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Johann Gutenberg's Bible

Probably the most famous Bible in the world, Gutenberg's 42-line Bible is the earliest full-scale work printed in Europe using movable type. It was made in Mainz, Germany by Johann Gutenberg and associates. Fewer than 50 copies of the original now survive, in public and private collections around the world.

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Gutenberg Bible - opening of Genesis

Gutenberg's (42-line) Bible: Opening of Genesis. Johann Gutenberg, Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer. Mainz, 1455
British Library C.9.d.4, f.5
Copyright © The British Library Board

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. 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.

How did the Gutenberg Bible come about?

Before Gutenberg, every book outside Asia had to be copied by hand. Outside Asia, that is: some printed books had been produced in China and Korea using wood and later bronze, but in any case Gutenberg's process was different. Now it was possible to speed up the process without sacrificing quality.

Gutenberg's first and only large-scale printing enterprise was the Bible in Latin. This is not an obvious choice of text, for the Bible was not very central to the daily life of the Church in the 15th century. Parts of the Bible would have been used in church every day, but not in the order in which they appear in the Bible. The texts of the Bible were reorganised in a Missal to suit the complicated order in which extracts were to be read. Missals were different from region to region, however. Perhaps Gutenberg realised that, in order for a large-scale printing project to be commercially successful, he had to aim at an international market. The Bible might sell fewer copies in each region, but it had the potential to sell all over Western Europe.

Gutenberg and his team also knew that they needed to market their new invention. In 1454 they showed their product to an international audience in Frankfurt, perhaps even before the project was completed. They must have been aware that a successful launch would be much easier if they began with a high-profile book of importance beyond their local area.

Mainz 1490s

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

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.

When was this book made and how many survive?

This Bible was the work of a partnership between Johann Gutenberg, Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer, which was dissolved in 1455 after the completion of the book. The text is the Vulgate: St Jerome's Latin translation, the 'international standard' version of the time.

Only 48 copies are known to have survived, of which 12 are printed on vellum and 36 on paper. Twenty are complete, two of them at the British Library: one vellum, and one on paper. Many, including the British Library's lavish paper copy illustrated above, married the new technology of printing with the old, and contain hand-painted decoration so as to imitate the appearance of an illuminated manuscript. The result was a work of exceedingly high quality which set standards for book production which in many ways are still unsurpassed today.

What is the difference between the vellum and paper copies?

You can directly compare the two versions side-by-side, and find out more about the background of this remarkable book, in the Treasures in Full: Gutenberg Bible section of our Online Gallery. (Use your browser's 'back' button to return here afterwards.)

What is shown on this page?

This is the opening of Genesis. In red is a brief explanatory note: 'Incipit liber Beresith que[m] nos Genesim vo[camus]' – 'Here begins the Book of Be-reshit, which we call Genesis'. The text, in black, begins: 'In principio creavit deus celu[m] et terram' – 'In the beginning God created heaven and earth'. To emphasise the point, God is pictured in the margin to the left, with the earth's sphere in the process of being formed.

The highlighted initial letters and consistent letter shapes make this comfortable for the eye to follow. It is easy, for instance, to pick out the magnificently simple sentence 'Fiat lux' - 'Let there be light'.