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History of the Book: The Age of Gutenberg

This guide is designed to help you understand the historical roots of print publications, ranging from prehistory to modern day printing.

Gutenberg and his printing press

The mid 15th century brought with it a printing revolution in Europe. This revolution comes by the way of Johann Gutenberg and his movable type printing press.  While block printing techniques were used in Europe by the early 1400s, as shown by early printed calendars and poorly illustrated books that were consumed mostly by individuals with less education, the practice of wood-block printing for mass production of text was never attempted by Europeans (Valentine, 2012.) Gutenberg, a German businessman and goldsmith, developed the method of printing with movable type in the year 1455 CE (Valentine, 2012.)  The first work that would be printed with this new style of printing would be his two volume, 42 line bible (Valentine, 2012.) The printing of his first Bible was completed by Gutenberg in 1455 CE (Valentine, 2012.) Originally, Gutenberg wanted this Bible to be a 40 line Bible but, due to the added expense that a 40 line Bible would incur, Gutenberg added an additional two lines of type per page (Valentine, 2012.) While the printing press did make book production faster, it would still take three years to complete one copy of a Bible.

File:Gutenberg Bible, on display at the Library of Congress.jpg

The Gutenberg Bible-On display at the Library of Congress (Digicana, 2006.) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Many of these Bibles were printed on high quality paper with some even being printed on a higher quality vellum (Valentine, 2012.) Despite a high demand for religious books, especially Bibles, the Gutenberg Bible was not successful financially and many clergy were wary of using a printed Bible in church at first, despite being printed on high quality paper with room left for illuminations to be added (Valentine, 2012.) Gutenberg took time and great care with printing his Bibles; many fine materials, including fine Italian paper, were used in the printing process and all binding and stitching was performed by hand because Gutenberg believed that, when working on the word of God, one had to take the utmost care in order to glorify God (Valentine, 2012.) The expense taken to print a single Gutenberg Bible amounted to about three times the annual salary of an average clerk, and the few remaining existing copies are evidence to the idea that most of Gutenberg's Bibles were for institutional use by Churches, not for personal use (Valentine, 2012.) The amount of characters needed to print Gutenberg's Bible numbered around 290, plus many separate punctuation marks, numbers, and ligatures (Valentine, 2012.) The Gutenberg Bible used the Gothic type font, a popular font used in Germany until after World War II, despite the fact that it was considered barbaric and disapproved of by some (Valentine, 2012.) 

Other Early Printed Texts

There were two areas in which early mechanical printing would specialize in, short text and long text (Valentine, 2012.) Short texts included materials that needed to be printed rapidly, such as calendars, almanacs, etc. (Valentine, 2012.) Long texts included books and pamphlets and these texts needed to reach further and cost less than manuscript books (Valentine, 2012.) Books printed from 1450 to 1501 CE are called "incunabula" (from the Latin "in the cradle"), no doubt referring to the fact that incunabula were some of the first books printed with Gutenberg's new press (Stillo, n.d.) The increase of print texts after the development of the printing press was nothing short of staggering. The amount of books available in Europe during this time went from around 30,000 to nearly 10-12 million. Texts such as Bibles, illustrated fables, and daily devotionals were rapidly beginning to fill both personal and institutional libraries (Stillo, n.d.) The Library of Congress (n.d.) expresses that this achievement "marks a turning point in the art of bookmaking and consequently in the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world." (Library of Congress, n.d.) The printing press not only affected how knowledge was spread and consumed but also created an industry; book making required technicians who were skilled at setting type, inkers, binders, pressman and booksellers to sell materials (Valentine, 2012.) Finally, the press made books and other texts cheaper and more widely available, encouraging all people to learn to read and buy books (Valentine, 2012.) While the printing press revolutionized printing and book making, it would be a long time before printed books would replace hand-copied materials (Valentine, 2012.) The next major developments in printing and bookmaking would not come until the early 19th century with the invention of the automatic, steam powered printing press which could make upwards of 2,400 impressions per hour as opposed to the 240 impressions possible with Gutenberg's press.



Digicana (2006.) The Gutenberg Bible-On display at the Library of Congress [Image] Wikipedia.,_on_display_at_the_Library_of_Congress.jpg

Library of Congress (n.d.). The Library of Congress Bible Collection: The Gutenberg Bible. Library of Congress.

Stillo, S. (n.d) Incunabula: The art and history of printing in Western Europe, c. 1450-1500. Library of Congress.

Valentine, P. M. (2012). A social history of books and libraries from cuneiform to bytes. The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Additional Readings

Movable Typeset

International Printing Museum Tour: The Gutenberg Press

Collection in Focus: The Gutenberg Bible