A 15th-century espresso ristretto

Handwritten or printed? This book was printed in Italy in 1491 and includes Albertus Magnus’s work on minerals known as De Mineralibus. By the 1490s, printing had moved from Germany to Italy and was in the process of disrupting the way books had been written for centuries. Many scribes would soon find themselves out of work.

According to some scholars, Gutenberg’s role in the development of the printing press has been overrated. The Chinese had been printing script for centuries. Nearly all technologies involved in printing were known in Europe in the generations before Gutenberg’s, such as the screw press used for wine and olive oil production, or the more simple press principle used in minting coins, sealing of documents and engraving metalwork. Johann Gutenberg was the right man in the right place at the right time – and with the right idea of bringing all the technologies together into a new machine used for novel purpose.

We know little to none about the adoption of technologies of writing in the ancient and formative period of the development of script. We don’t really know how quickly writing was adopted after it had been invented or how quickly people picked up on the alphabet when it was created, lost and then rediscovered, in the Mediterranean. But we know fairly well that the adoption of Gutenberg’s machine was swift and sweeping. Not only had the moveable-type press started to challenge the long-established scribal culture locally in Germany, but less than 15 years after Gutenberg had pioneered it, it was imported into Italy, at Subiaco in 1464. By the end of the 15th century, the press became a new technology which was being early-adopted nearly everywhere in the West. The technology evolved so quickly and books were being printed in such high numbers that historians today distinguish between books printed before 1500 which are called incunabula (the plural of incunabulum) and those printed thereafter, known simply as early printed books.

Like a strong Italian ristretto, where water is (ex)pressed (espresso) under pressure through the grind, the Gutenberg press provided unsuspected energy to a gittery Europe brewing with new ideas and unresolved conflict. Print shaped the Reformation and introduced Europe to the age of speed – like the 16g-shot cup downed on the way to work.

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