The impact of printing on the development of the English language during the period of the Renaissance

Term Paper, 2004

14 Pages, Grade: 2,3



I. Invention, Development and Spread of Printing

II. William Caxton (~1422-1492)

III. Effects of Printing on the Language

IV. Reading Public, Literacy and Illiteracy

V. Conclusion



VIII. References:

“We should note the force, effect, and consequences of inventions which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, namely printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world.”

Francis Bacon, Novum organum, Aphorism 129

I. Invention, Development and Spread of Printing

The 15th century must be seen as the age of innovation in Europe. For the spread of Renaissance culture as we know it today, several factors were decisive: advances in the fields of arts (e.g. architecture, painting and literature), science (e.g. geography, astronomy and medicine), economy (e.g. flourishing international trade) and of course technology, as the example of the printing press shows.

By definition “The printing press is a mechanical device for printing many copies of a text on rectangular sheets of paper.” (<

Printing_press>) This definition might give the impression we are dealing with a simple gadget and a rather unspectacular procedure, but until 1450, “the original method of printing was block printing, pressing sheets of paper into individually carved wooden blocks” (<>), which would not last very long because of the pressure exercised upon them during the process of printing. Knowing this, the invention of the printing press seems even more valuable, as the former method described here required a lot of energy, money and time and yielded a relatively ridiculous output. A less-costly method of producing printed material needed to be found and the former goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468) from Mainz in Germany is acknowledged as the pioneer in this field. He experimented with metal alloy and finally created movable types which could be used and reused for printing without the effect of wearing down like the wooden material. Immediately, the printing press had the effect of multiplying the output and cutting the costs of books, thus making information available to a much larger part of the population. So it can be said that the printing press initiated an “information revolution”.

Febvre and Martin (1998) point out that “In spite of Gutenberg’s efforts to keep his technique a secret” and also despite some resistance from opponents of technological progress, “printing spread rapidly from its birthplace in Mainz to the various European countries. By 1480, only thirty years after their invention, printing presses were in operation in more than 110 towns throughout Western Europe, four of them in England alone. From that date it may be said of Europe that the printed book was in universal use.” Theoretically this rather rapid expansion shows not only a higher level of industry, but also a much higher level of literacy than we might expect. But there is a lot of speculation concerning this theory, which I will deal with later on.

Printing also made it easier to spread and preserve knowledge in standardized form and prevented the further corruption of texts through hand copying. “Previously, books were copied mainly in monasteries, or in commercial scriptoria, where scribes wrote them out by hand” (<

Printing_press>), a technique which often proved a source for mistakes and in the worst case could lead to changes in meaning of a particular text. Nevertheless the substitution of hand copies with printed works was not greeted with total pleasure. For a long time, books were scarce and therefore had a certain value to those who could afford to own some, namely the upper class, and who did not want to share them with the lower classes.

Summing up the findings above, I would agree that “the discovery and establishment of the printing of books with movable type marks a paradigm shift in the way information was transferred in Europe. The impact of printing is comparable to the development of language, the invention of the alphabet, and the invention of the computer as far as its effects on the society.” (<>) Printing was able to spread new ideas quickly, stimulating not only the literacy of lay people, but also having a deep and lasting impact on their lives, bringing knowledge closer to their hands. Hellinga (1982) writes that “The arrival of the printing press heralded a revolutionary development in intellectual life and in society wherever it took place.” According to Steinberg (1996), “The history of printing is an integral part of the general history of civilization. Neither political, constitutional, ecclesiastical, and economic events, nor sociological, philosophical, and literary movements can be fully understood without taking into account the influence the printing press has exerted upon them.” And English printing takes up a special place in European history, because England is the only country in Europe which owes the introduction of printing to a native: William Caxton.

II. William Caxton (~1422-1492)

One of the outstanding characters with regard to printing in England is William Caxton. “He was the first Englishman to become actively involved in the then new art of printing” (Hellinga 1982, p.13) and introduced printing into England when he established a press at Westminster in 1476.

As a wool merchant for the Mercer’s Company in the Low Countries, Caxton had come across the new technology on the Continent. His business brought him to Cologne, where he learned the craft of printing in 1471. After his return to Bruges, one of the most important centres of trade in Europe at that time, Caxton set up a printing press of his own and published The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, the first book ever to be printed in English and one of some twenty translations Caxton made himself. Just like Martin Luther made the dialect of his home region the standard form of German through his Bible translation, William Caxton was responsible for the form of English which was to become the standard. He adopted a special variety of Middle English, the so-called ‘King’s English’ commonly used in London and its surroundings, for his translations and spread this language variety throughout England by his trade. If this was a conscious choice cannot absolutely be asserted, but he had an acute sense of language through his time spent abroad and was aware of the problem of dialect variation in England (see “The ‘Egg’ Story” in Crystal 2003, p.57). Therewith other dialects of the vernacular were marginalised, lost their importance and sometimes died out. So Caxton’s introduction of printing marks a turning point in the development of English as a national and later on international language.

William Caxton was not really equipped with the appropriate education to deal with literary works, but he obviously had a liking for books and came across interesting literature through his business travels. As a merchant, he surely saw the business opportunity behind printing as well.

Caxton was not only a printer, but also a publisher and enjoyed the patronage, custom and friendship of Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII. His real importance lies in the fact that three quarters of the hundred books he published between 1473 and his death were in English. Steinberg (1996) claims that “Caxton’s selection of titles (including books on geography, history, saints’ lives, grammar and rhetoric, translations of classics, and prose romances like Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur) shows him to have been a good businessman”, for his books appealed to a wide readership. Caxton also addressed his readers personally, including in many of his publications an explanation for printing a particular text, and he dedicated certain books to his patrons to emphasize their importance and value. “Caxton’s first major book in England was Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Through choosing this most English of texts, a bestseller to the present day, Caxton gave himself the best possible chance of persuading an English public, not used to such a thing, to buy books. His desire to impart to others his taste for books is amply apparent from his many translations into English of works new to an English public.” (Hellinga 1982, p.101) After Caxton’s death in 1492, his assistant Wynkyn de Worde took over his business.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


The impact of printing on the development of the English language during the period of the Renaissance
University of Koblenz-Landau  (Anglistik)
The Story of English
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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464 KB
English, Renaissance
Quote paper
Susanne Krebs (Author), 2004, The impact of printing on the development of the English language during the period of the Renaissance, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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