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First Impressions

Spread of Print through Europe

Johann Gutenberg established his print workshop in Mainz in the 1450s and within twenty-five years the innovation had spread to every country in Western Europe. During the fifteenth century the continent of Europe was in political turmoil and the fates of states and cities changed rapidly.

The catalyst for the rapid spread of printing was the sack of Mainz in 1462. Mainz was an important city and the seat of the archbishop, who held great power and status as the representative of the Pope north of the Alps. Internal squabbles and factional fighting within the Catholic Church led to war between the opposing sides. The instability and unfavourable business climate created by the war caused an exodus of printers and other tradesmen, who sought more politically stable cities with commercial potential. As many early books were printed in Latin, the universal language of the scientific and religious communities throughout Europe, it made it easier for the pioneers of print to establish themselves outside their countries of origin.

A print workshop was set up in Bamberg (190 km from Mainz) in about 1460. At around the same time printing began in Strasbourg, followed by other commercial centres such as Cologne (1465) and Basel (1468). Printers journeyed south over the Alps to Subiaco in 1465, Rome in 1467, and Venice - which was to become an important city for printers - in 1469. By 1470 presses had been established in Paris, Nuremberg and Utrecht and the following year there were printing presses in Milan, Naples and Florence. All these cities were centres of commerce and learning; they had an educated merchant class with a growing interest in books; they also had good trading links, ensuring that printers had ready access to markets for the new technology.

The craft of printing evolved very quickly as printers sought to improve their techniques, carrying the tools of their trade and new ideas across Europe. Along the way the process grew into a more complicated business, with a number of allied trades and specialists supplementing and enriching their work.

The Nuremberg Chronicle was printed by Anton Koberger in 1493. Written in Latin by Hartmann Schedel, it is a world history and is richly illustrated with woodcuts from the studio of Michael Wolgemut. Many important towns and cities are depicted, giving an insight into how they might have looked in the fifteenth century - albeit in a highly stylized way!