I watched a really lovely programme on BBC 4 last night, presented by the wonderful Stephen Fry.  It was the first on a series of programmes in the BBC’s Medieval Season, which promises to be very interesting.  Stephen Fry was exploring the history of Johannes Gutenberg’s famous invention.   Printing using presses and moveable type was not new in the fifteenth century: in Eastern Asia, woodblock printing had been around for a while, but as you can imagine with Chinese characters it was quite a time consuming method.  In Europe at the start of the fifteenth century the race was on to find a way to produce the carved letter types quickly and efficiently.  This was Gutenberg’s breakthrough: he invented a special type of matrix mould which allowed hundreds of copies of a particular letter to be made very quickly –  although it still took half a day to file the metal templates used to create the mould.

Moveable type and new printing presses completely revolutionised our society and culture.  Suddenly far more people were able to access – and to create – written material.  Writing was no longer the monopoly of monastic scribes but for the first time books could be mass-produced – and each copy would be identical.  The Church was one of the first institutions to take advantage of the new technology, seeing the potential of being able to print standardised versions of the Bible and hundreds of Indulgences.  But it also allowed other men to have their say for the first time, and the modern world would not be the same without the Gutenberg Printing Press.

Stephen Fry’s programme was a very watchable exploration of the history of the Printing Press, as he went to Mainz and Strasbourg to discover more about Gutenberg’s life and work.  He also reconstructed (with the help of expert printers and carpenters) an original press, and printed an exact replica of one of the pages of the Gutenberg Bible using paper and type made in the authentic, old-fashioned, fifteenth-century method.  I always love seeing history brought to life in this way, and Fry’s excitement and awe as they printed the page was palpable.  A lot of people probably take mass-produced printed books for granted nowadays, so it was fascinating to go back to the beginning and be reminded just how revolutionary Gutenberg’s Press was.

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