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Gutenberg’s Bible: Europe’s first edition

Gutenberg’s Bible: Europe’s first edition
The Gutenberg Bible is probably the best known book in the world. It has been called ‘Europe’s Editio Princeps’, Europe’s first edition, because it was the first printed book to be read throughout Europe. It’s a good place to start our course on the history of the book because it introduces us to Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of movable type, one of the most important innovations for printing books. Gutenberg was, in fact, a shadowy figure. No contemporary portrait of him exists and this 1584 portrait, is an imagined portrayal. We catch glimpses of him in contemporary records. We know, for example, that he was born in Mainz, Germany, sometime between 1394 and 1406, and that his family was well-off.
We know also that he moved to Strasbourg sometime in or after 1428. And by 1439, was involved in a mysterious lawsuit there. He was involved in a more serious dispute in 1455, with another business partner in Mainz. He died in 1468. The 1455 dispute was a disagreement between Gutenberg and a fellow Mainz businessman, Johan Fust, who had invested heavily in a mysterious new venture called the ‘Work of books’. Given the timing, this can only refer to the production of the Gutenberg Bible, known as the Biblia Latina, which was published circa 1454-55. The timing is corroborated by no less a person than a future pope. Enea Silvio Piccolomini became Pope Pius II in 1458.
But in 1454, he was based in Germany. Writing in March 1455 to a colleague in Rome, he mentions that at a meeting at Frankfurt am Main in October 1454, he had seen sections of a printed Bible, and that he had heard that somewhere between 158 and 180 copies were already completed. Here is a leaf from one of those copies. Look carefully, and you will see that the Latin text is made up of two columns of 42 lines of print, which gives us its name, The 42-line Biblia Latina. Based on earlier manuscript copies of the Vulgate edition of the Bible, the 42-line Bible was a massive undertaking, requiring a huge amount of paper and an enormous amount of movable type.
Clearly, Gutenberg had experimented with this new invention before producing it. We have evidence of earlier printing attempts. For example, an indulgence for the remission of sins, printed in Mainz in 1454, used types which have been linked to Gutenberg and we know also that the partnership between Gutenberg as inventor and Fust, his financial backer, did not start in 1454, but four years earlier, in 1450. Piccolomini’s testimony draws attention to the fact that Gutenberg and Fust had already sold many of their copies by October 1454. This shows us that there was a ready market for their printed book, and that they had done an excellent job in advertising it.
In reality, Gutenberg and Fust were pushing an open door when it came to selling their Biblia Latina. The mid-15th century was a time of innovation in the late medieval book trade. It witnessed not only the creation of the first movable type, but also the arrival of the blockbook and a rise in the demand for and production of manuscripts. Blockbooks were a combination of image and text, carved from a wooden block. They had one drawback. Though each text page could be printed a number of times, it, and only it, could be printed. In short, it did not offer the same flexibility as movable type.
Blockbooks such as this fragment from Trinity College Dublin’s copy of the Ars Moriendi, (on the art of dying), had been a bone of contention in disputes about the birth of printing. People believed blockbooks came before movable type. But paper analysis has proven that the earliest surviving blockbooks date from the 1450s. This copy, for example, dates from 1466. Blockbooks therefore represent something very intriguing–a mid-15th century explosion in innovation in the book trade, where producers of text started experimenting with different ways of replicating works. It was into this world that Gutenberg launched his new invention.

The mid fifteenth century was a time of innovation in the late medieval book trade, and as we explored in the video, Johannes Gutenberg was one of the great innovators of the time.

Elizabethanne talks about two major innovations during this time, movable type and blockbooks, which influenced the spread of printing.

Movable type

Gutenberg’s invention of movable type lay at the heart of the new invention of printing. The creation of individual letters and characters in metal, which could be re-used in a multitude of combinations, revolutionized the means of production of knowledge.


Blockbooks were a combination of image and text, carved from a wooden block. As the online versions below demonstrate, they were primarily used for devotional texts though they might also be used for children’s grammar books.

In the comments section below write your answer to these questions.

  • Thinking of new innovations throughout the ages, what innovation could you compare Gutenberg’s Bible with?
  • What factors influenced your chosen innovation to be successful?

Throughout the course, you will see an ‘Explore the texts online’ link in the Downloads section at the bottom of each step. By clicking on this document, you’ll have the chance to investigate for yourself some of the incredible books we talk about in this course.

Remember, there is no need to access all of these links, you can pick and choose what you are interested in.

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The History of the Book in the Early Modern Period: 1450 to 1800

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