Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries & Beyond

The Printing Revolution

Following the production of Gutenberg’s Bible in the 1450s, printing spread to other European centers of learning. Consider USC’s own collection of early printed book as an example. Our earliest printed books were printed in 1470. The first is Marchesinus’ Mammotrectus which was printed by Peter Schöffer in Mainz [Z241 1470.M37]. Born in Gernscheim, Germany, Schöffer worked in Gutenberg’s shop, and later established his own printing firm by the late 1450s.

The second is a copy of Eusebius’ De Evangelica printed by Nicolas Jenson in Venice, Italy [Z241 1470.E97]. Jenson was born in Sommevoire, France in the 1420s. By the late 1450s he was in Mainz, the home of Johannes Gutenberg, studying the art of movable type. He moved to Venice, Italy in the late 1460s where he printed this work. 
USC holds 11 books published in the 1470s which include works printed in Padua, Italy by Bartholmaeus de Valdezoccho, in Strasbourg, France by Heinrich von Strassburg, in Nuremburg, Germany by Anton Koberger, and by Franz Renner, Rudolphus de Novimagio, and Johann von Köln, all in Venice, Italy. Our holdings from the 1490s number 51 representing printing houses in Basel, Switzerland, Augsburg, Germany, Cremona, Florence, Bologna, and Rome, Italy, as well as the centers mentioned above. These few examples represent a small portion of the entire print production in Europe in the 15th century. It has been estimated that in less than four centuries about a billion books had been produced.

Printing in the 15th and succeeding centuries had an enormous impact on all aspects of European society, religious, economic, educational, and social. The majority of books printed were religious. Copies of the Bible, for example, were being printed in German, French, Dutch, and English, providing direct access to readers outside religious institutions. 

Printing created the need for occupations to support production, including typographers, composters, binders, and eventually book and type designers, booksellers, and publishers.

In colleges, students no longer needed to rely on transcribing as lecturers read from a single text, and could have copies of books instead. Latin was no longer the only language of books, making texts accessible to people other than scholars or clerics. More copies of books meant more people could have direct access to texts, and later generations could rely on printed text rather than on the verbal traditions of the past. As literacy expanded to the population as a whole, governments attempted to control the message by controlling presses. Evidence of these attempts can be seen in the lists of forbidden texts, and in printing privileges assigned to printed texts. The image below for example shows our 1573 copy of The whole workes of W. Tyndall, Iohn Frith, and Doct. Barnes, three worthy martyrs, and principall teachers of the Church of England, collected and compiled in one tome together [BR75 .T78 1573] which has a printing privilege statement at the bottom of the page. The printing privilege indicates that the printer has been granted permission to publish this work by the ruler or the church, and may be evidence that censorship may have been applied to the text.

In the video below, Professor Natania Meeker of USC’s French department, discusses the landmark “Encyclopédie.” Compiled by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert largely between 1751–1772, the massive undertaking represents the pinnacle of Enlightenment thought.

Header Image: Detail from the Nuremberg Chronicle, or Liber Chronicarum. 1493. USC Libraries D17.S34 1493b

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