Vehicle of freedom

A printed and hand-illuminated copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, printed by
Vindelinus de Spira in Venice in 1477) Cambridge, Trinity College, VI.16.20

Printing has a long history, but long histories aren’t always about deep and widespread cultural impact. Chinese woodblock printing existed since the 2nd century AD, but it did not turn anything around, except perhaps some printers’ fortunes. It made communication and dissemination of culture easier, production more affordable, and it saved time, but it did not generate anything substantially new nor did it disrupt the history of literacy.

Movable type is different from woodblock printing. China and Korea invented movable type centuries before Gutenberg, but by the 16th century, printing had not changed the face of the Asian continent. In Europe, however, printed books changed the face of culture in the 200 years after Gutenberg’s invention.

In Europe, printing started as a conservative project but soon afterwards became the face of renewal and change. It did not remain local, but quickly spread to other countries and soon became ubiquitous, disrupting old forms of communication and cultural production and reproduction.

European printing was the vehicle of free speech. The growing forces of censorship in Europe could shut down a press here, but another one would open next door. Clandestine and anonymous, printing promoted dissent, heterodoxy and kept a non-violent channel open for expressing opposition to established ideas and institutions.

A vehicle of freedom, printing did not belong to anyone, even when authorities sought to control it. As such, it proved to be one of the most disruptive forces in early modern Europe – and also shaping the world we live in today.

 

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