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The Gutenberg Bible and The Birth Of Modern Printing

The Gutenberg Bible and Gutenberg printing press are well-known today as the forerunners of all modern print media. Johannes Gutenberg created the first modern printing press, using moveable type. He used it to print the Gutenberg Bible and pave the way for large-scale printing, dramatically affecting the Christian church and European society. Today, some specialty museums still feature replicas of the original Gutenberg press, which quite literally pressed the carefully arranged type against paper or vellum.

Johannes Gutenberg: The Man Behind the Book

Known alternately as Johann or Johannes Gutenberg, the German-born inventor is recognized today as the father of modern printing. Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany, in around 1395 to a family of well-to-do metalworkers. He studied metallurgy as a youth and eventually began experimenting with various printing methods around the age of 40. His goal was to produce a more efficient, mechanical means of producing the intricate characters that were painstakingly formed for the manuscripts of the era. In 1450, he began efforts to print the Bible, and in 1455, he succeeded in producing the "42-Line Bible," also known as the Gutenberg Bible. It was the first book produced with moveable type.

The Gutenberg Printing Press

When Gutenberg succeeded in printing his Bible using moveable type, he provided a new means of producing books and written materials very quickly and easily. Prior to Gutenberg's press, the most common way of reproducing written material was through block printing. In these cases, a full page of text and/or images would be carved into a piece of wood. This block could then be used like a stamp to produce multiple copies of the same page. The practice was already well-established in Europe at Gutenberg's time as well as in Asia. By contrast, Gutenberg's invention allowed printers to produce multiple copies of infinitely varied pages far more quickly. Each letter was carved into an individual block, making it possible for printers to arrange them in any order for each new printing.

The Gutenberg Bible

Johannes Gutenberg's masterpiece, the so-called Gutenberg Bible, is mostly noted as the first major work that was produced using Gutenberg's innovative moveable type. The Bible itself is St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate version, which was first produced in Paris in the 13th century. While historians disagree on the exact number of Bibles produced, estimates range from less than 100 to more than 250 copies of the book. Most of the Bibles were printed on paper, and some were printed on vellum. While the main texts were all produced using the landmark technique of moveable text, some headings were still created by hand. Today, fewer than 50 copies exist in libraries and museums around the world.

Influences on the Spread of Christianity

Publishing the Gutenberg Bible marked a significant change in how followers throughout Europe engaged with Christianity. Prior to the widespread distribution of books, only monks and royals would ever have the opportunity to read a Bible. However, with the relative ease of printing afforded by moveable type, books became a more easily available commodity. Gradually, it became increasingly feasible for Christians to possess and, eventually, to read their own copies of the Bible.

Gutenberg's Cultural Impact

Within just 50 years of the Gutenberg Bible's printing, more than 1,000 printing presses established themselves across Europe. As they began to print books at a steeply accelerating rate, the literacy rates began to rise swiftly. Books were increasingly available to common people, which influenced the spread of information and the direction of literature as well as religion.