The World of Early Printing and Vassar College

By Benjamin G. Kohl, Professor of History Emeritus, Vassar College


S ome three decades ago, the distinguished historian and Vassar alumna Elizabeth L. Eisenstein announced her now famous thesis on the revolutionary impact of printing on western society in a breakout article in the Journal of Modern History. Heading the essay with a quotation of Francis Bacon’s well-known Aphorism 129 from his Novum Organum, she called attention to the importance of inventions to human history.

We should note the force, effect and consequences of inventions, which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, namely, printing, gunpowder, and the compass.  For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world.[1]

Of course, in the centuries that have passed since Bacon’s pronouncement on the reasons for the superiority of the moderns to the ancients, these technological innovations has taken on something of the aspect of textbook clichés of the causes of historical change.  The compass which permitted European mariners to sail out of sight of land ultimately gave rise to the great seaborne empires—Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch and British—that led to the conquest and domination of the globe by European nations.   The use of gunpowder placed military science in the service of the early modern state, allowing centralizing European monarchies to subdue and conquer the older feudal nobility.  Printing provided a revolutionary new technology for the preservation and dissemination of all sorts of information.  Elizabeth Eisenstein was not the first scholar to acknowledge the unacknowledged revolution that was introduced by the invention of printing.  Her ideas were formed in the ferment of discussions of the transitions from orality to written record to print culture spearheaded by such scholars as Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong and Eric Havelock.  But she was the first historian to document massively the revolution.  Her magnum opus, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe, was published in two volumes by the Cambridge University Press in 1979.  Her ideas gained even wider recognition and dissemination in an abridged, illustrated version of her major work entitled The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, first published in 1983.  With the abridgement still available in a paperback edition and translated into ten languages, the “Eisenstein thesis” is perhaps the most influential interpretation of the importance of the invention of printing from moveable type in the long history of scholarship on the printed book.[2]  In fact, anyone interested in this exhibition on the incunables in Vassar’s collection and the accompanying catalogue will find no better introduction to the issues raised than by studying Elizabeth Eisenstein’s ideas either in the large two volume work or the popular abridgement. 

The essay published here has, however, the more modest purpose of introducing the public to a few of the more important topics from the world of early printing.  First, by reviewing the sources for our knowledge of the history of the early printing, I hope to begin to provide an answer to the perennial question of historical research: “How do we know?” Second, through an examination of the shadowy figure of Johann Gutenberg, I attempt to convey something of the importance, complexity and magnitude of the inventor’s achievement.  Third, I return to the argument of the Eisenstein thesis by examining the effect of printing in the age of incunabula in the crucial areas of historical change that she has identified.   These are the creation of a reformed system of Christian belief and worship, based on individual reading of sacred scripture, the assurance of a permanent Renaissance through the preservation of ancient texts and modern literatures, and the transformation of the book of nature with the rise of modern science.  Finally, based on my own research and interests, I sketch how even in the fifteenth century printing enabled both the ecumenical powers of the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy and the more local regional states of Italy to standardize and, in a sense, “popularize” government practices.   In the case of the Empire this was accomplished through the issuance of proclamations, safe conducts and instructions; in the case of the papacy by the selling of printed indulgences which were, in effect, revenue-raising devices for the conduct of campaigns against the Ottoman Turks.   The publication of dozens of printed statutes enabled to cities of the regional states of north and central Italy to standardize and popularize governance by written statute and create the sort of literate judiciary and bureaucracy that still governs most western countries to this day. 


            M uch of the history of the invention of printing remains shrouded in mystery, ambiguous records, and conflicting interpretations.  The sources to unravel these difficulties may be classified under four headings:  documentary, historical, material, and archaeological.[3]  Under the first category there are written documents of all sorts, contracts, lawsuits, business transactions, tax lists, which document, for example, the relations between Johann Gutenberg and his contemporaries.  Second, the statements of early printers contained in the prefaces and colophons to early books detail the purposes and circumstances of publication.  By the end of the fifteenth century, early universal chronicles, such as Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, and urban histories, such as the anonymous Cologne Chronicle, began to include accounts of the origins of the printing in the cities of the Rhineland, especially Mainz.[4]  Of primary importance for the history of early printing are, of course, the books themselves.  And finally there is what may be called “archaeological evidence,” the tools used in the manufacturing of the early books, such as punches, matrices, type faces, and presses, often available only as replicas, as displayed the Gutenberg-Museum at Mainz and described in various catalogues.[5]


T he career and achievement of the elusive figure of Johann Gutenberg can best be reconstructed from a number of ambiguous documents emanating from the cities of Mainz and Strassburg in the middle years of the fifteenth century, and from the physical evidence of his early printed works, especially the famous 42-Line Bible of Mainz of 1454-55, commonly called “The Gutenberg Bible.”[6]  The inventor of printing, Johann, or Henne, was born into a noble family in the German city of Mainz in about 1399 the third child of Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, and his second wife, Else Wirich zum steinen Krame.   Johann grew up in the family’s residence in central Mainz, the “Hof zum Gutenberg,” from which the inventor eventually took his well-known surname.  As the scion of a noble urban family, employed as cloth merchants, mint masters and bankers, Johann was perhaps educated at the nearby University of Erfurt.[7] He certainly was literate in Latin as well as German; there is some evidence that he followed the prestigious trade of goldsmith and engraver.

The older patrician families, who benefited from the privileges and annuities drawn on what were, in effect, municipal bonds of the city of Mainz, were often in conflict with the local guildsmen and artisans.  The resulting urban social strife eventually affected the young Johann Gutenberg.  Though the earliest document that mentions Johann Gutenberg was the legal transfer, made in Mainz in 1428, of a life annuity, the next, dated January 1430, which transferred part of that annuity to his mother, shows that Johann had already gone into exile.[8]   Although the ban of exile was lifted later that year, Gutenberg was still resident in Strassburg in 1434, when he had arrested a clerk from Mainz and, in effect, held him for ransom in order to recover an annuity that his native city still owed him.[9]   Gutenberg remained in Strassburg for the next decade, where he developed his skills in metallurgy, engraving and the cutting of precious stones.  In 1438 he entered a partnership with three wealthy backers to manufacture mirrors in metal frames to be sold as a pilgrim souvenirs at Aachen.  In 1444 Gutenberg was listed as a non-citizen “affiliate” of the guild of master goldsmiths in Strassburg.[10] 

The first connection of Gutenberg with printing appears in a lawsuit brought in Strassburg in December 1439 by two sons of a deceased partner, Andres Dritzehen, in the Aachen mirror enterprise.[11]   The sons were suing Gutenberg either to recover their father’s investment in manufacturing of the mirrors, or permit them to succeed him a partners in a further undertaking that probably involved some form of printing.  The testimony given was obscure and conflicting.  Various witnesses for the plaintiffs spoke of a press, while one of Gutenberg’s partners mentioned forms and other equipment, and a local goldsmith, Hans Dünne, claimed that he had earned about one hundred gulden from Gutenberg “solely for that which belonged to printing (alleine das zu den trucken gehöret).”[12]   In the event, the case was decided in Gutenberg’s favor who then made in Strassburg a contract with his remaining partners for what he called “art and adventure (kunst und afentur).” This is generally interpreted to mean that by about 1440 Gutenberg that invented the crucial elements for printing with movable metal type.  In so doing Gutenberg combined several processes, materials and techniques that had been available to craftsmen for some decades. 

            In its most basic form, a late medieval written text required three elements: a surface to receive the letters, ink to leave a mark on that surface, and a scribe to form the letters by hand.   By the middle of the 15th century, paper had largely replaced animal skins, either vellum or parchment, at the principal mean of preserving written texts in western Europe.  At the same time, from advances in the techniques of oil painting more adhesive inks had been developed which ensured that dampened paper would receive a clear impression from metal type as well as a handheld stylus.  And since the previous century, the use of woodblock printing had permitted the creation of multiple copies of simple texts.  These woodblocks were typically pictures used to illustrate hand written texts of popular devotion, or a series of pictures of biblical stories that were fastened together to form a short booklet.  Occasionally, short written texts, such as the Lord’s Prayer, broadsides and indulgences, were carved unto woodblocks by hand and printed in multiple copies.  But the hand-carved woodblock was readily worn and broken and could, of course, be used to reproduce only a single brief text.[13]  Along with the technology available to produce multiple copies of texts, there was growing demand for cheap books. A developing reading public, both students at the university and more elementary levels and clergy and lay Christians, required inexpensive textbooks, Bibles and other religious texts or their education, worship and popular devotion. 

            Thus, paper and ink were available for the manufacturing of mass produced books.  The problem was to replace the woodblock with a more permanent and flexible means of producing a printed text.  Gutenberg found the solution, probably at Strassburg, with the invention of movable metal type.[14]  He no doubt drew on the metalworking expertise he had gained at Mainz, perhaps from discussion on the minting of coins performed by family members, and from engraving work and metal casting developed for the mass production of the pilgrim mirrors at Strassburg.  In creating the metal hand-mould required for the rapid production of type with raised faces, Gutenberg combined the use of three tools, each of which was already well known.  First, he had engraved on a steel punch, such as had been used in coin making for centuries, each individual letter in relief and in reverse (called the patrix) that would be needed for printing a text.  The patrix was then hammered with great force into a block of copper.  The resultant indented copper form (the matrix) of each letter was then joined to the bottom of two iron blocks to form a handheld casting mould.  To create the typeface, a molten alloy of lead, antimony and tin was ladled into the casting mould, where it hardened almost immediately.  The resulting type was then polished and the shanks were sawn at precisely equal lengths to ensure an even printed text.  Each type was then placed in its own compartment of the type case, sometimes called the compositor’s box.

            The most demanding part of the process was the engraving of the raised letterform on the steel punch.  To create the punches for the moveable type that was produced at Strassburg, Gutenberg probably enlisted the aid of the goldsmith, Hans Dünne, which would account for the payment of the hundred gulden mentioned in the Dritzehen lawsuit of 1439.[15]  Since it has been estimated that a single craftsman could make no more than one and a half punches per day, even a single alphabet of capitals and lower case, with ligatures and abbreviations, of 150 characters, would take at least 100 working days to create.[16]    Hence, if Gutenberg printed a short text at Strassburg in the early 1440s, it was probably the early printed version of the Latin grammar of Aelius Donatus, in the form of a short pamphlet that has survived only in fragments.[17]   Thus, Gutenberg’s printing of the first book took place only after he returned to Mainz to undertake the creation of his famous Bible.

            Gutenberg’s whereabouts are unknown between January 1444 after which he no longer appears in any documents in Strassburg and October 17, 1448 when he was recorded as a party in a contract for a loan made in Mainz.  The contract is probably the best indication of when Gutenberg began to establish a workshop for printing from movable type.  It took the form the loan of 150 gold florins from two citizens of Mainz to one Arnold Gelthus at the annual interest of five percent.  The loan was then turned over to Johann Gutenberg who promised to pay the stated interest and eventually repay the principal.  No indication is given of why Gutenberg required such a large sum of money, but it is clear that Gelthus was acting only as a middleman, perhaps securing the loan because Gutenberg did not have sufficient credit to borrow the money himself.[18]  A second document showing that by the fall of 1454, Gutenberg was far advanced in the printing of the famous 42-line bible comes in the form of a letter of the diplomat and future pope, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini,  to the Spanish Cardinal Juan de Cravajal.  In a letter written in March 1455, Piccolomini reports that when he was in Frankfort at a meeting of the imperial diet in October 1454, that he saw quinternions (quires of five double sheets) of “several books [of the Bible} produced in a very clean and correct script form.”  He goes on to state that “I have been informed by several reliable persons that 158 volumes have been completed; some even assured me that the number is 180.”  He adds that there is no chance of purchasing a copy of the Bible, since “even before completion, they have been reserved for buyers.”[19]   This remarkable letter makes clear that Gutenberg and his partner Johann Fust were very far advanced in the printing of the 42-line Bible at Mainz when Piccolomini saw finished pages in Frankfort in the fall of 1454, and that the entire press run was nearing completion in the spring of 1455.  It lends support to the conviction of some scholars that Fust was attempting to deprive Gutenberg of ownership of the edition of his Bible in his famous lawsuit decided on 6 November 1455. 

            The oath ending the lawsuit, contained in the Helmasperger Notarial Instrument, is the most important document on the invention of printing and spells out the partnership formed between Johann Gutenberg and Johann Fust which resulted in the printing of the first book.[20]   From this text it is clear that their joint venture began in 1449 when Johann Fust advanced Gutenberg 800 gulden for the acquisition of tools and equipment for printing, which Gutenberg then pledged as collateral, and later another 800 gulden to complete the what the text calls the “Work of the Books (Werk der Bücher).”  Fust went on to assert that Gutenberg had never repaid either loan or the interest due on them, which now totaled 2,026 gulden.  Gutenberg countered by swearing that only the first payment was a loan and the second was an investment in their joint undertaking. 

Under oath, Fust was forced to swear that the total came to only 1,550 gulden and that he paid only part of the fund in the form of a loan.  Each partner was, in effect, trying to cheat the other.  Fust was attempting to put Gutenberg in as much debt as possible, so that if Gutenberg were unable to repay his debts Fust would be able to take possession of the tools and equipment put up as security. It appears that Gutenberg was ready to pay off the debt of 800 gulden as soon as the sale of the Bibles yielded a profit and, thus, take over the entire printing shop.  It is not clear how the matter ended, though apparently Fust did retain much of the shop’s inventory and soon opened his own print business with his son-in-law Peter Schöffer.  Gutenberg continued to operate a small workshop in Mainz, producing several short calendars, bulls, and an edition of Giovanni Balbi’s Catholicon, a Latin dictionary with grammar. 

            But we can know much more of this famous Bible from an examination of the book itself and the tools and procedures that created it.  First of all, it took about 290 types to create the entire book.  Of these 47 were capital letters, while 243 were lower case letters, including various forms of ligatures, abbreviations and punctuation marks.[21]  Thus, if a skilled artisan could make at most one and half punches a day to create the matrix of a particular type, it could take about 200 workdays simply to manufacture the first element in the process of type making.  A careful study of the habits of the compositors shows that at least four and perhaps six typesetters are at work at any given time.  Hence, perhaps as many as six printing presses were in operation in Mainz for the printing of the Bible.  An average page of the Bible used at least 2,600 characters, not including spaces.  Since each compositor set type for printing four pages before the galleys of set type would be broken up and redistributed to the type case, a total of 7,800 characters was required for each press.  With six presses operating at once, a total of 46,000 types were needed before printing could begin.  The estimates on the time needed to manufacture of this much type vary between six months and two years, in addition to the nearly year of workdays needed to make the punches.  Thus, Gutenberg needed from eighteen months to three years just to make the tools required to print the Bible.

            Next came the actual printing of the sheets of the Bible, which is composed of 1,286 pages in two columns.   A page of 84 lines in the two columns at 36 characters per line required about 3,000 letters including spaces to print each page.  Assuming a typesetter would be able to set 1,000 letters per hour, it would be possible to set about three pages in a given day.  But since the typesetter had not only to set up type for each page, but also distribute it back to the type case, and proofread galleys, each day’s typesetting production was probably much less.  Perhaps 1,300 working days were needed for typesetting and printing.  If Gutenberg had four presses operating from the beginning of printing, it would take 325 working days to print the Bible.  Since the number of working days in fifteenth-century Mainz numbered about two hundred, it perhaps took a year and a half just to print the press run of perhaps 150 copies on paper and thirty on vellum. 

            As we have seen, the entire press run was well on the way to completion by the March 1455 when every copy had been either purchased or reserved.  The reasons for its popularity are readily apparent.  Gutenberg had selected as the typeface, the clearest and most elegant of the Gothic scripts, the textura, and had employed the familiar ligatures and abbreviations of scribal culture.  Though early in the process he changed the number of lines from 40 to 42, probably to conserve expensive paper imported from Italy, the two-column text does not appear crowded.  Indeed, the harmonious proportions of printed columns with wide margins and beautiful type have always commanded the admiration of later generations.  It is not too much to claim that the art of printing was born perfect.

            The Gutenberg Bible was, of course, not only beautiful with a readable text; it was also profitable.  Albert Kapr has reconstructed a hypothetical balance sheet for the 42-line Bible of Mainz which shows that the large expenditures for production would ultimately have been recovered by the sale of the press run of 180 copies.[22]  The total costs of producing the Bible stood at about 2,200 gulden at a time when a stone mansion in Mainz sold for 100 gulden and a master craftsman earned from twenty to thirty gulden per annum.  Among major items of expenses were 800 gulden for the salaries of from twelve to twenty workmen over thirty months, 400 gulden for paper for 150 copies, 300 gulden for vellum for thirty copies, 240 gulden for the hand-presses, 100 gulden for the costs of metals--steel, cooper, lead and antinomy, and 80 gulden for a clear handwritten Bible to serve as exemplar.  Added to these major expenses were the minor costs of rent, heat, ink, hand-moulds, type cases, tools, and furniture.  Completing the manufacture of each Bible was the handwork still required from scribal culture: the rubrication of chapter and verse on each page and of initial letters and chapter headings, and the binding of the finished book.  In marketing the Bibles, Gutenberg and Fust probably undersold the going price of a manuscript Bible on vellum, which commanded from sixty to a hundred gulden at Strassburg and Mainz.  Pricing the 30 copies of the vellum Bible are 50 gulden, and the 150 paper copies at 20 gulden would yield 1,500 gulden for the deluxe version and 3,000 for the paper, for a total return of 4,500 gulden, or about double the initial investment. It is little wonder that the art of printing spread rapidly over the next decades.


            F rom the very first, the most popular field of printing was religious texts, most of all the Latin Bible, but also devotional, liturgical and theological works of every sort.  Rudolf Hirsch has estimated that 44.5  percent of all books printed in the fifteenth century were, broadly defined, theological, followed by literature and philosophy at 36 percent, law at 11 percent, and science and pseudo-science at 8.5 percent.[23]   Within the category of religion the Bible was the most frequently printed book.  As Douglas McMurtrie has pointed out, “[t]he popularity of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible is evidenced by the fact that at least 133 editions of it are known to have been printed in the fifteenth century and that after 1475 not a year elapsed without the production of at least one edition.”[24]  The publication of the Bible in the vernacular was also popular with fifteen editions printed with various German dialects, thirteen in Italian, eleven in French, two in Czech, and one each in Dutch and Spanish.  Among other genres of religious texts printed in the age of incunables were works of the Church Fathers, both in the Latin originals, such as Vassar’s Venice 1496 edition of St. Jerome’s Epistolae, and in translation, such as Vassar’s handsome Italian version of St. Augustine’s De la cita de dio (Venice, 1480).  Other types of religious texts published in the fifteenth century include collections of sermons, theological treatises, church histories, a works of personal Christian devotion, including breviaries and books of hours.  Perhaps two-fifths of all incunables were written or edited by members of the mendicant orders, especially Dominicans and Franciscans, privileging the theology, preaching, and moral philosophy of late medieval Christianity in the output of early printed texts.[25] 

            Of great importance in making permanent the recovery of the texts of classical antiquity was the printing of ancient Latin authors and, by the end of the century, Greek authors either in the original or in Latin translation.  By 1470, only two years after Gutenberg’s death, a sizable portion of the canon of Roman authors had been issued in printed editions: Apuleius, Caesar, Cicero, Aulus Gellius, Horace, Justinus, Juvenal, Livy, Lucan, Persius, Pliny the Elder, Quintilian, Sallust, Suetonius, Terence, Valerius Maximus, and Virgil.[26]   By the end of the century virtually the entire canon of ancient Roman authors was available in printed editions.  In a few instances, as in the case of Apuleius’ Golden Ass, only one or two manuscript copies survived from antiquity; so the printing of an early edition in the fifteenth century literally saved that work from oblivion.  But in most cases, the printer simply selected one exemplar from among dozens and printed the text as received.  Thus, while the classics gained permanence in the print revolution of the fifteenth century, most early editions were a fairly corrupt version of a classical author’s work.   The work of the humanist-printers from Aldus Manutius onwards was aimed at creating more accurate texts through the application of some of the principles of textual criticism.[27]

The printing of Greek authors in the fifteenth century was even more problematic.  Since Latin was the universal language of scholarship, religion, law, science and diplomacy, there was a ready market for editions of Roman authors both in education of clergy, teachers, jurists and administrators and for recreational reading and study.  But the ancient Greek authors were not widely studied and read in the original language. So these texts were often known only in Latin translations, if at all.  Hence, the majority of works of ancient Greek authors were typically first published in Latin translations in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and most scholars, scientists and professors of the Renaissance knew Greek works only in their Latin versions.[28]   But the deep interest in Platonic philosophy in Medicean Florence and the establishment of chairs in Greek literature in several Italian universities did eventually lead to the printing of a number of editions of the standard Greek authors.  By the close of the fifteenth century, most of the canonical Greek authors of the classics curriculum, including Homer and Hesiod, the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and the historians Herodotus, Thycidides, Plutarch, and Polybius, had been published in the original.[29]  Publication of he Greek dramatists lagged behind most other authors, and because of the difficulty of the language and meaning of the plays, these texts were often issued with an accompanying Latin translation.  A selection of Euripides’ tragedies was published in Florence in 1495, followed by the complete edition in Venice in 1503.  A Greek text of the complete comedies of Aristophanes was first printed in Venice in 1498, followed by the tragedies of Sophocles in 1502 and those of Aeschylus only in 1518.[30]   Not surprisingly, all the first editions of the Greek dramatists printed in Venice were issued by Aldus Manutius.[31]

            As indicated above, the number of works printed in science was small compared with theology or literature, accounting for less than ten percent of the total.  In her definitive census, Margaret Stillwell has divided output of scientific  works in the first century of printing into six broad categories, and in a very useful Chronological Table of First Editions surveyed the early printing in each category.[32]   Of a total of 492 first editions of scientific works printed before January 1, 1501, medicine accounts for nearly half with 218, followed by astronomy and astrology with 75, the natural sciences of botany and zoology with 71, physics and theoretical mechanics with 51, mathematics with 43, and technology, (mainly works on architecture and military science) with 34.   Within virtually every category ancient and medieval authors dominate, followed by university texts written by contemporary professors, such as Ugo Benzi and Michele Savonarola in medicine.  But on the whole early printing in medicine was dominated by Latin translations of the standard Greek authors, Galen, Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and the great Arab physicians, Avicenna and Rhasis.   Latin translations of Aristotle’s works figures in several fields, including astronomy, botany, zoology and physics.  The Natural History of Pliny the Elder and the works of Theophrastos in both the Greek original and Latin translation are major authorities in the natural sciences.  In technology, Frontinus on aqueducts, Vitruvius on architecture, and Vegetius on military science enjoyed major editions in the fifteenth century.  In short, the early printing of scientific works privileged ancient authors and their medieval commentators and did little to promote radically new views.  Since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century was based on overcoming the assumptions of ancient authorities, it was perhaps more of an evolutionary than revolutionary process as recent critics of the Eisenstein thesis have argued.[33]

            In addition to making written texts permanent and popular, the printing press also made them cheap. Already in 1468 Cardinal Giovanni Andrea Bussi could claim in a dedicatory letter to Pope Paul II, “In our time, God gave Christendom a gift which enables even the pauper in acquire books,”[34]   and went on to state that the price of books had decreased by eighty percent.  Certainly the available evidence suggests that the rapid spread of printing was driven more by market conditions and the entrepreneurial spirit of talented craftsmen than it was directed from above.  The only monarch to take an interest in Gutenberg’s inventions was the French king Charles VII who in 1458 ordered his mint masters to choose an able engraver to send to Mainz to master the art of printing.  Nicholas Jenson was selected and resided in Mainz until 1462 when he probably migrated to Italy where he perhaps helped Italy’s first printers Sweynheim and Pannartz set up their press at Subiaco before he established his own shop in Venice in 1470.  Jenson probably selected Venice because of its openness to business ventures, literate population, and position as the dominant international commercial entrepot. 

Although by the end of the age of incunabula, printing houses had been established in every major Italian city and many minor centers, Venice lead all other cities by a wide margin.  This dominance is also reflected in the number of Venetian imprints in Vassar’s own collection.  Between 1469 and January 1, 1501, 216 printers or publishers issued books in Venice, followed by 57 houses in Milan, 47 in Bologna, 41 in Rome, and 27 in Florence, 26 in Pavia and 25 in Naples.[35]    As the high number of firms suggests, printing could be a very risky business.  Many printers went out of business after publishing only one or two books, and others were condemned to wander from town to town to find customers.  Command printing of liturgical texts and government decrees helped to stabilize revenues.   In university towns, the textbook trade, sometimes directed by groups of professors, helped to create steady work for enterprising printers.  It has been estimated that 26 percent of all books published in Bologna in the fifteenth century were legal texts for the student market.[36]  The same job printing was required for grammars, medical textbooks and an annual prognostication table required by university regulations.   While the publication of the classics and vernacular literary texts was typically undertaken in Florence and Venice on speculation in the hope that a well-edited text would command a large market, much early printing was done at the bidding of the institutions of the church, state and higher learning.[37]


            A s mentioned above, much of the early printing commissioned by governments came in the form of broadsides, proclamations and indulgences that were intended to reach a large number of subjects to order to promote a particular event or policy.  For several centuries, the papacy had promoted the sale of indulgences to raise money for important causes while enabling the faithful to reduce time in Purgatory for their loved ones and for themselves.  As Rudolf Hirsch has shown, the largest sales of indulgences were often made in lands far distant from the event they were supposed to affect.[38]  Faithful Germans bought over eighty of indulgences printed in the second half of the fifteenth century.  These were sold in two large lots, first, to defend Christendom after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and, then, to raise money to counter the siege of Rhodes by Turkish forces in the 1490s.  This widespread sale of indulgences which was essentially of system of raising papal taxes from credulous German Christians lead to even greater abuses under Pope Leo X, and eventually to Luther’s revolutionary proposition that salvation could not be assured by good works, but that each Christian would be justified before God by faith alone.

            Within the Holy Roman Empire, printed broadsides were issued under both emperors Frederick III and Maximilian I, but were printed in large numbers only from the 1490s onwards.[39]   Issued for a variety of purposes, the printed broadsides were typically announcements, proclamations and decrees that read aloud in market squares and in front of churches, thus employing literate governmental officials to instruct and control an illiterate lay public.  At the same time, several laws to promote peace within the Empire (Landfrieden) were published in the last quarter of the century.  These were often accompanied by bans against disturbing the peace, which were usually directed against a particular offender.  The large number of surviving bans against individuals (18 in 22 years) illustrates both the extent of disorder and political tension within the Empire and government’s use of the new art of printing to solve the problem. 

            As emperors and popes often used short printed broadsides and documents, such as indulgences, to solve the quotidian problems of taxation, law enforcement and peace keeping, the city-states of fifteenth-century Italy used the preservative powers of print to create a permanent record and multiple copies of local statutes.   Centuries before Thomas Jefferson came to understand the power of print to preserve the laws of Virginia (in Hening’s Statutes) from the ravages of time, fire and accident, rulers and jurists in more than a score of Italian cities undertook to replace manuscript statute books with printed editions.[40] The transition from manuscript to printed statutes was, on the whole, conservative.  Late medieval municipal statutes were typically divided into four or sections (called libri  [books]) that reflected the main concerns of governing the city and his surrounding district (called the contado).  For example, in the statutes compiled for late fourteenth-century Padua, the first “book” defined the offices of city government, including the duties of the chief magistrate, the podestà and his staff, the second treated the administration of civil justice and the local law of contract and procedure, the third outlined the criminal justice system and the regulation of the city’s guilds and industries.  The fourth book spelled out the nature of the system of public works and the obligations of the villages of the contado to maintain roads, canals, and bridges, and other miscellaneous matters such as scholarly privileges for students at the university.[41]  

            The format of the printed city statutes changed very little over the next two centuries.  But now in each city copies of the statutes were available to a number of magistracies of government.  The judges, magistrates and bureaucrats who governed the Renaissance Italian city had multiple copies of a common text of laws and procedures.  By the end of the fifteenth century, nearly thirty cities had commissioned printed editions of their statutes, usually incorporating more recent legislation into the new text.  Thus, while the format remained traditional, the content was, at the outset at least, up-to-date.


A ll editions are in Latin unless otherwise noted. Source: Catalogo della raccolta di statuti, consuetudini, leggi, decreti, ordini e privilegi dei comuni, dal medioevo alla fine del secolo XVIII (6 vols., Rome: Tipografia del Senato, 1943-63), Short-Title Catalogue of Works Printed in Italy and of Italian Books Printed in Other Countries from 1465 to 1600, now in the British Museum (London: The British Museum, 1958)

YEAR             CITY or REGION                 PLACE of PUBLICATION

1471                Rome                                     Rome

1473                Brescia                                    Brescia

1473                March of Ancona                 Venice

1475                Verona                                   Vicenza

1475                Bologna                                 Bologna

1476                Ferrara                                   Ferrara

1477                Venice (Italian)                     Venice

1480                Pavia                                      Pavia

1480-82           Milan                                      Milan

1481                March of Ancona                 Perugia

1482                Padua                                     Vicenza

1484                Crema                                                Brescia

1484                Friuli (Italian)                        Udine

1485                Cremona                               Brescia

1489                Riviera di Salò                       Portese

1490                Vicenza                                  Vicenza

1490                Piacenza                                 Piacenza

1490                Lucca                                      Lucca

1491                Bergamo                                Brescia

1491                Brescia                                    Brescia

1492                Venice                                                Venice

1494                Parma                                    Parma

1494                Cesena                                   Venice

1496                Ascoli (Italian)                      Ascoli

1497                Friuli                                       Venice

1498                Genoa                                    Bologna

1498                Messina                                  Messina

1499                Scandiano                              Scandiano

1500                Reggio (Emilia)                     Reggio (Emilia)

            Every major Italian city north of Rome, excepting Florence and Siena, printed its statutes in the fifteenth century, while in the rural south the only city to issue a printed statute book was Messina in Sicily in 1498.   In the first half of the sixteenth century, the statutes of dozen of smaller centers in Italy, especially in the regional states of Lombardy, Tuscany and the Venetian mainland empire, were printed for the first time.  Thus, in the governance of the Renaissance state the printing press brought the long-term preservation and standardization and of rules and procedures, which, however, allowed for the continuation of local law as each city within the larger regional states was permitted to retain many of its own institutions and legal customs in their printed codes.  A well-defined judicial and administrative system, based upon printed laws and rules and served by a well-trained and literate bureaucracy, became the hallmark of the Italian states of the sixteenth century.  The printing revolution in early modern Europe, as defined by Elizabeth Eisenstein, helped, in the long run, to create a permanent Renaissance, reformed Christianity and modern science.  To these three great movements of modern European culture, belief, and thought, we add the major role that the printing revolution played in the rise of the modern state.


[1]  See Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, “Some Conjectures about the Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought: A Preliminary Report,” The Journal of Modern History, 40 (1969), 1-56, with quotation at p. 1. 

[2] Elizabeth Eisenstein has documented the popularity of her work in her “An Unacknowledged Revolution Revisited,” The American Historical Review 107 (2002), 89, note 11.

[3] See Pierce Butler, The Origin of Printing in Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940), 61, for this useful classification of types of sources for the history of the origin of printing. 

[4]  Butler, The Origin of Printing in Europe, 97-110, provides an anthology of these texts in English translation.

[5]  Works on the history of early printing are legion. In addition to the studies of Elizabeth Eisenstein and the professor of bibliographical history Pierce Butler cited above, the older works of Douglas C. McMurtie, The Book, The Story of Printing and Bookmaking (3rd ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1943), chapters IX-XV, George Parker Winship, Printing in the Fifteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940), and Curt F. Bühler, The Fifteenth-Century Book, the Scribes, the Printers, the Decorators (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960) remain valuable introductions.  An up-to-date survey is to be found in David McKitterick, “The Beginning of Printing,” in The New Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. VII: c. 1415 –c. 1500, ed. C. Allmand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 287-98. 

[6]  Of the many studies of the career of Johann Gutenberg, the best recent one is Albert Kapr, Johannes Gutenberg, The Man and His Invention, trans. Douglas Martin (Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1996).  This may be supplemented by Gutenberg, Man of the Millennium, From a Secret Enterprise to the First Media Revolution (Mainz, 2001), a catalogue with superb scholarly essays on Gutenberg, the techniques of early printing, and the first printed books: Sabina Wagner, “A Well-Known Stranger – Johannes Gutenberg,” 58-85; Eva-Maria Hanebutt-Benz, “Gutenberg’s Inventions,” 96-123; Cornelia Schneider, “The First Printer: Johannes Gutenberg,” 124-45.  The documents themselves, on which my account relies heavily, have been collected in English translation in the invaluable work of Douglas C. McMurtie, The Gutenberg Documents, with translations of the texts in English, based on the compilation by Dr. Karl Schorbach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941). 

[7]   On this possibility, see Kapr, Johannes Gutenberg, 40-46.

[8]   See McMurtie, The Gutenberg Documents, 49-55. 

[9]   See ibid., 71-73.

[10]  See ibid., 101, 154-55.

[11]   For an exhaustive treatment of this matter, see Otto W. Fuhrmann, Gutenberg and the Strasbourg Documents of 1439, An Interpretation  (New York: Press of the Woolly Whale, 1940).  I largely follow instead the text and commentary in McMurtie, The Gutenberg Documents, 93-126 (Document XI), and the account of Sabina Wagner, “A Well-Known Stranger,” in Gutenberg, Man of the Millennium, 68-71.

[12]  See McMurtie, The Gutenberg Documents, 104, 105, 115, 117, 101.

[13]  On woodblock printing, see, most conveniently, McMurtie, The Book, The Story of Printing and Bookmaking, chaps. VII-VIII.

[14]  I follow the arguments in Albert Kapr, Johannes Gutenberg, 123-30, and Eva-Maria Hanebutt-Benz, “Gutenberg’s Inventions,” in Gutenberg, Man of the Millennium,” 98-104.

[15]  See McMurtie, The Gutenberg Documents, 117, and Kapr, Johannes Gutenberg, 125.

[16]  See Hanebutt-Benz, “Gutenberg’s Inventions,” in Gutenberg, Man of the Millennium, 101-2.

[17]  See Kapr, Johannes Gutenberg, 148.

[18]  See the text in McMurtie, The Gutenberg Documents, 160-66, and the discussion in Gutenberg, Man of the Millennium, 188-89.

[19]  His letter was originally published in Spain in 1947, but become known to students of Gutenberg and early printing only in an article published by Erich Meuthen in the Gutenberg Jahrbuch (1982), 108-18.  I follow the discussion with translation provided in Gutenberg, Man of the Millennium, 192-93. 

[20]  I follow the text in McMurtie, The Gutenberg Documents, 175-923, and further comment in Sabina Wagner, “A Well-Known Stranger,” in Gutenberg, Man of the Millennium, 71-78, and Kapr, Johannes Gutenberg, 171-77.

[21]  These figures follow those given in Kapr, Johannes Gutenberg, 159-61, as augmented and corrected in Hanebutt-Benz, “Gutenberg’s Inventions,” in Gutenberg, Man of the Millennium,” 105-8.

[22]  See Kapr, Johannes Gutenberg, 179-83.

[23]  See Rudolf Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading, 1450-1550 (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1967), 129, based on the older research of J. M. Lenhard.

[24]  McMurtie, The Book, The Story of Printing and Bookmaking, 313.

[25]  See Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading, 1450-1550, 129-30.

[26]  See the list in Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading, 1450-1550, 31.  Still useful is the table of first editions of the Greek and Roman classics in J. E. Sandys, History of Classical Scholarship, Vol. 2 (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1908), 102-5.

[27]  For an account of this process, see E. J. Kenney, The Classical Text, Aspects of Editing in the Age of the Printed Book (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1974). 

[28]   Rudolf Hirsch, The Printed Word: Its Impact and Diffusion ((London: Variorum Reprints, 1978), Article VI, “Early Printed Latin Translations of Greek Texts,” 1-6.

[29]  See the list of first editions of ancient Greek authors in E. P. Goldschmidt, The First Cambridge Press in Its European Setting (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1955), 72-82, Appendix B. 

[30]  See Hirsch, The Printed Word: Its Impact and Diffusion, Article VIII, “The Printing Tradition of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes,” 138-46.

[31]  On role of the Aldine press in the publication of the classics, see Martin Lowry, The World of Aldus Manutius, Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), passim.

[32]  See the list in Margaret Bingham Stillwell, The Awakening of Interest in Science during the First Century of Printing (New York: The Bibliographical Society of America, 1970), 324-51. George Sarton, The Appreciation of Ancient and Medieval Science during the Renaissance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1958), remains the standard survey of ancient and medieval authors on science known in the Renaissance.

[33]  See Adrian Johns, “How to Acknowledge a Revolution,” The American Historical Review 107 (2002), 106-25, which is an extended critique of Elizabeth L. Eisenstein’s “An Unacknowledged Revolution Revisited,” in ibid., 87-105 (cited above in note 2). 

[34]  Quoted in Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading, 1450-1550, 1.

[35] Based on the data provided in “Index of Towns, Italy,” in  Short-Title Catalogue of Works Printed in Italy and of Italian Books Printed in Other Countries from 1465 to 1600, now in the British Museum, Supplement (London: The British Museum, 1986), 120-49.

[36]  See Curt F. Bühler, The University and the Press in Fifteenth-Century Bologna (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 1958), 34-35. 

[37]  On early editing and printing of Italian vernacular texts, especially the Three Crowns of Florence, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, see Brian Richardson, Print Culture in Renaissance Italy, The Editor and the Vernacular Text, 1470-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), Chapter 3. 

[38]  See Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading, 122-24.

[39]  For the use of broadsides in fifteenth century Germany, see Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading, 100-103

[40]  For the anecdote on how Jefferson came to “create” Hening’s famous Statutes of Virginia, see Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, 1:117-18.   I have constructed Table 1, which illustrates replacement of manuscript statute books with printed editions in the last three decades of the Quattrocento, from the standard bibliography of Italian city statutes issued by the Senate of the Republic of Italy and the Short-Title Catalogue of Works Printed in Italy and of Italian Books from 1465 to 1600 housed in the British Library.  As far as I know this is the first chronological table of Italian city statutes printed in the fifteenth century that has ever been compiled. 

[41] See B. G. Kohl, Padua under the Carrara, 1318-1405 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 162-63.