In the early years of the fifteenth century an announcement was made to the scholarly world that a sought-after title would become available on a particular date. What made the announcement so spectacular was the quantity of books—one hundred copies at once! Such a thing was unheard of. At that time all books were hand written, and it required the skill of a handwriting master, with access to sufficient prepared vellum, to make just one copy. The genius of this action was that around two dozen handwriting masters had been engaged, and each was given a similar number of pages of the original, and was required to make one hundred copies of each page. It was an enormous and costly undertaking.
More, it was a manifestation of a problem that had been caused by the increase in learning, and the interest this sparked in titles long out of print: how to make copies of books in such a way that the means of production could be re-used to make different books. Copying by hand did not solve that problem.
Printing had been in existence for more than a thousand years. In around ad 250 the Chinese began to carve wooden blocks, from which paper money was printed. The disadvantage of this system was that when the block broke or was no longer required, it was only fit for the fire. In around 400 the Koreans began to cast blocks from bronze, which was much stronger, and could be melted down to make a new block when no longer required. However, the limitation of this system was that it required one block per item, and nothing could be re-used for another printed object.
In the early 1400s two other things were happening. The painters of Holland were discovering the benefit of mixing their pigments with linseed oil, which resulted in a thicker paint that could be applied more thickly, and which was more manageable. Across Europe, paper was becoming more and more commonly available, as mills began to open to supply a growing demand for something more affordable and more regular than vellum.
None of this might have made any difference to anything or anybody, were it not for one further factor. There lived in the German city of Mainz a man who had a connection with the Mint. We do not know what his exact role was, but he knew two things. First, that the Mint was using an adapted olive press to stamp out gold discs for coinage. Whether these discs came out of the press with the images impressed on the obverse and reverse, or whether that was applied later, is not known. The second thing was that the goldsmiths used punches to stamp dates, makers’ marks and other cyphers into the gold items they manufactured.
The name of the man in question was Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Guttenberg. We, of course, know him best by his last name. He saw the potential of using metal punches in an adapted press to impress the marks of those punches on paper, with an ink which used oil as its vehicle (the part that carries the pigment into the paper). His first forays into type involved copying the handwriting styles of the time, but in that each character was an individual object, which could be re-arranged to make different words, it had a great advantage over handwriting. Guttenberg had invented printing with moveable type.
His story is not a happy one. He borrowed heavily from his prospective father-in-law to fund the development of his art, and reached the pinnacle of his success in 1455 with the 42-line Bible. No sooner had he proven the capability of printing than his loan was called in, his equipment seized in lieu of payment, and the daughter married off to another man—who was given the printing press and type as a wedding present!
Printing received a huge boost when, in 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 Theses. Such was the demand for copies that printers could hardly keep up. The wide distribution of the document helped to make the debate far more widely known that it would otherwise have been. Luther would go on to use the printing press to good effect, seeing that he could exploit this new mass media to appeal to the educated laity, rather than to confine his debates to scholars. William Tyndale would devote the best years of his life to ensuring that an accurate and readable translation of the Bible into English was available as affordably as possible.
Over the years printing has changed beyond recognition. Digital typesetting, and even digital printing, mean that it is no longer necessary to print thousands, or even hundreds, of copies of the same thing. Gone are the days when flat sheets would be kept in store until the publisher wanted a further binding of a title. Nowadays, with ‘print-on-demand’, just one copy of a book can be printed and bound at an economical rate. It is true that such books lack the quality, both in design and materials, of a ‘proper’ book, but the cheap price is a great attraction.
You may be wondering why you are reading a brief history of printing in this magazine. Think about all the things that had to happen in order to make possible the art of printing with moveable type. Think of the apparent coincidences by which ink, and paper, and punches and presses, came together in the mind of one man, and became a recognizable printing process. There is a wonderful sense of the over-arching providence of God in bringing these things together. The omission of just one part would have rendered the whole system untenable. Had ink not been oil-based, it would not have stayed on the type long enough for an impression to be made. Had paper not been made in sufficient quantities, no long book (such as the Bible) would have been printed. Had there been no use for an adapted olive press there would have been no way of pressing the type consistently into the paper. So it goes on.
We see the same thing happening in the way in which Martin Luther was brought to see enough of the true gospel to issue his world-changing challenge to the Church of his day. Had the Pope not chosen to issue an indulgence to raise money for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica; had Tetzel not sold indulgences in the crass way he did; had the Elector of Saxony not owned such a vast collection of relics that their being rented out to churches was vital to his income; had Luther himself not been so troubled in his conscience as to seek relief from his sense of sin; and had Luther not been charged with lecturing on the New Testament, how much longer might the nations of Europe lain in the darkness of superstition and error? Again, we see God’s wonderful providence in so ordering events that the gospel dawn began to break, and the true light began to shine, and the knowledge of the truth go forth to the saving of many. Printing played its part in this. It was a means to an end, just as it is today.
As we look at the Church in our nation today, we are unlikely to be filled with unalloyed joy. The situation is not a happy one. Division and error are everywhere. Some debate the nature of the true gospel; many, it seems, have little or no interest in it. Some argue about the meaning of words and phrases in the Bible; many, it seems, view the Bible as being nothing other than one opinion among many. Some contend for the role of preaching, as being the appointed means of declaring God’s eternal truth concerning his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to a sin-sick world; many, it seems, would be delighted if all the pulpits in all the churches were taken out and destroyed. When we look at the moral decay in our nation, words almost fail us; how could it ever have got so bad?
Let us take heart. Just as the scholars of Europe could not have imagined how successfully their need for books would be met, so those who laboured under the errors of the mediaeval Church could not have imagined how wonderfully the gospel of Jesus Christ would break forth. We do not know what the future holds; is revival near to hand? Do we pray for it? Let us do so, earnestly contending for the truth.