History of English Bible Translation 05 Johann Gutenberg 1455

History of the English Bible - Chapter 5

14Bible Timeline Gutengerg55 Johann Gutenberg (c. 1398—1468)

Printing press invention makes Bible printing possible and profitable.English Bible History

The Gutenberg Bible has often been called the greatest book in the world. There is good and sufficient reason for the claim. Marking the threshold of a new art, the magnificent work was the first major book in the West to be printed from movable type. The Bible’s producers rank high among a handful of men who gave civilization modern printing – an invention to compare with the wheel, the discovery of fire, or the uses of gunpowder. Printing may have been the supreme achievement of the Northern Renaissance. Because of it, the dark ignorance of their age was pushed back. Written knowledge, once the province of the cultured few, became available to every literate man.

Gutenberg’s Claim to Fame

Publication of the great Bible released a wave of printing in Europe. From 1457 to 1500 presses appeared at Strasbourg, Cologne, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Ulm, Basle, Rome, Venice, Florence, Paris, Lyons, Westminster and a host of other cities and towns. Along with the new printing presses came those claiming to displace Gutenberg from his position as first of the master printers. There has never been definite proof relating to a specific inventor of printing in the West. Like most inventions, it must have sprung from many hands. But over the years, the weight of evidence has favored Johann Gutenberg as the foremost pioneer practitioner of the new art. Gutenberg, like Shakespeare, left behind only tantalizing fragments concerning his life and work.

Personal History

Johann Gensfleisch, born into a well-to-do family of Mainz about 1400, took the name of Gutenberg from his patrician mother. Some time after his birth, political disturbances forced the family to flee Mainz and settle in Strasbourg. There Gutenberg grew up and entered into a partnership, presumably to carry out some form of experimental printing. Details of this period are hazy and only known through legal proceedings. For several years before mid-century, Gutenberg disappeared from historical records. By 1448, he had again become a citizen of Mainz.

In that city, from 1450 to 1455, the pioneer printer worked through a crucial period of his career. About 1450, he borrowed 800 gulden from Johann Fust, a goldsmith and capitalist, and two years later, asked for and received a similar amount. The sum was used to promote the art of printing and Gutenberg’s working equipment was put up for security. When payment was not forthcoming, Fust went into court in 1455, suing to recover his money with interest and also requesting possession of Gutenberg’s tools. As a witness, the burgher produced Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheim, a technician in Gutenberg’s employ. Once again, the mists of time blot out the record; it appears Fust did take over much of the printing equipment. The partnership of Fust and Schoeffer was then established and they became prominent printers of Mainz, producing a magnificent Psalter in 1457, among their other works. Gutenberg apparently was bankrupt but managed to continue printing even though his venture was foredoomed to financial failure. In 1465, Archbishop Adolf of Mainz appointed Gutenberg to a court position for life for services rendered in the past. The great printer died in 1468, but circumstances of his death and burial are unknown.

Quality of the First Bible

The printers themselves placed no date on their work. Whatever its actual date, the 42-line Bible was a remarkable achievement for its time or any other. Most pioneering works are crude, tentative and fumbling. The Gutenberg Bible is none of these. As a complete and polished entity, it has stood inspection for over 500 years.

For the printing of his first Bible, Gutenberg had cut and cast particularly beautiful and fine types, not only the 24 large and small letters of the Latin alphabet but also 290 different characters: 47 capitals and 243 small letters. He needed this great quantity because he wished to approximate the fineness of the magnificent medieval manuscripts and, if possible, to reproduce them in more beautiful form by his new art. His Bible had better proportions and harmony than any of the manuscripts, even those produced with the greatest care.

Guttenberg Bible


About this picture - The beginning of the Gutenberg Bible: Volume 1, Old Testament, Epistle of St. Jerome. (The Epistle is not a part of the Bible itself, but an introduction by St. Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin Vulgate, which the Gutenberg Bible is written in.)  Taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gutenberg_Bible