British Library Treasures in full: Gutenberg Bible
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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. Larger image.

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.

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