The most important invention of the Renaissance—the technology for printing books—furnishes a case history of how many individual advances contribute to an end result. The revolution in book production began in the twelfth century, when Muslims in Spain introduced a technique first developed by the Chinese in the second century and began to make paper by shredding old rags, processing them with water, and then pressing the liquid out of the finished sheets.
The cost of the new product was only a fraction of that of the sheepskin parchment or calfskin vellum employed for manuscripts. The sheepskin required splitting to make parchment, and thus was expensive and labor-intensive, while the new process could be done far more quickly and cheaply.
The next step came when engravers, adapting another Chinese technique, made a mirror image of a drawing on a wood block or copper plate that could make many identical woodcuts or engravings. Sentences were then added to the plates or blocks to explain the drawings. Finally, movable type was devised, each minute engraved piece of type representing a single letter that could be combined with other pieces to form words, sentences, a whole page, and then salvaged to be used again. This crucial invention was perfected during the 1440s. Johann Gutenberg (c. 1397-1468), who used to receive the credit for its invention, has been the focus of a scholarly controversy. Though the first printed Bibles are still referred to by his name, others may have done the printing.
The new invention gained wide popularity because printed books were not only much cheaper than manuscripts but also less prone to copyists’ errors. By 1500 the total number of volumes in print had reached the millions, and Italy alone had some seventy-three presses employing movable type. The most famous of them, the Aldine Press in Venice (named for its founder, Aldus Manutius, 1450-1515), sold inexpensive editions of the classics.
Once books were available, the world was transformed. As with most technologies, the long evolution of printing would turn upon the steady improvement in a basic component, in this case paper. It would not be until the eighteenth century that relatively inexpensive paper would be developed, when methods were found to produce paper from plant fibers. While rag- content paper (the paper made from linen and cotton rags) continued to be manufactured, the rush to the new paper began with the production in the West of the first such book, in France in 1784. Even so, it would not be until 1870 that a technique would be perfected, in Sweden, for the use of wood pulp for paper- making.
Although no other single invention can be compared with printing for quick and decisive effects, many innovations ultimately had comparable influence. Gunpowder, for example, also brought from China to medieval Europe, was used in the later campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War. In navigation important marine aids came into general use, particularly the magnetic compass and sailing charts. Engineers solved some of the problems of extracting and smelting silver, iron, and other ores.
The wide publication of printed books with clear anatomical illustrations also advanced medical skills, which were further improved by the partial lifting of a thirteenth-century ban against dissection of human cadavers. Pharmacology also progressed, thanks to experiments with the chemistry of drugs made by an eccentric Swiss physician, Paracelsus (Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, c. 1493-1541). He rejected Galen’s theory of disease and proposed that chemical remedies be applied to specific diseases. The French surgeon Ambroise Pare (c. 1510-1590) laid the foundations for modern surgery by developing new techniques, notably that of sewing up blood vessels with stitches rather than cauterizing them with a hot iron. Yet many so-called physicians were quacks, and many teachers of medicine merely repeated the demonstrations that Galen had made more than a thousand years earlier.
A striking exception was furnished by the physicians and scholars of the University of Padua. They maintained a tradition of scientific inquiry that presaged the seventeenth-century triumphs of the experimental method. In 1537 a young Belgian named Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) rejected Galen’s notion of invisible pores in the wall of tissue within the heart because he simply could not find such pores. In 1543 Vesalius published De humanis corporis fabrica (Concerning the Structure of the Human Body), prepared with concern for anatomical accuracy and detail, and illustrated with elaborate woodcuts.
Growth in medical knowledge probably had little direct impact on life span, however. Until the early eighteenth century, the typical operating theater in a hospital—if there was one—was much like a butcher shop. Indeed, patients were often led to an operation blindfolded so that they would not be frightened by seeing the operating instruments, which were only modified butcher’s tools. As in a butcher shop, the floor was covered with sawdust to soak up the flow of blood, and most operations involved amputations by sawing. The patient was drugged with opium or alcohol. The operation was performed quickly to forestall surgical shock, and perhaps half of the patients died—either from the operation itself or from infection afterward.
As we have seen, the Black Death coincides with the customary dates for the beginning of the Renaissance. The idea of quarantine was introduced in 1346, and regulations concerning the quarantine of suspected carriers of disease were fully in place in Venice by 1485. Nonetheless, plagues continued until the last major outbreak in Marseilles in 1720. The prevalence of thatched roofs from which rats or fleas might fall assured a high level of infection.
Leprosy, commonplace in Europe from the sixth century, declined in part from change in climate and in part because of changing patterns of disease competition. As tuberculosis became more common in the Renaissance, the infectious chain of Hansen’s disease (the proper name for leprosy) may have been interrupted, as the one called forth antibodies that forestalled the slower-moving bacillus associated with the other. Yaws declined dramatically, while syphilis broke out equally dramatically in the fifteenth century.
Disease patterns were influenced more by social and economic conditions than by medical knowledge. The growing use of woolens, changes in household sanitation, and the virtually free interchange of infections between the Old and the New Worlds after the discovery of America altered the balance of disease and immunities. The Old World introduced measles, for example, to the New, while taking from it exotic foods—including corn, the tomato, and the potato— and, ultimately, the plant louse (phylloxera), that virtually destroyed European vineyards in the 1880s.
At the same time, the rise of the city, the growth of closer communities, and easier communication throughout Europe between 1500 and 1700 lessened the probability of devastating epidemics, as the frequent circulation of disease also quickened the adaptability of the human species. Despite the growth of scientific knowledge about disease, however, the general public continued to rely on magic, witchcraft, alchemy, and astrology for protection against the unpredictable.