Books and the printed word have been around for thousands of years of human history. But the mass production of writing is much more recent.
Until the 15th century, producing text was a laborious and expensive task.
It was done slowly and manually by hand. Few people possessed books. Only the wealthy could afford them, and not many of the wealthy were even literate enough to read them.
Gutenberg was not the first person to use printed text instead of handwriting. In parts of Asia, particularly China, Japan, and Korea, there had been forms of printing using ceramic or wood block letters, as well as metal movable print.
Areas of Europe had also adapted these methods. What made Gutenberg’s invention different was that he took existing technologies and combined and improved on them.
Not all that much is known about Johannes Gutenberg’s life, in comparison to some other important historical figures.
Born in 1395 to an upper-class family in Mainz, Germany, Gutenberg learned metalworking as a trade and joined a guild. During a struggle among local guilds, he was forced into exile and moved to Strasbourg around 1430.
In his new home, Guttenberg engaged in metalworking and gem cutting, as well as teaching those crafts to students. But his claim to fame is the innovation of new ways of printing.
By 1450, Gutenberg had returned to live in Mainz with a working printing press in operation. The inventor had created a process for mass-producing movable metal type, using oil-based ink and a wooden printing press. Using this process, Gutenberg had found a way to generate books and documents on a mass scale.
Gutenberg’s work attracted investors, in particular, a wealthy merchant named Johann Fust. Gutenberg got to work printing a wide range of publications, many for the Church.
Under Fust’s backing, Gutenberg produced one of his most well-known publications, copies of the tome nicknamed the Gutenberg Bible. By 1455, 180 copies had been made, each Bible having 1,282 pages.
The size and amount of copies made in a relatively short period was unheard of at the time. Each copy sold for approximately a three years’ average salary.
In 1456 there was a falling out in the business. Fust accused Guttenberg of misusing funds and demanded payment on his substantial loans. Fust sued and won, giving him full control over Gutenberg’s printing facility.
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Gutenberg went bankrupt, although he was able to open another printing workshop a few years later. Gutenberg was eventually honored for his life’s work and awarded additional funds to live on. Still, the inventor was financially unsuccessful during his lifetime.
It’s unclear how much material Gutenberg himself printed and published, as he never put his own name on his work. Little is also known about the rest of Gutenberg’s life. It’s believed that he stopped working as he went blind during the last few months of his life. He died in 1468.
While Gutenberg the man struggled during his life, his printing press technology spread rapidly across Europe and the world. Gutenberg’s work has been credited with an important role in spreading the ideas of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution.
These big ideas and movements in history were made possible due to the cost-effectiveness of the technology. The printing system drove down the price of books and documents, making them accessible to a much wider audience. With affordability of books, education was easier for the less wealthy to achieve. The result was a gradual increase in literacy and education over time.
It was ultimately so successful that the Gutenberg printing press remained the standard form with some variations until the 19th century.
Many books were still printed this way into the 20th century, until the use of quicker, cheaper techniques and digital technologies took over.
Despite the far-reaching consequences of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, much about the man remains a mystery, buried deep beneath layers of Mainz history.
The German city of Mainz lies on the banks of the River Rhine. It is most notable for its wine, its cathedral and for being the home of Johannes Gutenberg, who introduced the printing press to Europe. Although these things may seem unconnected at first, here they overlap, merging and influencing one another.
The three elements converge on market days, when local producers and winemakers sell their goods in the main square surrounding the sprawling St Martin’s Cathedral. Diagonally opposite is the Gutenberg Museum, named after the city’s most famous inhabitant, who was born in Mainz around 1399 and died here 550 years ago in 1468.
The printing press marks the turning point from medieval times to modernity in the Western world
It was Gutenberg who invented Europe’s first movable metal type printing press, which started the printing revolution and marks the turning point from medieval times to modernity in the Western world. Although the Chinese were using woodblock printing many centuries earlier, with a complete printed book, made in 868, found in a cave in north-west China, movable type printing never became very popular in the East due to the importance of calligraphy, the complexity of hand-written Chinese and the large number of characters. Gutenberg’s press, however, was well suited to the European writing system, and its development was heavily influenced by the area from which it came.
In the Middle Ages, Mainz was one of the most important cathedral cities in the Holy Roman Empire, in which the Church and the archbishop of Mainz were the centre of influence and political power. Gutenberg, as an educated and entrepreneurial patrician, would have recognised the Church’s need to update the method of replicating manuscripts, which were hand-copied by monks. This was an incredibly slow and laborious process; one that could not keep up with the growing demand for books at the time. In his book, Revolutions in Communication: Media History from Gutenberg to the Digital Age, Dr Bill Kovarik, professor of communication at Radford University in the US state of Virginia, describes this capacity in terms of ‘monk power’, where ‘one monk’ equals a day’s work – about one page – for a manuscript copier. Gutenberg’s press amplified the power of a monk by 200 times.
At the Gutenberg Museum, I watched a demonstration of a page being printed on a replica of the press. First, a metal alloy was heated and poured into a matrix (a mould used to cast a letter). Once the alloy cooled, the small metal letters were arranged into words and sentences in a form and inked. Finally, paper was placed on top of the form and a heavy plate was pressed upon it, similar to how a wine press works. This is no coincidence: Gutenberg’s printing press is thought to be a modification of the wine press. Since the Romans introduced winemaking to the region, the area around Mainz has been one of Germany’s main wine-producing areas, with famous grape varieties such as riesling, dornfelder and silvaner.
The page that is always printed at the Gutenberg Museum replicates the original style and font (Gothic Textura) of the 42-line Gutenberg Bible, the first major book ever to be printed using movable type in the Western world. It is the first page of St John’s Gospel, in the Bible, which begins: “In the beginning was the word…”
“Gutenberg’s Bible is an extraordinary work of craftsmanship,” said Dr Kovarik, who suggests we can read a strong religious motivation into the perfection of his work. “This wasn’t unusual at the time – for example, a stonemason would try to achieve a perfect sculpture in a remote corner of one of the great cathedrals, not really for the people who would be worshipping there, but rather as an expression of personal faith.”
Gutenberg’s printing press brought with it the revolution of mass communication
Of his original print run of about 150 to 180 Bibles, only 48 remain in the world today. The Gutenberg Museum has two on display. Both are slightly different, because after printing, the pages would be taken to a rubricator (specialised scriber) who would paint in certain letters according to the tastes of their customers. Gutenberg’s Bibles turned out to be bestsellers.
At first, the Church welcomed the new availability of printed bibles and other religious texts. Printing enabled the Church to spread the Christian message and raise cash in the form of ‘indulgences’ – printed documents that forgave people’s sins. However, the disruptive power of the printed word soon became apparent. With the rapid spread of printing technology – by the 1470s, every European city had printing companies, and by the 1500s, an estimated four million books had been printed and sold — came the spread of new and often contradictory ideas, such as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, in which he criticised the Church’s sale of indulgences. Luther is said to have nailed his text to a Wittenberg church door on 31 October 1517. Within a few years 300,000 copies of it had been printed and circulated, leading to the Reformation and a permanent split in the Church.
Another plaque outside the nearby St Christoph’s Church marks the place where he was likely baptised. The church was bombed during World War II and remains in ruins as a war memorial, although the original baptismal font from Gutenberg’s time is still intact.
The graveyard where Gutenberg was buried has been paved over, and even though there are statues of him are everywhere in the city, we don’t know what he looked like. He is commonly depicted with a beard, but it is unlikely that he had one. Gutenberg was a patrician and during his time, according to my tour guide Johanna Hein, only pilgrims and Jews wore beards. In fact, the man we all know as Johannes Gutenberg was actually born Johannes Gensfleisch (which translates to ‘goose meat’). If it weren’t for the 14th-Century trend of people renaming themselves after their houses, we would perhaps be referring to his invention as the Gensfleisch Press today.
“Every time the cost of media declines rapidly, you enable more people to speak out, and you have a greater diversity of voices,” said Dr Kovarik, explaining that this impacts the distribution of power in society, and sparks social change.
Paradoxically, however, our digital revolution can also be seen as a return to the pre-print era, according to a theory called The Gutenberg Parenthesis by Dr Thomas Pettitt, affiliate research professor at the University of Southern Denmark, who argues that there are parallels between the pre-print age and our own internet age.
In the absence of print, news has lost its authenticity, and, as in the Middle Ages, is synonymous with rumour
“Print conferred stability on discourse; works in books were authorities; news in print was true. In the absence of print, news has lost its authenticity, and, as in the Middle Ages, is synonymous with rumour. We are now in a post-news phase, where purveyors of fake news can accuse the legitimate press of purveying fake news and get away with it,” Dr Pettitt said.
Whatever the impact of the 21st-Century digital revolution, just like the printing revolution before it, the effects will reverberate for hundreds of years to come.
There was a dangerous and scary job to do in 19th century Lithuania. The first obstacle was a dense line of soldiers banded along the border. Then came a second line spread a little more thin. Lastly, in town, were Russian Empire policemen on horseback riding around and questioning civilians.
What sort of scandalous contraband were daring smugglers risking their lives to carry across the border?
If they were caught, they could be whipped or shipped to Siberia. If they resisted too vigorously, shot on the spot. Unsurprisingly, their books were burned.
The situation was this: After the majority of Lithuania fell under Tsarist Russian control in 1795, the Russians tried to force assimilation on the Lithuanian people. In their Russification project, they demolished Catholic churches and shrines. They closed schools. Russian scholars proposed that the Lithuanian language—which is written with Latin letters—be translated into Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet. Lithuanian children were forced to read the Cyrillic alphabet in school.
Lithuanians rebelled in violent uprisings in 1831 and 1863, but the tiny population—1 million—was no match for Russian military might. As a consequence, the Russians cracked down harder than before.
In 1864, the Russian-appointed Governor-General of Lithuania, Mikhail Muravyov, issued a proclamation prohibiting the use of Lithuanian Latin primers. That was followed two years later by a total ban on all books printed in Lithuania. The press was forbidden. It was illegal to print, import, distribute, or possess any publications in the Latin alphabet.
Though they were oppressed, the Lithuanian intelligentsia was not quashed. They began printing books outside the country—which wasn’t illegal—and smuggling them in, which was dangerous.
Knygnesiai, or book carriers, would conceal their illegal wares in sacks or covered wagons, and deliver the goods at night to safe houses across Lithuania. By the late 19th century, all walks of life participated in book smuggling. Women would dress in peasant clothes and hide books in market baskets of bread, cheese, or eggs. Some dressed up as fat workmen, stuffing newspapers inside their clothing. Doctors hid books in their medical kits, farmers in their crops, organists in their instrument cases.
In 1867, Bishop Motiejus Valančius helped get a printing press set up in neighboring Prussia, and asked his priests to smuggle religious texts back to Lithuania. He made every effort to undermine the Russification project. Later, in a bid to preserve Lithuanian culture, Valančius printed up and distributed journals and almanacs. It is estimated that he was responsible for printing more than 19,000 books.
But his resistance came with a cost. At least 11 of his smugglers were caught; many were banished to Siberia.
Valancius died in 1875, but his book-carrying operations carried on after him thanks to a young friend who was a recent university graduate, a newspaperman, and an ardent nationalist.
Jurgis Bielinis assembled the largest network of book carriers, called the Garsviai knygnešiai society, who pooled their money to buy and distribute books. Bielinis came to be known as the “King of Knygnešiai,” and is said to be responsible for delivering half of Lithuania’s books during the 31 years he operated. The Russian Empire caught and imprisoned Bielinis at least five times.
Some historians estimate the number of books smuggled in to total in the millions before the ban was lifted in 1904. Lithuania declared independence in 1918, though it would take until 1991 for the Soviet Union to recognize the country.
In 1928, a statue was erected in the then-capital of Kaunas to commemorate “The Unknown Book Smuggler.” Today in Lithuania, March 16, the birthday of Jurgis Bielinis, is celebrated as Knygnešio diena—the day of the book smugglers.
In 2004, Jonas Stepšis wrote of his father’s and other Lithuanian countrymen’s heroic book-smuggling efforts in the English-language Lithuanian paper Draugas News. He cites the smuggling as a reason why Lithuania was able to regain independence.
According to Stepšis: “The struggles of the book-carriers have been praised in modern times by Father Julijonas Kasperavicius who said ‘The work of restoring Lithuania’s independence began, not in 1918, but rather at the time of the book-carriers.
With bundles of books and pamphlets on their backs, these warriors were the first to start preparing the ground for independence, the first to propagate the idea that it was imperative to throw off the yoke of Russian oppression.’ ”
Who says books can’t change the world?
(E.L. Hamilton has written about pop culture for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. She lives in central New Jersey, just west of New York City)
William C. Gaines, Harold E. Martin, Miriam Ottenberg, Deborah Nelson, and Buzz Bissinger. What do all of these names have in common? Well, every single one of them has won the Pulitzer Prize award for investigative journalistic achievement.
Since its launch in 1917, the Pulitzer Prize has come to be regarded as a prestigious mark of recognition in the fields of journalism and literary arts. There are today 21 categories up for grabs in the annual presentation, with the jury members reserving the right to withhold an award if they believe no submissions in that category reach the standard. To wear the badge of Pulitzer Prize Winner is an accolade that is highly coveted.
It is definitely an acknowledgment of serious journalism. But there is a curious part to its inception, and that is the name of the award itself.
The “Oscar” of journalism is named after a man who arguably laid the grounds for what would be known later as “yellow journalism,” a sensationalist press that is the predecessor of today’s tabloid news.
Joseph Pulitzer was born in Hungary and immigrated to the United States as a teenager. He was involved in the newspaper business in 1868, when he started working for the Westliche Post. However, it took some 20 years for him to make a true mark in the field of journalism. By then, he had accumulated enough experience and wealth to own a newspaper; he purchased the New York World for a reported sum of $345,000.
With Pulitzer on top, the newspaper thrived and its circulation began breaking records. This was all due to Pulitzer’s knack for appealing to the masses. He knew what the common people wanted to read and he gave it to them. There were legitimate news stories, but also stories ranging from scandalous affairs to street crimes. People gobbled it up; they couldn’t get enough. Every new day had a new story to tell.
Pulitzer was active in the Democratic Party and interested in social causes. He recruited the investigative reporter Nellie Bly, who is famous for both her undercover reporting and headline-chasing exploits. Business was going well for Pulitzer right up until 1895 when William R. Hearst bought the New York Journal and became involved in the same business. This kick-started a great rivalry between them with a single goal in mind: Who would outsell the other. The crime-and-scandal-fueled rivalry soon turned into an all-out circulation war, giving birth to yellow journalism as we know it today.
So, in retrospect, if Joseph Pulitzer can be considered the one who set the foundation, then Hearst can be viewed as the one who set the course for the tabloids of the future.
Although both newspapers had high circulations, for the critics they were nothing more than low-brow publications. They despised them, especially their methods of reporting and affinity for sensationalism. It was around this period when the term “yellow journalism” became widely known, which brings us to its inception.
The term was already in use among journalists and reporters of the era, but it was Erwin Wardman, the then-editor of the New York Press, who published it first. Among peers, especially serious journalists, the term was often used in a derogatory sense for the news that they made fun of.
Also introduced by Wardman is another expression that was popular at the time–“yellow kid journalism.” For this phrase, he specifically alluded to the main character in Richard Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley comic strip that was published in the two rival newspapers. The Yellow Kid ran first in Pulitzer’s paper. When Outcault was lured away with a bigger salary by Hearst, Pulitzer hired another cartoonist to continue drawing the cartoon for his New York World.
Who invented the tabloids can be debated forever. However, the fact remains that it was Pulitzer who left $250,000 in his will to Columbia University to establish that now most prestigious prize. If it was the other way around, we might be talking about the Hearst Prize.
The Pulitzer Prize remains one of the most important awards for writing. And Joseph Pulitzer made sure that it would be named after him. Whatever his history, the board gives the award based on the quality of the writing itself.
A construction effort that likely lasted from the 11th to the 15th century, and was also refurbished during Victorian days, the Church of St Edward, Stow-on-the-Wold, in Gloucestershire, was built on the spot of a former Saxon church. The present-day edifice fuses various architectural styles. There are bits of Norman masonry and Early English types of arches and columns. Distinctive as well is the nave clerestory, a testimony to the late Gothic architectural twist.
While all of these authentic features are of interest in their own right, one that might have fueled the imagination of a famous writer is the church’s north door, flanked by two ancient yew trees. Rumor has it that this was the door that sparked J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Doors of Durin,” the west gate of Moria that appears in a scene in the The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Nevertheless, this is still just a rumor, and nobody has so far authenticated it.
St Edward’s Church is a great attraction and place of interest, protected as a Historic England Grade I listed building. The small town of Stow-on-the-Wold can take pride in having such an architectural masterpiece within its boundaries.
Some praise of the church’s earliest features can be found inside, like the ornamental nailheads of the columns. These are among the church’s segments that hint of a church of similar proportions occupying the site before this one was completed.
Other portions of the church testify to it not being an ordinary architectural construction. The aisles of the nave are rather uneven. Different corbels, some plain-looking and some grotesque, can be noticed in the nave, perhaps depicting notables of the day.
The chancel is much restored, and it bears elements from Victorian days. The low part of the nave’s west wall further reveals the earliest masonry in the church, likely Norman style.
A grand picture depicting the Crucifixion scene, the work of Gaspar de Crayer, a Flemish painter active in the early 17th century and noted for his various altarpieces, is seen in the church’s south aisle. The piece was presented as a gift here in 1875. Some of the windows of the church are reputably an early 14th-century effort, distinctive for their pairs of trefoil panels that also embed tinier quatrefoils.
The tower gives an imposing feeling too; erected by 1447, it rises more than 80 feet in the air and contains probably the heaviest bells to be found across the county. While the current clock of the tower was installed by the mid-1920s, there was another clock that chimed the hour before, at least since 1580.
Architectural admirers will certainly enjoy all these various aspects of St Edward’s, and likely they will come across more great details upon visiting the church. Another striking element is the pair of old yew trees hugging the north door that is dated to either the 17th or 18th century.
This door, looking as if it had emerged from a fantasy world, perhaps inspired Tolkien in his writing of the memorable door he described in the first part of his famous The Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, there isn’t any written account proving any connection of the Oxford-based writer with this site.
Tolkien included in his book an illustration of the west door of Moria, crafted by both dwarves and elves according to the books, and this was the entrance to Khazad-dûm. After the Dwarven city was left deserted, the manner of how the door could be opened was forgotten. When someone compares Tolkien’s illustration of the door with the actual door at St. Edward, there is only a slight resemblance between the two. More likely, what has heated the debate is the book’s adaption to the big screen, and how the door was depicted in the film.
St Edward’s Door is also known as the Yew Tree Door. Similar-looking doors, perhaps not as impressive as this one, can be spotted at other places in England. Tolkien could have been inspired by this door, or by several others, or possibly from something entirely different–for that, we can never be sure.