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We may have the great honour to be present at the decline of printing as such. The books as the mass pastime have been ousted from our lives for several decades already. Modern electronic mass media (radio, television) are ousting books more and more; the bookshelves in people’s homes are getting sparse. However, several hundreds years ago the invention of printing was the initial factor that at once changed all conditions of the intellectual life of Western Europe.

The present paper is an attempt at seeing connections between the invention of printing and one of the most significant events in the life of mediaeval Europe – the Reformation. The fighting of the Catholic church against books and the creation of the powerful institution of censorship will be viewed. There will also be an attempt to view how printing stimulated the growth of national conscience and the forming of literary language. Besides that, the development of political science in the 16th century and the formation of the bases of the future middle class and the basic political parties will be touched upon.



In Europe the books became cheaper and more widespread when the use of paper became more frequent, especially as a strong rise of intellectual life of society went together with this after the crusades and the development of universities. In the 13th century there was a special post in the universities, the so-called STATIONARII. These people urged students to copy books, took books on commission from the Jewish usurers who did not have the right to sell books themselves and from leaving students; therefore the stationarii were the first booksellers in new Europe. In the beginning of the 14th century in Paris the booksellers as such separated from the Stationarii; but even they still gave oath to the university and were subordinate to it. In the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century in the “Latin quarter” whole houses and side streets were inhabited by book-copiers, calligraphers, bookbinders, parchment-makers, paper-sellers. In 1403 text-writers in London united into a special guild; the same thing happened in some places in Holland as well. In the 15th century in Italy there were booksellers who kept a large number of scribes in their stores, so they could publish books even before the invention of printing. At this time in all big cities of Europe there were public libraries where books could be taken home (libri vagantes), whereas other books, especially valuable and voluminous ones were attached to writing desks with iron chains. Already in the 15th century almost everywhere there were booksellers and corporations of book-copiers who tried to satisfy the needs not only of rich people, but of people with medium income as well. The books sold were books of prayers, didactic and secular (entertaining) books. But still, if a layman started reading or even copying books at the time, he did it basically not for his own pleasure and not for education. He was most probably interested in the matter of saving his soul.

The invention of printing considerably lowered the value of manuscripts; but their production did not decrease immediately, as first printed books were mere copies of contemporary manuscripts. Rich book-lovers of the time could also prefer manuscripts, which were usually made by famous masters and richly decorated. Nevertheless, the calligraphers’ struggle with the printing press was hopeless: a new, powerful industry appeared in the world.

It can be said that in 17th century the book became democratic. The printing press made it available and the demand made it interesting for the mass buyer. In the 17th century the book penetrates all estates, it becomes both interesting and instructive.

It is natural that in the 17th century because of the improvements in printing business the production of books makes progress in quality, cheapness and beauty. “…The book puts on a wig… and all runs in allegory and conventionality.” (H. Bouchot. Le livre, l’illustration, la reliure. Paris 1886).

One of the most important epochs in the development of printing was the 19th century. In the first quarter of the 19th a good book started to bring good money to its author who started to get royalties not from separate rich people or the government but from the buyers. Famous writers become rich men and, provided the conditions are favourable even a mediocre worker gets possibilities for comfortable existence thanks to the book. It must be in the beginning of the 19th century when people began to give the word “writer” the same meaning as we do now.

On the other hand, the profitable industry started bringing decent income to publishers. Now the publishers think over the problem of making a good book cheaper, so that every person could form a private library without special expenditures.

Finally, in the 19th century the book becomes a powerful political weapon.

It may be said that for the first time the influence of the invention of printing became obvious in Italy. The citizens of Italy in the 14th century searched for, collected and copied ancient manuscripts with great enthusiasm. This hobby must have spread from Italy to other Western European countries. There is a well-known saying “An invention is the child of necessity” and it was probably an unusual passion for classical writers at the time, which drove human, thought to think out mechanic ways of reproduction of works of fiction. Their wearing copying by hands could not satisfy the risen needs. In 1500 printing was practiced already in 18 Western European countries, and in the cultural world of the time there were up to 240 towns which had their own printing-houses. Books became relatively cheap, and the circle of people who partook of thoughts of the greatest wits of antiquity by way of reading immensely broadened. Undoubtedly, having received such great amount of information, human thought started working faster than ever before. At least, the mental outlook of the mass that directly or indirectly participated in intellectual movements broadened.

The church as the main guard of mediaeval traditions received the first strike from printing. The success of such a great as the Reformation cannot surely be reduced to the invention of printing only. However, one cannot be imagined without the other. One of the reasons of the success of the Reformation propaganda was the availability of books. Luther himself called the invention of printing “the second redemption of the humankind” not without reason ( П. Мижуев. «Книга и книжное дело». Москва 1913. с. 3). Luther did a lot in the sphere of printing himself, though. He democratized the book and assisted in the spread of books of small format and small volume, and the so-called pamphlets or brochures as well (Flugschrift). It may be said that Luther did a revolution in printing, this even disregarding the publishing of the Bible. For example, if in Europe by 1500 “not more than 25,000 books had been published” (Энциклопедический словарь, Москва, 1911, с. 368 т. 24), then 4,000 copies of Luther’s Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation were sold in five days. Mediaeval Catholicism was not only a religion; it established limits to the whole culture and social organization of the mediaeval catholic peoples. During the period of the Reformation bookprinting rebelled against one of the foundations of the mediaeval Catholicism, and namely against the universalism and the denial of nationality. The Reformation first gave the possibility to read the Holy Scripture and do divine service in one’s mother tongue.

That is why in some countries printing started from the Bible (e.g. in Estonia in 1535). Printing helped the national character of the 16th century Reformation to become apparent. And the possibility to do divine service in one’s mother tongue thanks to books also played its part in national oppositions to Rome. Besides that, many publicistic works of the time were directed against Catholicism (“Dark people’s letters”). It is not impossible that, as we cannot speak about the history of the Reformation beginning with 17th century because even the Reformators of the 17th century themselves were aware that they had had the predecessors, it was due to printing that the Reformators managed to tear whole nations away from Rome, which their forerunners had not been able to do.

Can it be supposed that printing became very dangerous for the Catholic church, and if the answer is yes, then when did the church resort to counter-measures? The history of European censorship may help in viewing this matter.

Different scholars treat censorship law development differently, but they agree in one: “ putting borders between the previous and the following epochs to the invention of printing” (Книготорговое и библиотечное дело. Ленинград, 1981 с. 96.).

Censorship was born long before the appearance of printing. Looking at its main objectives beginning from the 14th century one can see it as the means used by the church for fighting against heresies and the distortion of holy books. For example, in the reign of Pope Urban VI in the 14th century it was prescribed to look through and to approve for use only those books that were copied correctly and did not contain anything that did not correspond to the church dogmas.

The invention of printing must have provided serious problems for the church, as already in 1471 Pope Sixt IV prescribed that not a single book of spiritual context could be published without the preliminary permission of the church authorities. Some archbishops began to introduce preliminary censorship. The strengthening of censorship naturally fell to the time of the beginning of the greatest struggle between the Catholic church and the reformers that are in the 14th century. The governments also took measures to guide the power of print to their benefit and protect themselves from harm that could be done by the book. The books unavoidably promoted the intellectual development of the people, mutual relations and urged people to compose and criticize. These “dangerous” sides of the printing business lead to the attempts of the state and the church at introducing control over book printing. From the 16th century on censorship starts to be done by the secular authorities as well side by side with church authorities (for the first time in the reign of Charles V). In the end of the 16th century there is already censorship in all Western European countries where there were printing houses. Though in England, for example, according to the law of 1542 printing of books of secular contents was declared free. However, a hundred years did not pass when in 1637 a new decree declared free from prosecution only the issues that had been printed only with the permission of particular censoring organs. In France in the reign of Francois I an attempt was made to prohibit printing houses at all. But the books proved to be so interesting and useful for the middle classes of population, that the ban turned out to be futile: the books were obtained and printed beyond the law. Nevertheless, measures of this kind as well as softer ways of influence slowered the development of printing considerably. Printing, however, played one of the most significant parts in the spread of Reformation, and without the influence of printing no political events might not have happened. The victory of the Reformation in many countries most probably did not weaken suspiciousness on the part of the state, but it directed the attention of authorities to the fact that printing may be very useful for it. Censoring institutes are becoming stronger, and one more small revolution is being done: the official print is being created. On the one hand the official print was certainly necessary for any cultural state, however, together with censorship and bribing of the private book printing, this led to the decrease of the enlightening function of print. Regarding mass movement of the time of the Reformation in Europe as the beginning of the way of the book, it can be said that already in a hundred years’ time the situation for printing becomes more difficult. The common political reaction that governed Europe everywhere in the 17th century reflected deadly on the fates of books in all countries. The 17th century may be considered the time when censorship was established everywhere. This partly led to the development of printing in Holland, which was the freest country at the time. On the other hand, the state authorities were more worried by small and cheap literary works of the publicistic nature, which were available for a rather broad circle of readers and, therefore capable to arouse excitement. That is why censorship did not prevent publishing of books aimed at the broad circle of readers in particular scientific works or some expensive issues.

The Reformation and book printing are connected with each other. The printed word helped one of the most important events of modern history to happen. And the Reformation cannot likely be called only a religious movement. Thus, obtaining even the clerical literature in one’s mother tongue, the possibility to do divine service in one’s own language favoured the growth of national self-consciousness. However, any public movement at the time involved reaction. In particular, the connection may be traced between the influence of printing to the success of the Reformation and a whole number of religious wars that followed the division of Europe on two camps: the Catholic one and the Protestant one. At the time the Catholics of different countries joined efforts relying on the power of Spain, which caused the Protestants of different countries to unite as well.

Book printing, in the same indirect way, also obviously led to the reforming of the Catholic church itself. Before the beginning of the Reformation the Catholicism was unorganized, but the incentive from outside led to re-organization of the Catholic church. The Jesuits order was created, The Higher Court of Inquisition was established in Rome, the list of forbidden books was compiled, and the strict book censorship was organized. One more fact points at the significance of the book in the struggle between the Reformation and the Catholic church. When in may of 1521 Emperor Charles V issued an edict which proclaimed Luther an outlaw as a heretic and a person disobedient to the authorities. Luther hid in the castle of Wartburg. He did not prepare a rebellion there, though. Luther, most likely was busy with what he himself considered the most important: he began translating the Bible into German. Not only did this result in the appearance in Germany of the most important book in German. One of the main successes of this translation was the foundation of the German literary language. “Not only did he [Luther] promote the success of the Reformation, but he laid the foundation of the literary German language as well” (N. Kolsnitskiy. Germany in XV – XVII centuries. Moscow, 1980. p. 119). The analogous situation occurred in many countries. The unified system of printing created not only a special branch of industry (printing houses). In Western European countries, and not only there, there appears a stable form of their own literary language, and the most essential works of literary authors, both past and contemporary, were brought in correspondence with them. Thus, in Estonia, where books of spiritual contents in Estonian were issued in the 17th century with the purpose of the spread of religious faith, there even appeared “two literary languages: the Tallinn literary language (the capital) and the Tartu literary language (the university town of Estonia)” (History of Estonia, Tallinn, 1982 p. 111). An interesting metamorphosis happened here: in the end of the 17th century the Tartu literary language, where, by the way, a gymnasium was founded by the Jesuits order in 1583, outstripped the literary language of Tallinn in the number of issues published. It may show that not always the actual capital cities influenced the society the most. It is not impossible that, apart from other things, we owe the appearance of the phrase ”the cultural capital” to the birth of printing.

Speaking about the political treatises of the Antiquity and the Middle Ages, it can be noted that after such treatises as “Artashastra”, the works of Plato, Aristotle (Politica), Augustine Aurelius (“On the City Divine”), a new splash of development of political thought happened right in the time of the spread of printing. It will be enough to mention Niccolo Macchiavelli and Hugo Gracit. “Polemics of the divine and the material powers are the struggle between the church and the state apparatus” (I. Ekimov. Lectures. Tartu, 1993. p. 4), and it happened during the beginning of the Italian Renaissance. Niccolo Macchiavelli may have become the founder of the theory of the state with free morals, the theory, which penetrated the humans’ hearts with the help of books, and led to the development of another theory, a little later than the described period, in the 18th century in the works of Charles-Louis de Montesquieu, in particular, in his book On the spirit of laws. The basic principle of division of powers into the legislative, the executive, and the judicial was introduced by Hugo Gracit in the 17th century; later this theory was developed by Montesquieu. Some politologists think that the USA is developing according to Montesquieu’s model.

It was not surprising that under the influence of the growth of education of the people the population started to understand politic better. In the end of the 17th century the political movement was formed that survived until nowadays : liberalism. The impetus to the development of the liberalism, whose homeland is in England and, partly, France, was given by the development of the Reformation as well, and therefore printing played an important part in the formation of this movement. Besides that, as a reaction to liberalism conservatism and socialism were formed as well. And even though liberalism was finally formed during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the time of its formation is still considered to be the end of the 17th century, and the reason for this – the development of the Reformation.

The education of common people affected the political life inside some separate states as well. For example, “The Glorious Revolution in England, in some people’s opinion, was a compromise between the rising middle class and the former large-scale feudal landowners” (Kарл Маркс. Сочинения. Москва, 1983. Т. 22, с. 309). A new class of bourgeoisie appears in Europe, and Europe itself is entering a new era, the era of the Enlightenment. “Having survived two bourgeois revolutions in the 17th century England found itself at the river-head of the European Enlightenment” (History of literature. ed. Z. Plavskin. Moscow, 1991. p. 21). Thus, in Europe in the 17th century the necessary prerequisites for the great Industrial Revolution of the 18th century were created.

Before the 15th century the level of the development of the scientific knowledge was extremely low. People judged the natural and social world only on the basis of religious dogmas or, at best, on the basis of superficial observation of the surrounding reality.

But the social practice faced man with the problems which were impossible to solve on the basis of old conceptions. Empirical knowledge was accumulating. Now the scientifically based knowledge, which summed up the experience and created the theory, had the decisive importance.

Thus the bases of modern sciences were created in the Middle Ages. New ways of research, based on observation, experience, and experiment were worked out. New knowledge in the spheres of mechanics, astronomy, chemistry, natural sciences, and geography was accumulating. New sciences also appeared – such as hydrodynamics, trigonometry. At the same time people were doing a large number of inventions and discoveries: the microscope, the telescope, the thermometer, the barometer were created; it was proved that the Earth is spherical, and that, together with other planets, it spins around the sun. Europeans get to know about all the continents of the Earth. A new outlook is created, the views on the state and society change.

Before that, in the 15th century a way of production of the cheap writing material (paper) and book printing were invented, which became a true revolution in the development of science and education. The exchange of knowledge and the spread of new ideas would have been impossible without that. The radical turn in the development of scientific thought, which led to deep economic changes and the birth of capitalism.

However, the development of scientific thought did not come to Europe without blood. As it was mentioned earlier, in the middle of the 16th century all-European Catholic reaction began, and Italy became its first victim. After the re-organization of the Inquisition in 1542 in Rome the Higher Tribunal was established, headed by cardinal Caraffa. In the reign of this cardinal the struggle with the educated thought and books reached its acme. When cardinal Caraffa became Pope Paul IV, he issued the first “index of forbidden books” in 1559. In the following years this index was periodically reprinted and added to with the greatest works of human thought (Boccaccio and Macchiavelli in particular). A punishment threatened one for reading these books, the books themselves were burnt down. The struggle of the church with the epoch of the Renaissance began. Book censorship was given into the hands of Inquisition, many thinkers died in fire.


Printing was the greatest achievement of the epoch of the Renaissance, this invention virtually turned over the whole European life in the 16th century. The beginning of the mass spread of the book may be considered the period of the Reformation. On the other hand, Luther himself said that it was printing that helped him to spread his views. The book favoured the spread of the Reformation, which, in its own turn, led to the division of Europe into two fighting camps and to religious wars of the 16th-17th centuries. Books served as a weapon for fighting between the Catholic and the Reformist churches. The institute of censorship appeared and took its final shape in Europe. This censorship somewhere remained up to now.

Together with the publication of works of literary authors the official print also appeared and became a weapon in the hands of state apparatus.

But probably the most important thing is that printing led to lowering prices on books and, therefore, the increase of their availability for the population. This, in its own turn, led to the increase of education and enlightenment among people. There are bourgeois revolutions in Europe, a new class of population is being formed.

Scientific and creative thought is being stimulated, new sciences appear. Printing creates an additional possibility for the spread of scientific knowledge. Literary languages of European peoples’ are formed, which, in their turn, leads to the growth of national self-consciousness.

Fist significant treatises on political philosophy since the times of Antiquity appear. A most important principle of the division of powers appears; the first political parties appear. Europe approaches the epoch of the Enlightenment.


Medeval history. Моscow, 1980.

Энциклопедия Брокгауза и Ефрона. Moscow, 1911.

К. Marx. «Сочинения».Moscow, 1983, vol. 22.

History of literature. Redactor: Z. Plavskin. Мoscow, 1991.

I.Ekimov. Lectures. Tartu, 1993.

History of Estonia.Tallinn, 1982.

N.Kolesnitskiy. Germany in XV-XVII centuries. Moscow, 1980.

Books and printing. Leningrad, 1981.

P.Mizhyef. Books and printing. Moscow, 1913.

H. Bouchot. Le livre, l’illustration, la reliure. Paris, 1886 (quoted from translation).

Рассказы летописей XV-XVII веков. Moscow, 1976.

Typology of readers and biblyografy. Moscow, 1985.

Books in Russia in XVII cent., Leningrad, 1970.

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