It wasn’t technically the printing press that fueled the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the move to the Modern Age, it was the innovation of moveable type in conjunction with a printing press. And for that, we can thank Johannes Gutenberg, who in 1439 first used the process in Europe. His process for producing mechanical moveable type, adjustable molds, and even an oil-based ink quite revolutionized printing which truly changed society.
As a result of relatively quick and easy printing, books, flyers, and pamphlets became available to the masses. Consequently, literacy grew and the knowledge-based economy we’ve come to accept for hundreds of years became the norm. Moreover, information was not necessarily the exclusive property of the authorities or the wealthy. When people could afford books, they could learn to read. And once people could read, messages could be sent to them, even messages not approved by the authorities. Information got loose. Critical thinking was born, and as it began to grow, the ruling paradigm was threatened.
In few places was this more true than in the Church. At the dawn of the 16thCentury, the Church controlled all daily life. In the lyrics of a rock opera I know,
The Church controlled all daily life / Salvation called for sacrifice /
There were relics to be venerated / From purgatory to be separated /
Commoners were urged, to pay money to be purged...
That is, so long as common folk could not read the scriptures to evaluate the claims of the religious authorities and so long as they could not access the legitimate questions being asked by scholarly Church professionals, they could be kept in fear both of a conveniently angry vengeful god and of a Church that controlled access to God, forgiveness and the promise of Heaven, or as it was more commonly marketed, the avoidance of a fiery, painful Hell. And at the dawn of the 16thCentury, access to God was perhaps the most valuable commodity to control.
So, when Martin Luther, in 1517 posted his questions about abuses of the Church, those with the technology of moveable type and printing presses were grateful for the content to show off their tech, and they printed thousands of copies of his 95 theses and of his subsequent writings. These passed quickly throughout Europe, raising resistance, coalescing crowds, and not just creating a reforming zeitgeist, but fanning its flame. Lest one think that the technology itself was inherently on the side of good, bear in mind that printers also made substantial profits printing thousands of certificates for the Church known as indulgences -- promises of reduced suffering in the afterlife that could be purchased for oneself or for one’s relatives. The more you paid for the paper, the less you would have to suffer in the afterlife. Controlling information can be lucrative, albeit glaringly obvious, right? When it comes to the moveable-type printing press, one thing to note is that the technology itself was useful. And just like any hot new technology, it could be used for good or for bad.
As far as the Reformation goes, the Gutenberg press allowed for the transmission of new ideas, and later allowed for the spread of Luther’s German translation of the Bible. With access to the scriptures in the common language, regular folks could evaluate the preaching and teaching of the Church. The impact of the Gutenberg press is substantially farther reaching than the change it fueled in the Church, but the Reformation in the Church was a key step in the birth of the Modern Age, and everyone around the world who lives free because their forebears spoke truth to power, or who participates or seeks to participate in the knowledge-based economy, owes a debt of gratitude an inventor from Mainz, Germany.