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The Gutenberg Bible

July 13, 2012

I’m currently on holiday in the US. My first stop is Pasadena, and this week I’ve visited the very impressive Huntington Library. As one guide book notes, calling it a library is something of an understatement. The collection totals more than six million books, together making up one of the most impressive collections of British and American history anywhere in the world, one that attracts almost two thousand scholars every year. And that’s just the library: The Huntington also boasts an amazing art gallery and very fine gardens. My wife and I spent most of our time wandering around the gardens, with a couple of hours in the art gallery.

The library building was closed when we were there, but one of the most important books of the collection was on display in the art gallery building: a Gutenberg Bible. I was very keen to see this rare book, not so much for itself, but for what it signifies in terms of the intellectual and cultural development of all humanity (and particularly populations with a European origin). Gutenberg invented the printing press (although his invention was pre-dated by developments in the East). The Gutenberg Bible is one of the first examples of a mass-produced book, and the implications for society were huge. Until this point books were copied by hand, usually by clerics. It was slow and laborious work, and meant that the church controlled the production of books. The invention of the printing press was a game changer, allowing the (relatively) low cost production of books, and therefore greatly promoting the dissemination of information. The implications for education and social development are obvious, and revolutionary.

The below (from the British Library website) puts it nicely:

Who was Gutenberg?

In the mid-15th century Johann Gutenberg invented a mechanical way of making books. This was the first example of mass production in Europe. He was born about 1400, the son of a rich family in Mainz, Germany. While still a young man, he left for political reasons and settled in Strasbourg. In an attempt to make money, he set up a number of innovative schemes. He may have experimented with printing even at that stage, but probably did not begin until he returned to Mainz in around 1448, when he borrowed a large sum of money.

Mainz, from The Nuremberg Chronicle Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 12 July 1493
Mainz, from The Nuremberg Chronicle. Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 12 July 1493.

What is the Gutenberg Bible?

Before Gutenberg, every book produced in Europe had to be copied by hand. (Although the Chinese had been mass producing books since the ninth century.) Now it was possible to speed up the process without sacrificing quality. We know for certain about this first printed Bible from a letter of 12 March 1455. On that day Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, reported that in Frankfurt, the year before, a marvellous man had been promoting the Bible. Piccolomini had seen parts of it and it had such neat lettering that one could read it without glasses. Every copy had been sold.

Why are they both important?

Gutenberg’s invention did not make him rich, but it laid the foundation for the commercial mass production of books. The success of printing meant that books soon became cheaper, and ever wider parts of the population could afford them. More than ever before, it enabled people to follow debates and take part in discussions of matters that concerned them. As a consequence, the printed book also led to more stringent attempts at censorship. This was a sign that it was felt by those in authority to be dangerous and challenging to their position.

For more details see the BL site: http://www.bl.uk/treasures/gutenberg/homepage.html

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