Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Gutenberg Bible

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. 


  1. With the advent of the printing press, books were produced faster and did not need as many people as the traditional method required. The cost of producing books decreased along with the sale price, allowing greater accessibility to the written (printed?) word. I am sure that there were many disgruntled scribes, however, illustrators still had opportunity. The concept of customization is really interesting, because so many ephemeral objects and art objects were beginning to be “mass-produced” around this time. The option of having your bible printed on paper or parchment was one way of allowing variability, but the pages themselves could also be customized depending on your preferences. This was also true of a commissioned manuscript, and I am sure that there were still commissions at this time, but it is an interesting concept to thing about. Drawing on pre-printed pages reminds me of doodling in a coloring book. While purchasing a book at a base price, you could personalize it for as much as you were willing to pay, by adding decorated initials or marginal decoration. I am curious to know if you could have a bible printed but with additional space for full- page illustration or illustration of any particular size.

  2. While the middle class had been an aspect that had been coming more and more tangible to people during this time, I believe the printing press really helped launched it into a more possible reality. The usefulness of literacy and the status that came with it would have made climbing up the social ladder that much easier, and with the access and availability that came with printing many people I imagine would have taken advantage of the opportunity.

  3. When I think about Gutenberg, after learning about his life in class on Monday, I feel rather bad for him. First of all, his credit for creating the printing press is questioned. For Gutenberg it is a good thing that we lack evidence from the time period just in case he was not the originator of the printer press. But at the same time, what if he did create the printing press, and yet the scholastic world doubts him, again due to a lack of evidence. Aside from the doubt that clouds Gutenberg's credit in some cases, he also died a poor man after spending the better part of his life revolutionizing printing books. One would assume that the man responsible for changing the medieval world, the printing press is equated as one of the innovations that changed the world, would have acquired quite a bit of wealth. Unfortunately for Gutenberg, the man that first commissioned him to print a variety of bibles sued him. Aside from this grave misfortune, the time and effort Gutenberg put into printing is quite remarkable. It is interesting to think about how much times have changed since Gutenberg's machinery was first implemented into society. Now a days it is simple to print a piece of paper and the cost is rather low, whereas half a century ago it took people an extensive amount of time to print something unique and the cost was very high. I would like to do further research on Gutenberg himself and find out more about the man behind the press.

  4. It was interesting trying to debug the seemingly mythical figure that Gutenberg is universally held up as. Throughout my academic life Gutenberg was always portrayed as this bigger than life character who single handily brought Europe out of the Dark Ages through his invention that managed to bring knowledge and learning to the masses. There's even a novel that I read in high school by Clive Barker that is about a demon's travels in 15th century Europe along with a demon major of sorts and they hear about this human that is on the precipice of creating some wondrous invention and it turns out to Gutenberg's finalizing of the printing press. Building upon the drama of the demon major setting out to destroy Gutenberg's invention there is an additional scene that depicts angels and their fallen counterparts waging a great battle above Gutenberg's workshop over either the control or protection/destruction of the printing press. It's stuff like this that made the reality of printing press's history so interesting when we covered it in class and debunking the mythical illusion of Gutenberg as a figure after so many years of academia insisting on his brilliance was very satisfying. That being said, I was quite to saddened to hear he died in relative poverty despite his innovations so in a way I'm almost glad to see that he is treated as he is to the majority of modern audiences.

  5. Gutenburg is interesting because he represents an intersection of historiographical traditions still predominantly assumed to be natural by those that don't study history - "Great Man" history and the scientific history of a steady linear march of progress, in which one scientist or inventor begat another, then another and so forth.

    In History (and one could even say more in Medieval than Modern history), people are compelled to try to peg an invention, discovery, or military victory onto the shoulders of one man - it is easy to process, easier to commit to memory. But Galileo did not invent the refracting telescope, and there is evidence that Gutenburg may have not in fact invented the printing press (as Jessica pointed out). For Europeans, the printing press stands as a symbol of civilization; a physical landmark sticking up out of the historical record to give one a convenient starting point for beginning to interpret the significance of Renaissance advances. Written culture, scientific achievement, great men - all of these characteristics are often assigned to Western civilizations, and all converge upon Gutenburg and his printing press.

  6. It's interesting to see how there was still some semblance of book personalization for higher paying customers even when printing was on the rise. I wonder when the ability to personalize a printed book became nearly obsolete, as we don't have the same options today. There is higher quality to the higher end books today, much like the difference between parchment and paper, but individualization has all but ceased for many mass producers. I imagine it probably wasn't long after printing became a more industrialized system, but there is probably some interesting history between that point and the origins of printing.