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Nothing divided the medieval world in Europe more decisively from the Early Modern period than printing with movable type. It was a German invention and the culmination of a complex process. The world of antiquity had recorded its writings mainly on papyrus. Between 200 B.C and A.D 300, this was supplemented by vellum, calf skin treated and then smoothed by pumice stone. To this in late Roman times was added parchment, similarly made from the smoothed skin of sheep or goats. In the early Middle Ages, Europe imported an industrial process from China, which turned almost any kind of fibrous material into pulp that was then spread in sheets. This was known as cloth parchment. By about 1150 the Spanish had developed the first mill for making cheap paper (a word contracted from "papyrus", which became the standard term). One of the most important phenomena of the later Middle Ages was the growing availability of cheap paper. Even in England, where technology lagged far behind, a sheet of paper, or eight octavo pages, cost only a penny by the fifteenth century.
In the years 1446-1448, two German goldsmiths, Johannes Gutenberg and Johann Fust, made use of cheap paper to introduce a critical improvement in the way written pages were reproduced. Printing from wooden blocks was the old method; what the Germans did was to invent movable type for the letterpress. It had three merits: it could be used repeatedly until worn out; it was cast in metal from a mold and so could be renewed without difficulty; and it made lettering uniform. In 1450, Gutenberg began work on his Bible, the first printed book, known as the Gutenberg. It was completed in 1455 and is a marvel. As Gutenberg, apart from getting the key idea, had to solve a lot of practical problems, including imposing paper and ink into the process and the actual printing itself, for which he adapted the screw press used by winemakers, it is amazing that his first product does not look at all rudimentary. Those who handle it are struck by its clarity and quality.
Printing was one of those technical revolutions that developed its own momentum at extraordinary speed. Europe in the fifteenth century was a place where intermediate technology-that is, workshops with skilled craftspeople-was well established and spreading fast, especially in Germany and Italy. Such workshops were able to take on printing easily, and it thus became Europe's first true industry. The process was aided by two factors: the new demand for cheap classical texts and the translation of the Latin Bible into "modern" languages. Works of reference were also in demand. Presses sprang up in several German cities, and by 1470, Nuremberg, Germany had established itself as the center of the international publishing trade, printing books from 24 presses and distributing them at trade fairs all over western and central Europe. The old monastic scriptoria-monastery workshops where monks copied texts by hand-worked closely alongside the new presses, continuing to produce the luxury goods that movable-type printing could not yet supply. Printing, however, was primarily aimed at a cheap mass sale.
Although there was no competition between the technologies, there was rivalry between nations. The Italians made energetic and successful efforts to catch up with Germany. Their most successful scriptorium quickly imported two leading German printers to set up presses in their book-producing shop. German printers had the disadvantage of working with the complex typeface that the Italians sneeringly referred to as "Gothic" and that later became known as black letter. Outside Germany, readers found this typeface disagreeable. The Italians, on the other hand, had a clear typeface known as roman that became the type of the future.
Hence, although the Germans made use of the paper revolution to introduce movable type, the Italians went far to regain the initiative by their artistry. By 1500 there were printing firms in 60 German cities, but there were 150 presses in Venice alone. However, since many nations and governments wanted their own presses, the trade quickly became international. The cumulative impact of this industrial spread was spectacular. Before printing, only the very largest libraries, of which there were a dozen in Europe, had as many as 600 books. The total number of books on the entire Continent was well under 100,000. But by 1500, after only 45 years of the printed book, there were 9 million in circulation.