The revolution of printing

Technological progress hailed in a new era

Block print technology was now highly developed and had a considerable impact on the dissemination of ideas – it was thanks to printing that the ideas of the Reformation spread so quickly.

An idea rooted in history

  • 36 lines Gutemberg Bible © Société Biblique

The Chinese invented paper as early as 105 A.D.. They also invented xylography, a form of printing using a wooden block on which there were engravings coated with ink.

In XIth century China, a new type of typography appeared, using mobile letters made of solid clay.

Typography developed rapidly in Korea in the XIIIth century. At the beginning of the XVth century, Laurent Coster in Holland made mobile letters out of wood.

Gutenberg greatly improved the technology of printing

  • Printer's workshop, 16th century

The achievement of the German printer Johan Gutenberg (around 1400-1468) was to bring together in an easily usable form the elements of printing techniques :

  • mobile characters which were strong (an alloy of antimony and lead) and could also be manufactured easily, by casting in moulds,
  • typesetting of the text,
  • the use of the hand press.

His associate, Schoeffer, had the idea of replacing the sand moulds by copper ones.

Gutenberg printed the first copy of the Bible, the « 42 lines » version, in Latin, in Mainz, around 1455.

A cultural revolution

  • Booming of the printing business

The invention of printing was quickly taken up, first in Germany then all over Europe ; by the end of the XVth century, about 25 000 books had been published, which (assuming 500 copies were made of each one), corresponded to twelve million books.

Printed books were much less expensive than manuscripts. Prices went down. At the beginning of printing, less than 10% of the population could read. With the mass diffusion of books, literacy increased rapidly.

Printing helped to establish literary texts and encouraged the spread of ideas, especially those of the humanists, and later, those of the Reform movement. The Bible could now be read and understood because it had been fully translated into German, French and English.


  • Books
    • GILMONT Jean-François (dir.), La Réforme et le livre. L’Europe et l’imprimé (1517-v. 1570), Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1990

Associated tours

  • Appearance of the Reformation in France

    In the early 16th century the Church had already been in a moral and political crisis they could not overcome for two centuries. In the context of the Renaissance, humanism...

Associated notes