In considering the effect of the print revolution on the production of texts and music it is important to define what is meant by the term “print revolution”. In simple terms this refers to a time period starting from around 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the modern printing press, and continued in technological development and geographical spread, and vastly increasing printed texts and music over the subsequent two to three centuries. The key part of Gutenberg’s new technology was the use of moveable type, together with the improvement and bringing together in one process of existing technologies such as large presses, printing on paper, and refined oil-based inks.
Although the technology had become available for mass production, printing was an expensive and labour intensive process, requiring new tradesmen such as type setters, pressmen, compositors, and proof-readers, as well as “factory” space. All this meant that a would-be printer needed capital up front. So printing as an industry required (or contributed to) the growth of capitalism and gave rise to new jobs and businesses not only in the production of texts and music, but also to book-binders, publishers, book-sellers, ink and paper producers, etc. Indeed the advancement of associated technologies should not be under-estimated. In Europe in the thirteenth century paper manufactured from rags was first used as a writing material. Prior to this scribes would use expensive parchment or vellum (animal skin) as a substrate.
However, the advent of mass printing didn’t end manuscript production, which was suited to luxury items (e.g. as diplomatic gifts) and for circulation of texts (e.g. poetry) among a small coterie. Shakespeare’s early sonnets, for instance, were originally circulated in manuscript copies.
The vast up-scaling of volume in the production of texts was considerable and in the 1540s in Geneva a skilled craftsman could produce 1,300 copies of a single sheet in one day. By contrast the up-scaling of production and proliferation of music was much slower. In Venice in 1498 a printer called Ottaviano Petrucci ‘ made claim to the invention of a unique music type and patented the printing method. However, the method was laborious and time-consuming, requiring three separate print runs for a single sheet of music – these being the printing of the staves, the musical notes and finally text. That said, Younger and Barker’s research found that in 1549 there were ten music publishers in seven cities producing 43 collections of music equating to around 1500 individual pieces of music. This showed that there was both supply and demand during this period. could be demonstrated.
When looking at different examples of the kinds of texts and music produced in this period, there is one stand-out text that exemplifies the “revolutionary” label given to print production of this period, and that is the Bible. It is not only an important example of mass print (Luther’s translation of the Bible into German was a huge bestseller with over 100,000 copies sold), but was also a hugely significant move for ancient and religious (or sacred) texts to be printed in the vernacular. Thus the word of God could become available to the masses, not only in means of availability, but also in a language that could be understood without translation. So mass printed text could be argued as a catalyst or vehicle for the Protestant reformation. Polyglot Bibles (texts written in several languages side by side) were produced extensively and this enabled the reader to study the gospels in Greek, Hebrew, Latin and the vernacular tongue. These bibles were expensive to produce and would have been the property of the church. Educational texts such as “ABC”s and catechism were much cheaper to produce and had a mass market and hence could help a printer and publisher finance larger projects. Steinberg found that ‘in 1585, 10,000 copies of an English ABC and Little Catechism were sold in eight months’. Medical textbooks helped promote the study of the sciences and can be seen to run alongside the growth of humanism
More humble texts, often a single side of paper, were produced in great numbers such as almanacs (containing calendars, or information for farmers) and broadside ballads. This type of product was cheap to produce as it did not require the other processes used to make books such as sorting, ordering, cutting, colating or binding. Broadside ballads appealed to masses as they could contain songs which were political, satirical, bawdy, or risqué. And broadside ballads are a cross-over point to the production of printed music as some contained simple musical scores. Indeed, many choral religious songs were printed on single sheet which allowed hymns to be sung en masse and in the vernacular. A collection of such songs were put together to produce the Lutheran hymn book in 1542. Also in the sixteenth century many partbooks were produced, containing the music or choral part for each individual performer thus reducing the cost of the overall collective choral book.
The impact of increased production of printed texts marked a shift from image culture to word culture, especially as print was increasingly produced in the vernacular. This effected all tiers of society as news, gossip, political or religious propaganda could be distributed quickly, efficiently and cheaply, and in the case of religion this was at the very least the catalyst for religious reform. Knowledge could be preserved and disseminated by mass copying, which also lead to a uniformity, although it should be remembered that inaccuracies could be “standardised” also. And with the production of musical texts there was a shift from an an oral to written tradition, and it was no longer the preserve of the rich as choristers and even the congregation had access. Moreover musical knowledge could be spread by print. But aside from the well documented scholarly, religious and political impacts – the increased production also bought about fun and merriment via the popular broadside ballads.
Both with music and text a new industry grew, that of the pressmen, compositors, proofreaders, and bookbinders. Printing became a business, and it certainly can be linked to the rise of capitalism. Large capital was needed at the outset and to estimate the numbers of print run could mean big profits or winding up the business – if you print too few you have lost opportunity, if you print too many you may go bust. This is exemplified by William Caxton producing a 2nd edition of “The Canterbury Tales” (this containing illustrations) in 1483 as the first edition had become a best seller.
Thank you for reading my writings. If you’d like to, you can buy me a coffee for just £1 and I will think of you while writing my next post! Just hit the logo below…. (thanks in advance)