Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized book printing when he invented the movable type printing press in Mainz, Germany around 1452. A mere decade or two later, book publishing in Europe mushroomed. Now researchers at the University of Oxford, experts at deciphering dedications written in Latin or Greek, are hunting for these treasures.* They hope to locate and catalogue a half-million books printed between 1450 and 1500. The lead professor suspects this may show how the spread of knowledge influenced fifteenth century European society.
These historical books, described as “sturdy, printed on cloth paper, festooned with decorations, stamps, annotations, bindings, prices, and even medical prescriptions” may provide clues to their origin.
Here’s a big surprise: the best sellers weren’t Bibles or the writings of Plato or Aristotle. They were grammar texts and books used to teach commoners to read and write. Next on the scene: medical and legal books, current affairs hung on community bulletin boards, almanacs, and tomes on astrology, poetry, and popular songs.
And Germany did not become the printing capitol of the world – that honor went to Venice, Italy – where the three segments of society needed to turn out books came together: the printer (technology), the book merchant or teacher (the content manager), and the banker (the money supplier needed to cover expenses.)
Refreshingly, the first years became an era of “wild experimentation” with “few rules concerning censorship until the Reformation prompted a response from the Catholic Church.” Then along came the Industrial Revolution and the Computer Age and now we have instant publications with the flourishing Internet. Where will it all end?