The first generation of German typographers realised pretty quickly the momentous impact the movable-type printing press would have on the European continent. Consequently, Gutenberg’s associates, apprentices and the other early adopters of the press exported the new emergent technology to all European centres of knowledge, learning and scholarship.
Within a few years of Gutenberg’s invention, printing workshops had been established by German entrepreneurs in all major Italian and French cities. The new technology was spreading like wildfire.
If the Gutenberg press transformed the book cultures of Europe almost beyond recognition, driving the manuscript book markets into the ground, it was because the entrepreneurs and investors closely following in Gutenberg’s wake had a perfect understanding of the market and of the needs of those playing in it.
Print was never meant to be an appendix to the manuscript book culture, but its disruptor. Its undertaker, even.
The printing press is commonly associated with the Reformation, and the meteoric success of the Protestant reformation is usually attributed to the sweeping impact of printing. But we shouldn’t forget that it wasn’t only the polemical leaders and writers of the anti-Catholic movement that made the new technology central to their activity, but also the rest of European lettered society who understood, as quickly as everyone else, that the future belonged to the printed word.
As exclusively dominant as they had been by the year 1500, handwritten books were, less than a century later, an outdated technology, good for collecting and luxury ownership, but no longer being produced for general literate consumption.
Compared to the digital revolution, the Gutenberg shift was absolutely ruthless. If 21st-century printed books and e-books can still coexist – and there is no sign that the latter will swallow the former –, there was no modus vivendi between the handwritten and the press-printed. One had to go.