Why Did First Printed Books Scare Ancient Scholars In Europe?

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AncientPages.com - Johann Gutenberg’s brilliant printing press changed Europe’s history. When the first printed books started to appear in Europe people were excited. Thousands of titles were now available, and more and more people could buy books that were previously rare and expensive.

However, though Gutenberg’s printed press was appreciated by most, there were also those who considered mass distribution of printed books to be dangerous. Several scholars were against printing press.  So, why did the first printed books scare scholars in Europe?

Why Did First Printed Books Scare Scholars In Europe?

Left: Gutenberg's printing press was appreciated by many, but far from all. Right: Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468), Public Domain

We should not forget that Johannes Gutenberg did not invent the printing press. He contributed with movable type mechanical printing technology in Europe in 1450. Chinese and Korean inventors had been producing printed books for centuries before Gutenberg was born.  The world’s first known movable type printing was a Chinese invention.

Gutenberg adapted the technology for a Western market and turned it into a publishing empire.

On February 23, 1455, Europe’s first mass-produced book – the Gutenberg Bible – was printed with movable type in Mainz, Germany.  The book was a Latin language Bible.

Gutenberg’s printing press helped to popularize books and the information they contained.

His invention revolutionized the distribution of knowledge by making it possible to produce many accurate copies of a single work.

Scholars Believed That Too Much Knowledge Was Dangerous To Ordinary People

To many scholars the easy distribution of knowledge was regarded as a problem. One scholar who spoke against Gutenberg’s printing press was Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), a Swiss physician, naturalist, bibliographer, and philologist.

Gessner was in many ways an outstanding scholar and he wrote several books, but he certainly didn’t like the printing press. Gessner created a list of all books that had been published with help of Gutenberg’s printing press during a period of 100 years. It contained as many as 10,000 titles that were accessible to readers in Europe.

According to Gessner this was shocking, absurd and dangerous. Gessner’s argument against the printing press was that ordinary people could not handle so much knowledge.

Why Did First Printed Books Scare Scholars In Europe?

William Caxton shows his printing press to King Edward IV. Credit: Prepressure

Gessner demanded those in power in European countries should enforce a law that regulated sales and distribution of books. He felt ordinary people should not have access to such a large number of books. Gessner was not a person who hated books. On the contrary according to a legend he wished to spend his last day in a library, a place he loved and at the time of his death he had published 72 books and written 18 more unpublished manuscripts.

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Gessner was not the only one who was annoyed with the printing press. Several scholars shared his views. One of them was Adrien Baillet (1649 – 1706), a French scholar and critic who is best known for his biography of Descartes. Baillet believed that all views presented in books would divide Europe. In a work entitled "Jugemens des savants sur les principaux ouvrages des auteurs", Baillet wrote: “We have reason to fear that the multitude of books that is increasing every day in a prodigious manner will put the centuries to come into as difficult a state as that in which barbarity had put the earlier ones after the fall of the Roman Empire."

Gutenberg’s Printing Press Left Monks Unemployed

Prior to the invention of the printing press books were produced by hand. Large monasteries had rooms called scriptoria where monks would copy manuscripts. The process of producing a book was time demanding. For example, the Bible was copied by hand. It would take a single monk 20 years to transcribe it.

Why Did First Printed Books Scare Scholars In Europe?

Prior to Gutenberg's printing press monks were responsible for writing. Credit: Walking in the Desert

German Benedictine abbot Johannes Trithemius (1462 – 1516) was very concerned that thousands of monks who were responsible for writing would be left with nothing to do. In his work In Praise of Scribes, Trithemius wrote: “If writing is inscribed on parchment, it will last a millennium. But if on paper, how long will it last? Two hundred years would be a lot." He urged the scribes to “perpetuate in writing the useful products of the press.”

Interestingly, Trithemius  had nothing against that his own writings were published with help of Gutenberg’s printing press.

To many scholars and theologians, Gutenberg’s printing press was a threat.  It was said books will divide Europe, create chaos, harm peoples' knowledge and monks will be without work.

For all of us who love books, it’s a good thing the printing press survived despite the fierce opposition.

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