The Impact of the Printing Press

Reformation Role

Invented in 1439 by Johannes Gutenberg, the printing press allowed printed material to be copied quickly and spread widely. This was a huge improvement over the previous method of copying documents by hand. Copies of the 95 Theses, for example, could be found throughout Germany only a couple of weeks after Martin Luther wrote them, and in a few months, they had spread throughout Europe.

What does this mean?

By the time Martin Luther started writing, printing presses were at work all over Europe.  This means that whatever Luther wrote could quickly be read by a very large number of people, and printing press owners were eager to print Luther’s writings because they always sold well. The people of Luther’s time benefited from all of this – hearing the clear gospel message as Luther taught them what God says in the Bible.

Fun Facts about the Printing Press

  • The number of books printed in Europe in the 1400s was over 20,000,000.  This is more than the number of hand-copied manuscripts produced in the previous ten centuries combined.  In the 1500s, the number of printed books increased to 200,000,000.
  • By the year 1500, printing presses were found in over 270 cities in Europe.
  • The lower cost and greater speed of printing compared to copying by hand made newspapers possible.
  • For the first time, authors could write “bestsellers.” Luther and Erasmus wrote books that sold hundreds of thousands of copies in their lifetime.
  • The speed and low cost of sharing information helped bring about a scientific revolution.
  • With more books came greater literacy rates among adults.
  • Printing in the common language of the people, rather than Latin, became more and more frequent as more people learned to read the variety of books available to them.

In the 15th century, what was the average number of books printed in cities with printing presses?