It's typical to see people whose job it is to perform a manual task to - collectively - object when a new technology is introduced which makes their job obsolete (as the quintessential example, see Luddite movement).

Was there a similar situation when Gutenberg's printing press (once it started being used more widely) impacted the job of the monks and scribes who copied books by writing previously?

Or did they welcome the relief?

If the former, was there any sort of documented organized opposition to the press' use?

  • 1
    I have no sources, so not an answer: The church as a whole welcomed the press as a way to get cheaper books and hence spread the word of god. What the monks that did the copying did think about it I don't know. The illuminators still had plenty of job decorating printed bibles in the beginning so I'd guess they were happy with it. Nov 11, 2012 at 6:59
  • The church had no need to spread the word. Most people could not read Latin. It was heretical to read the Bible in a vernacular language. Using the printing press to print indulgences freed the monks for other work.
    – ectomancer
    Nov 11, 2012 at 8:25
  • What do you mean in this case by "spread the word"?
    – Joe
    Nov 11, 2012 at 8:38
  • See the answer by Lennart Regebro.
    – ectomancer
    Nov 11, 2012 at 9:23
  • 5
    Nitpick: The monks whose job was to copy books wouldn't really lose their livelihood because of Gutenberg's printing press. Their job was... being monks, copying books was just one of their tasks, and when their services in regards to the task were no longer needed they probably moved on to... whatever else a monk does.
    – yannis
    Nov 14, 2012 at 6:09

1 Answer 1


While it is difficult to understand what the monks themselves thought on this matter, there is some material on whether they enjoyed their work, were actually put out of work and if there were protests against the printing press due to this.

From: From Gutenberg to the Internet: A Sourcebook on the History of Information Technology, Volume 2 by Jeffrey M. Norman:

Those who produced manuscript books were not instantly thrown out of work by the printing press, far from it, though the effects differed from one book-craft to another.

. . .

The changes wrought upon scribes by the arrival of the printing press were both more and less significant than its impact on the illuminators. The best of the scribes continued to work on Books of Hours and on the various sorts of special manuscripts; but, unlike the illuminators, scribes gained very little employment from the production of printed books, save for the addition of rubrics, and even that was primarily in the earliest books....Certainly by the year 1500 the number of copyists regularly employed in producing manuscript books was declining with each passing day.

From The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein:

Indeed the first craftsmen to introduce printing in Italy (and in France and Spain) came from Germany. These pioneers were followed by their compatriots to the point where the German presence among printers on the peninsula (especially in Venice) provoked complaints about "German interlopers driving honest Italian scribes out of work."

According to The Unsung Heroes, a History of Print by Dr. Jerry Waite (2001):

Ironically, the uniformity of the copies of Gutenberg’s Bible led many superstitious people of the time to equate printing with Satan because it seemed to be magical. Printers’ apprentices became known as the "printer’s devil."

In Paris, Fust was charged as a witch. Although he escaped the Inquisition, other printers did not.

Also, ironically, the acceptance of the Gutenberg Bible put to death an entire cottage industry that had grown up around the medieval monks/scribes. Rooms of monks were put out of work in perhaps the first technological layoffs.

A book by Carroll C. Calkins tantalisingly suggests that Parisian scribes went on strike:

When Johann Gutenberg introduced his movable type and printing press in the 1440's, the scribes of Paris went on strike to protest an innovation ...

Unfortunately, the snippet does not extend beyond this.
(I'm uncertain if all the scribes of the era were monks. I can't easily imagine monks going on strike.)

A blog by a Dr. Richard Scott Nokes, professor of medieval literature at Troy University addresses this question and offers a slightly contrary opinion:

The printing press didn't exactly put monks or scribes out of work. Monks support their calling in a lot of different ways, so it isn't like the printing press put them out of business. In fact, even today at the Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert some monks still continue as scribes, though in a new technological medium. Also, you have to remember that the printing press is essentially only useful for mass production -- just think of all the things you handwrite every single day. I think it's more fair to say that the printing press transformed the job of the scribe.

At least some of the monks viewed their work as drudgery. From The Hall of Light: A Study of Early Chinese Kingship by William Edward Soothill, Dorothea Lady Hosie, G. F. Hudson (in a chapter on the transmission and translation of the Bible):

Until 1456, when Gutenberg first printed the Bible by means of moveable type, copies of the Scriptures were produced by hand—a long and painstaking task, fraught with possibilities for introducing accidental changes into the text.

. . .

Something of the drudgery of copying can be appreciated from the colophons, or notes, that scribes sometimes appended at the close of a manuscript. A typical example, found in many nonbiblical works, expresses relief: "As travellers rejoice to see their home country, so also is the end of a book to those who toil in writing." Another, appearing in more than one ancient classic, complains: "Writing bows one's back, thrusts the ribs into one's stomach, and fosters a general debility of the body." A colophon in an Armenian copy of the Gospels records that a heavy snowstorm was raging outside the monastery, that the scribe's ink froze, his hand became numb, and the pen fell from his fingers!

Another blog by a David Malki! points to Johannes Trithemius, a fifteenth century abbot who, presumably in a supervisory capacity, believed that drudgery was good for the soul. He,

understood the benefits the printing press could bring to the scholar and the layman alike, but didn’t want it to replace the work that monks and scribes were doing, or become an excuse for monks to become lazy and neglect the devotional aspect of their work.

Finally, if you can believe that Neil Gaiman can do no wrong:

Gaiman said the Internet represents a fundamental change that is altering the competitive landscape for virtually every business whose product can be digitized and uploaded, and they need to adapt or perish. “Gutenberg put an awful lot of scribes out of work too,” the author said. “They had debates back then that seem nonsensical now, like the debate about the evils of printing bibles that anyone could read, rather than having them interpreted for them by monks and priests.”

The above excerpts suggest that monks/scribes were indeed put out of work albeit gradually and not completely. There was opposition to the loss of jobs from economic, philosophical, and theological perspectives and there might have also been a strike in Paris by scribes to protest the newfangled innovation.

Some of the cited sources in the above excerpts include:

  • Rouse and Rouse, Manuscripts and their Makers: Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris 1200–1500 (2000).
  • Martin Lowry, The World of Aldus Manutius (1979)
  • 2
    Wow, I didn't think that anyone could write a good answer on this question, but this one is very good!
    – Russell
    Nov 23, 2012 at 9:36

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