Johannes Gutenberg began printing bibles in the mid-fifteenth century, to runaway success. His process mechanized the most time-consuming labor of book production, and made beautiful printed books more readily available to the growing affluent public, sufficiently wealthy and interested to buy books when available, but who found traditional manuscripts prohibitively expensive. Gutenberg’s first bible, the forty-two line edition, was printed in two volumes. There were two basic options available: one printed on paper, which was new to the European market, and one on the traditional, and more expensive, parchment.
Gutenberg’s development of the printing press did not immediately revolutionize the world of books and writing. The traditional model of book production, where books were made on commission and personalized for the client who commissioned them, had already begun to shift with the widespread production of books of hours to meet the large and increasing demand of the developing middle class, who wanted a personal religious practice in their homes. The central nature of books to religion contributed to this demand: people needed books primarily for practical and devotional purposes. Books continued to have no small significance as status symbols and means of conveying wealth, but this was an elite market. Gutenberg’s strategy of printing some books on parchment made an attempt at reaching this higher-end market.
Of the two copies of the forty-two line bible digitized by the British Library, one is on parchment and the other paper. Looking at the two side by side yields some interesting insights. The bibles keep the look of traditional manuscripts, even maintaining the same familiar Latin abbreviations, and the font is a neat, familiar Gothic book script. There are no obvious marks from printing, and the books bear no obvious signs, upon first glance, of being anything different from a manuscript. Closer inspection shows the lack of prickings or ruling, hardpoint or otherwise, and a complete consistency to the text beyond the reach of even the most well-trained scribe.
Though the text of the two books aligns perfectly, making the concept of a secundo folio obsolete, they are far from identical. The parchment copy is much more heavily decorated, with a comparatively detailed program of illumination, and beautiful initials throughout; it also has rubricated running heads, added by hand. The paper copy is not without decoration: though its initials are much plainer, it too has rubrication and initials done by hand. This comparison reveals the relatively slow transition from manuscript to print; though the printing press did ultimately result in a complete shift in the relationship of people to the written word, its effect was relatively gradual. What Gutenberg changed immediately was the speed and price of book production, by making it much faster and less labor-intensive to produce the text itself on the page. His press did not immediately change or undermine the general system of personalizing books to suit one’s specific needs, or the immediate place of writing in European culture – the text he chose, for example, was not the most accessible to the general public, because it was written in Latin.
The process by which Gutenberg went about producing his first run of printed bibles is also interesting, in that it seems fairly modern: he got the backing of a wealthy patron, and used what was effectively start-up capital to finish his invention, manufacture and then market his final product. Though Gutenberg did not profit extensively from his wildly successful development, this background does emphasize the middle-class, bourgeois nature of Gutenberg’s setting and his market. The printing press made books more available to a wide swath of the public previously only marginally included in written culture, and the rapid adoption of his press advanced this change.
Gutenberg’s bibles are widely cited as foundational to modern culture and the harbingers of radical social change, and to some extent this is true. As the first European printed books, they are impressive accomplishments – I saw one in person in the Library of Congress some years ago, and there was something of an aura of excitement surrounding it. The volumes themselves are fairly imposing; they are not small books, and were clearly designed for pride of place on a family’s shelf as a mark of educational distinction and piety rather than easy portability and reference. In this sense it marked the transitional divide between manuscript and printed culture: partially customizable and partially accessible to the less-educated and less-affluent, the forty-two line bible marked the beginning of a completely new era in print culture.