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History Of The Gutenberg Bible


Johann Gutenberg (a.k.a. “John Gutenberg”) wasis supposed to have been born 1398—1399 at Mainz of well-to-do parents, his father being Friele zum Gensfleisch and his mother Elsgen Wyrich, whose birthplace “Gutenberg”, was the name he adopted.  The books from which Gutenberg learned to read as a young boy were not like books today; they were written by hand. A better name for them than books is "manuscripts," which means "hand-writings." While Gutenberg was growing up a new way of making books came into use, which was a great deal better than copying by hand. It was what is called block-printing.

The printer first cut a block of hard wood the size of the page that he was going to print. Then he cut out every word of the written page upon the smooth face of his block. The letters were inked, paper was laid upon them and pressed down. With blocks the printer could make copies of a book a great deal faster than a man could write them by hand. But the making of the blocks took a long time, and each block would print only one page.

Gutenberg determined to contrive a better way of printing.  While living in Strasburg, Gutenberg found a room in an old monastery to use as his private workshop.  Day after day, he tried different approaches to moveable-type printing, but his efforts did not meet with success. At last the time came when he had no money left.  Gutenberg went back to his old home, Mainz, and there met a rich goldsmith and lawyer named Joahann Fust (or Faust). Gutenberg told him how hard he had tried in Strasburg to find some way of making books cheaply, and how he had no more money to carry on his experiments. Fust became greatly interested and gave Gutenberg the money he needed.

First of all it is thought that he made types of hard wood. Each type was a little block with a single letter at one end. Such types were a great deal better than block letters. The block letters were fixed. They could not be taken out of the words of which they were parts. The new types were movable so they could be set up to print one page, then taken apart and set up again and again to print any number of pages. But type made of wood did not always print the letters clearly and distinctly, so Gutenberg gave up wood types and tried metal types. This worked much better, and Gutenberg was progressing well toward the completion of the first book ever printed by movable type: the Bible in Latin.

Fust, however, was losing patience. He quarreled with Gutenberg and said that he was doing nothing but spending money. At last he brought suit against him in the court, and the judge decided in favor of Fust. So everything in the world that Gutenberg had, even the tools with which he worked, came into Fust's possession.  Soon a Latin Bible was printed. It was in two volumes, each of which had three hundred pages, while each of the pages had forty-two lines. The letters were sharp and clear. They had been printed from movable types of metal. The news that books were being printed in Mainz went all over Europe. Before Gutenberg died, printing-presses like his were at work making books in all the great cities of the continent.

Between 1450 and 1455, the Gutenberg Bible was completed. Early documentation states that a total of 200 copies were scheduled to be printed on rag cotton linen paper, and 30 copies on velum animal skin. It is not known exactly how many copies were actually printed. Today, only 22 copies are known to exist, of which 7 are on velum.  If an entire Gutenberg Bible should become available on the world market, it would likely fetch an estimated 100 million dollars! Even an individual leaf (a single two-sided page) from the original Gutenberg Bible can fetch around $100,000. Gutenberg’s work is the most rare and valuable printed material in the world.

Johann Gutenberg died in Mainz, Germany in 1468. Ironically, the inventor of the most mportant invention in history never profited from his invention and died in poverty… though the proceeds from the sale of just one single leaf from his Bible in today’s market would have provided Gutenberg with enough money to live out his last years comfortably. While Gutenberg sadly went without reward for producing the machine that changed the world, history recognizes him as holding this honor.  

Read More of the History of the Gutenberg Bible Today

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The Gutenberg Bible is the first great book printed in Western Europe from movable metal type.  It is therefore a monument that marks a turning point in the art of bookmaking and consequently in the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world.  Gutenberg’s invention of the mechanical printing press made it possible for the accumulated knowledge of the human race to become the common property of every person who knew how to read—an immense forward step in the emancipation of the human mind.

The printing of the Bible was probably completed late in 1455 at Mainz, Germany.  Johann Gutenberg, who lived from about 1400 to about 1468, is generally credited for inventing the process of making uniform and interchangeable metal types and for solving the many problems of finding the right materials and methods for printing.  This Bible, with its noble Gothic type richly impressed on the page, is recognized as a masterpiece of fine printing and craftsmanship and is all the more remarkable because it was undoubtedly one of the very first books to emerge from the press.

The text of the Gutenberg Bible is the Latin translation known as the “Vulgate,” which was made by St. Jerome in the fourth century.  The Bible is printed throughout in double columns, for the most part, with forty-two lines to a page.  The capital letters and headings are ornamented by hand in color.  The three volumes are in white pigskin bindings, which date from the sixteenth century.

The Library of Congress copy is printed entirely on vellum, a fine parchment made from animal skin, and is one of only three perfect vellum copies known to exist.  The others are at the Bibliothèque Nationale and the British Library.  For nearly five centuries the Bible was in the possession of the Benedictine Order in their monasteries of St. Blasius and St. Paul in Austria.  Along with other fifteenth-century books, it was purchased from Dr. Otto Vollbehr by an act of Congress in 1930.

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