On the Shadows of IdeasLife for a European scribe in the early fourteenth century was pretty settled. He (almost all were male) was either a monk slaving laboriously in a monastery or a copyist slaving laboriously in a sweatshop. He knew that his ancient and honorable life-style would never change. There was always demand from the few lords for hand-lettered books and from the few literate burghers for religious tracts. There were also the thirty European universities and their constant need for new manuscript copies. Still, the scribe's mainstay was the church, which ordered thousands of copies of papal indulgences to sell to the laity, and the business community, which needed simple contracts to conduct its growing long-distance trade. Life was, if not good, at least very stable.
Then, in the middle of the fourteenth century, the Black Death struck, killing between four and six of every ten Europeans---perhaps forty million people. Whole villages were wiped out, vanishing utterly from the face of the earth. The plague returned in waves from then until well into the fifteenth century, devouring lives like corn stalks before the scythe.
By the middle of the fifteenth century, a scribe's life had changed. There were now only half as many Europeans as there had been a century before, but the number of people who could read and write, always a tiny minority, was decimated. In those days, most literate people lived in cities, and the dense, squalid cities were the hardest hit by the plague.
All over Europe, there were surplus goods and empty lands; with half the population dead, the survivors took possession of their goods. The economy took off. The few scribes, clerks, and notaries who remained were busily scribbling away, trying to supply an ever-expanding demand for documents.
Then, Gutenberg's newly invented printing press, by making printed copies cheap relative to handwritten copies, drastically changed everything. By the end of the fifteenth century, his device was taking over the manuscript market, throwing scribes out of work and explosively increased the number of available books. By making book copying much cheaper, it made books cheaper and more common. That, in turn, led to the eighth wonder of the world, that new thing---the bookshop.
Before print there were only a few thousand manuscripts in total. But by the early sixteenth century, twenty million books had been printed---almost as many books as there are in the U.S. Library of Congress today. Books stopped being rare and expensive objects of art and religious meditation or the secret codices of a guild, church, or government. The job of scribe was starting its century-long slide into oblivion.
Eliminating scribes, however, was only a minor part of the print revolution. Printing led to page numbering, indices, and bibliographies, which were now possible and made searching easier. This development forced people to learn the alphabet so they could use the new indices. The new printed books were cheaper, more widely distributed, more accurate, more portable, and more convenient than manuscripts. They in turn led, eventually, to increased literacy, standardized spelling, and heightened author accuracy. They created libraries and even the idea of authorship; for the writer was no longer just an anonymous copyist and so could be held accountable for the book's ideas.
Printing brought about enormous changes in medieval Europe. For example, because it began to standardize spelling and was relatively cheap, it solidified the various vernacular languages. Before its invention, there was no such thing as standard English, or French, or German. Many European countries were a gaggle of squabbling language groups and the only real exchange of knowledge came through Latin---the common language of the literate world. So, by making the distribution of knowledge cheaper, printing standardized English, French, German, and so forth.
The tidal wave of new books spread and democratized knowledge. The tiny elite of priests, lawyers, aristocrats, and guildsmen could no longer control Europe's few precious bits of knowledge, whether in metallurgy or liturgy, astronomy or gastronomy, philosophy or choreography. In particular, the new books led to the first printed tracts challenging the church's dominance in religious knowledge. By the 1520s, the beginnings of the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism followed.
Printing also led to other deep and subtle social changes. It was the television of its time. For example, it decreased the importance of memory and its main possessors, the elders, thereby devaluing the importance of tradition in council chambers across the land. That decline in turn added fuel to the humanist movement and spurred on the Renaissance.
Education, engineering, science, and technology transfer---all profited from the spread of printing, which contributed to both the gathering of knowledge and its inevitable splintering into new disciplines ruled over by a few widely separated experts. It turned the pursuit of knowledge into something almost anyone could participate in. And it created publishers.
When inventing movable type, Gutenberg wasn't thinking of the revolutions that would follow it. He certainly didn't anticipate Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, or Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. Nonetheless, his device changed everything, and it changed everything forever.
The printing presses destroyed the scriptoria, drove out the jealous scribes, and released knowledge to run free throughout the world. With printed books acting as vectors, the new disease of cheap and easily communicable knowledge spread all across Europe; the speed of change accelerated as ever larger numbers of people were infected with ideas they would never have met with when books were rare and expensive. As a consequence, the pace of technological change picked up.
Whenever we improve the production, handling, and distribution of information we drop the price of thinking. This always has big consequences. Although we don't know the details, we do know there must have been a major leap forward when we invented language perhaps half a million years ago. Similar breakthroughs occurred when we developed clay tablets, perhaps six thousand years ago; papyrus, maybe four thousand years ago; parchment---and then paper---roughly two thousand years ago; and, finally, movable type, five hundred years ago. Now it's the computer's turn. Massive technological change is once again coming to the one technology we've had throughout recorded history---the same technology we use to record that history---writing.