change wrought by the printing press is the Reformation. The Reformation was brought about by the ability of the press to produce thousands of copies of Martin Luther's ninety-five theses within only a few weeks after he posted them in Wittenberg. Luther's message of dissent thus was spread throughout Germany and Europe, too late for the Catholic Church to do anything but excommunicate Luther. Between 1518 and 1525 Luther fought a propaganda war against the Church, and printing presses published approximately 2,100,000 copies of his sermons and tracts, effectively making permanent a schism in Western Christianity.

We can forgive Man for speculating on what may have inspired Gutenberg to discover the printing press. Little evidence exists which can shed light on this process. One possible inspiration may be the fact that Gutenberg's family was involved in the minting of coins. The minting process involved pouring metal into dies and then striking the die with a punch. The punch, with its raised pattern, would stamp the pattern on the coin. These punches were in essence mini-presses that had resolutions of between six and sixty times that of a modern laser printer. It is when theorizing on such anecdotal activities that Gutenberg is charming. Man should not, however, apply such conjecture to larger historical dynamics such as whether capitalist motivations had a role in the 1400s, unless he supports them with critical evidence.

Another potential motivating factor that may have led Gutenberg to his discovery was his unsuccessful attempt to invent a process to mass produce small mirrors from polished metal. The mirrors were in tremendous demand because a steady stream of thousands of pilgrims used them to "capture" and "absorb" the supposed healing powers of relics at Charlemagne's tomb in Aachen. The process of making the mirrors was nearly identical to the minting of coins. We know that Gutenberg was involved in trying to make these mirrors, and perhaps his failed attempt gave him the idea of applying punches and presses to paper instead of metal.

Man excellently outlines the actual engineering of the printing press machine and the production of all its component parts. He deftly explains the evolution of all its sub-technologies. In a clear manner we learn the printing press's mechanical principles, how a form, press, a counterpunch, a punch, and type are produced, and how Gutenberg refined paper and ink so modern publication could take place.

Today, we may consider a printing press to be an industrial machine that mass produces finished products, but for Gutenberg his invention was a machine that created works of art. The printing press had to match the grace and beauty of hand-copied books. It succeeded. The type was elaborate, and ostentatious illustrations and graphics decorated the margins. Even while matching the beauty of hand-copied texts, the printing press enjoyed a huge advantage over hand copied books, too. As long as the type was properly set, thousands of printed texts would be flawlessly precise, and precision is something everyone valued, both authors and readers.

Gutenberg concludes with an examination of the evolution of modern publishing. It appears that Gutenberg's discovery was first going to mass produce a universal missal, but Church leaders were unable to reach consensus on an authorized text, and so Gutenberg settled on printing the Bible first. Soon thousands of printing presses mushroomed across Europe, and readers could choose from a variety of religious and secular titles.

An interesting digression in Gutenberg is Man's speculations as to why Asian civilizations did not invent the printing press first. Despite inventing paper, and already inventing a process where symbols could be pressed onto paper (block-printing), no Asian culture developed a mechanized version using movable type. One reason for this failure could be the fact that syllabic systems of writing are much more burdensome and complicated than Europe's phonetic system.

Islamic civilization also failed to invent the printing press. Muslims had a long tradition of sophisticated scholarship, and they had paper, ink, and a phonetic writing system--all elements necessary for the invention of the printing press. Yet they did not discover it, and they did not fully utilize the printing press even after its introduction in the Middle East. Man believes Muslims rejected the printing press because their culture and religion were conservative to the core. Printed matter destroyed "authorized" transmission and memory, an idea that stretches back to the Qur'an and the Greeks. Knowledge and information could only be legitimate if it were "authentic," meaning if religious or secular authorities transmitted it. The egalitarian implications surrounding the printing press put such authenticity in jeopardy, and hence the printing press never had the popularity it enjoyed in Europe (251).

I find unconvincing Man's central argument that Gutenberg was a "businessman striving to be the first to cash in on the Continent-wide market offered by the Catholic Church" (8). This is a bold thesis because it goes against a mountain of scholarship going back all the way to Karl Marx. I know of no revisionist historian who has argued that modern capitalism, consumerism, and materialism can be traced back to the late 1400s when Gutenberg was alive, or even to the late 16th century. So, one would expect that the idea that Europeans were aggressively engaged in entrepreneurship and ambitious capitalist ventures in the Middle Ages would be supported with copious citations and evidence. Yet Man provides none. The entire book has no citations, and there is barely a two-page bibliography.

Man does not try to conceal his lack of concern for scholarly care or accuracy; Gutenberg is salted with phrases such as "[h]ere's a scenario" (161) and "I like to imagine" (58). Man feels that a nascent ocean of frustrated European consumers was just waiting to spend its disposable income on a host of goods and services. He feels that Gutenberg must have wanted to become rich and retire in comfort. He feels that philosophically, socially, culturally, and economically, Europeans must have been like us today, "modern."

The use of jargon and the conveying of emotions also are disconcerting. When discussing Johann Fust, an early investor who supported Gutenberg's development of the printing press, we learn that Fust was "a complete and utter money-grabbing BASTARD" (188). If we accept Man's argument that the 15th century already was modern, then why does Man refuse to imagine that Gutenberg himself was nothing more than a greedy capitalist? He does suggest at many points that Gutenberg wanted to "cash in" on markets, but in the end Gutenberg is a flawless figure according to this hagiography. He is a good, selfless, hard-working, disciplined artist and visionary who only wanted a secure standard of living for himself and his family. Man should have realized that such one-dimensional investigations serve only to undermine a book's thesis and conclusions.

Gutenberg is an example of Zeitgeist clouding its author's judgment. Today, it is very fashionable to trust in, and worship, the power of markets. For many, markets level society, and consumption gives birth to and motivates all human actions and beliefs. Man appears to project today's world onto Gutenberg's, a landscape most historians see as decidedly non-capitalist. Additionally, he is unable to recognize that his argument is ultimately contradictory. If Gutenberg is already modern, and he lives in a modern society, then the printing press did not help make Europe modern; thus, it is not such a significant and revolutionary invention. One can forgive Man for speculating about matters that primary sources on Gutenberg fail to provide. But I cannot give him a pass for not attempting to write and think in a scholarly fashion when discussing larger historical issues. Despite many difficulties, a historian can be careful and interesting simultaneously.

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