Correlation or Causation: The Renaissance and the Printing Press

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The Renaissance was a period of great change in Europe, facilitating society’s transition from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Era. It is often interpreted as the final phase in the medieval period, and it was characterised (as the name suggests) by a rebirth of interest in the classical world: its history, architecture, literature, languages and schools of philosophy. Artistically, it saw the pioneering of perspective and anatomical accuracy, while intellectually it witnessed the birth of humanism. These developments combined to produce a paradigm shift in European thought, as society shifted away from viewing the mortal world as a sinful ordeal before paradise, and instead focussed on the achievements and glories of mankind on Earth.

The Renaissance was an incredibly complex period that witnessed numerous scientific and academic breakthroughs. One such technological advance was the emergence of the printing press; the development of the movable-type, variable-width printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1440s offered, for the first time in European history, a way to mass produce and circulate books and all the information they contained.

Yet while it is easy to believe that the printing industry is what allowed the Renaissance to spread and gather strength – especially among the non-elite – this is not necessarily the case. Instead, the culture of the renaissance is what was manifested in the printing industry. The press, although it facilitated the spread of the Renaissance to Northern Europe and consequently ever greater circulation, had little to do with its development. The dawn of the Renaissance can be largely explained by other factors, including the flow of ideas from the East, the economic and political position of Italy and a series of rediscoveries that offered Europe a window to the classical world.

The crusades had, instead of expunging Islam from the Holy Land, exposed Europe to the remarkable scientific, cultural and mathematical achievements of the Abassid Golden Age. At the same time, refugees had been fleeing from the Byzantine Empire as early as the Fourth Crusade and this process was dramatically increased by the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. These refugees were far better acquainted with Greek literary and artistic works, and to an extent Latin texts, than their Western counterparts. Italy, due to the trade networks established by the maritime republics of Venice and Genoa, and its proximity to Byzantine Greece, was the obvious destination for these migrants and ideas.

One such refugee was Gemistus Pletho, who arrived in Florence at a time of growing interest in the ancient world. The first great intellectual to recall longingly for the classical past had been Petrarch; the great poet had sparked interest in the Greek and Roman world with his extensive collection of Letters to Classical Authors, while working tirelessly to uncover lost documents, including a collection of Cicero’s letters he found in 1345. In doing so, he pioneered the humanism of the Renaissance. Petrarch’s arguments gripped Europe, and soon intellectuals were drawing inspiration from not just ancient literature, but ancient philosophy, art and architecture. Again, Italy’s location was vital, as the birthplace of Rome still had the monuments of the empire for aspiring artists to study. The most obvious example of this is how Brunelleschi used his knowledge of the Parthenon to complete the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, and rediscovered the perspective shown in the Column of Trajan that had been lost for centuries. Italy was obsessed by all things classical. Pletho could not have arrived at a better time, and taking advantage of the Italian desire for lost knowledge, he successfully petitioned Cosimo de Medici to found a new Platonic Academy, which would translate all of Plato’s ‘lost’ works into Latin from Greek. 

This example of sponsorship was only one of many to be given by the Medici family in Florence at this time. For Florence was uniquely situated to be the epicentre of the Renaissance. The Black Death had killed approximately half of its population in 1347, and this huge reduction in the work force meant that labour had become far more valuable. The average Florentine now had far more land and far higher wages than any of his predecessors. This signified a shift in power to the working class, and reduced profit margins for the landed elite. The end result was the final collapse of feudalism in Florence, and subsequently the rest of Italy. Republicanism was strengthened in the city states, as the social orders that had preserved the oligarchies unravelled. This political change further strengthened links between the 14th and 15th centuries to the classical past, since this was the only period previously dominated by elected governments. As a result of this and the fact that Italian families were patronising artists like Brunelleschi and Donatello, contemporaries began to refer to Florence as the new Athens.

Yet patronage required both the money to sponsor artists as well as a desire to do so, and this was where the economic impact of the Black Death proved decisive. For the collapse of feudalism led to the development of an urbanised, mercantile class. Italy’s position, as the peninsula that dominated Mediterranean trade and the home of the Papacy which collected tithes from all Europe, had always made it economically powerful. Yet now, with the higher wages that the plague had created, growing urbanisation and the widespread adoption of double entry book keeping, Italy experienced a massive boom, with the economies of individual cities like Florence and Venice being the comparable to the economies of states like France. Wealthy families, most famously the Medici, accumulated fortunes vast enough to fund the development of the Renaissance. 

The printing industry, while obviously important in the spreading of ideas, only came to prominence in the second half of the 15th century, printing over 20 million copies by its end. This is in contrast to the other aforementioned causes, and the start of the Renaissance, which scholars largely agree occurred in the mid 14th century. Rather, the popularity of the Renaissance was the single most important contributor to the rise of the printing industry. One of history’s earliest bestsellers, Desiderius Erasmus, was clearly a product of the rebirth of interest in the classical world – with two of his most popular pieces being a re-translation of the New Testament into Greek and the Adagia, a collection of Greek and Latin idioms. His works were printed 750,000 times, such was the demand in Europe. Another significant aspect of the Renaissance was the artistic, and this too encouraged the development of the printing industry, with collections of poems and romances written in vernacular languages being commissioned at printing workshops. This was a trend which began with Dante, and continued throughout the Renaissance. 

So the Renaissance, which was the unique confluence in the 14th Century of the Black Death, the resurgence of interest in the classical world, the patronage of wealthy families and the influx of Byzantine refugees, created the demand for the printing press. This is evidenced by what the earliest printed works were. Naturally the Bible was first chosen, yet other titles included the works of Petrarch, Aristotle, Euclid and Ptolemy. While it is wrong to argue that there were no literary or philosophical movements in the Middle Ages, for there certainly were, the meteoric rise in the production of printed books, from 20 million in the 15th century to 200 million in the 16th century, should be attributed to the uniquely influential paradigm shift that was the Renaissance of the 14th and 15th Centuries. While the press amplified the Renaissance, and facilitated its evolution into the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment Period, it did not trigger it. The Renaissance was already a movement changing Italy and Southern Europe before Gutenberg typed his first letter.

Einstein, E., 1980. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Cambridge University Press

Parks, T., 2006. Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics in 15th Century Florence

Strathern, P., 2016. Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City. Pegasus Books.