10 Things You Should Know about the Gutenberg Bible

Erika Harlitz-Kern

Staff Writer

Erika Harlitz-Kern holds a doctorate from a Swedish university and can't get enough of history, books, and music. Her earliest memories involve a comic book and a Dutch troubadour. She has travelled South Asia on a shoestring, although nowadays she spends most of her vacations in the Mississippi Delta. Lives with her husband in South Florida, because sooner or later they would've ended up there anyway. Blog: The Boomerang Twitter: EH_Kern

The invention of the internet has ushered in the digital age and revolutionized how we access and share information. But this change in how we distribute information is not the first of its kind to have taken place.



What is the Gutenberg Bible? 

Five hundred and sixty-one years ago a man in Germany invented a new kind of printing press.

This printing press sparked a revolution in the distribution of information in medieval Europe. Suddenly, texts could be produced faster, in larger numbers, and at a lower cost than ever before. Over time, this printing technique enabled the spread of the ideas of movements such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and even the American Revolution.

The first book that was printed and made available using this new printing technique is known as the Gutenberg Bible.

10 things you should know about the Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg Bible, Lenox Copy, incomplete on paper, New York Public Library.

The Gutenberg Bible, Lenox Copy, incomplete on paper, New York Public Library.

1) The Gutenberg Bible gets its name from the man who printed it, Johannes Gutenberg. Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany, sometime during the late fourteenth century and is believed to have died in 1468.

2) The Gutenberg Bible is also known as the Forty-Two Line Bible because the pages are printed with two columns of 42 lines each.

3) Gutenberg printed the Bible on his newly invented printing press using movable types made from metal. Printing already existed in Europe when Gutenberg developed his printing press but the previous presses used carved wooden blocks and were better suited for printing images, rather than text.

Replica of Gutenberg's printing press.

Replica of Gutenberg’s printing press.

4) It is believed that when Gutenberg printed the Bible in 1455, he had spent the past twenty years developing his new printing press. In his work, Gutenberg found inspiration from presses used for making wine, paper, and for bookbinding. He also developed a new metal alloy when manufacturing the types and an oil-based black ink which was mixed specifically so that it would stick to the types he had made.

5) Gutenberg is believed to have printed 180 Bibles, available through pre-order only. The average price for one Bible is believed to have been 30 guilder, equaling three years wages for a clerk.

6) Gutenberg’s professional training was not in the printing business, as might have been expected. Instead he was trained in metal work, which was crucial to the development of the metal alloy used for the movable types.

7) The Gutenberg Bible was available in two versions–one cheaper version printed on paper and one more expensive printed on vellum. The buyer paid a basic price for the printing and then added frills (hand-coloration, illuminations, a binding, and a cover) for an extra fee.

8) A Gutenberg Bible contains 1,286 pages. 300 pieces of unique types were used in the printing and each page contains approximately 2,500 pieces of type. It took between three to five years to complete the entire print run of 180 Bibles and each Bible weighs an average of 14 lbs. The printing process was done entirely by hand.

9) Of the original 180 Bibles, 49 are known to exist today. 21 of those are still complete.

10) There are eleven copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the United States. Four of those are complete and printed on paper, and one, in the possession of the Library of Congress, is complete and printed on vellum. There are only four known complete Gutenberg Bibles printed on vellum in the world.

Where can you see the Gutenberg Bible?

If you would like to flip through the pages of a complete Gutenberg Bible printed on paper, the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin has digitized their copy and made it available through an easy-to-navigate interactive website.

The printing technique using movable metal type invented by Gutenberg dominated the printing industry until the introduction of the digitally based printing that is in use today. Here’s a short film showing how a book was printed using movable type in 1942. (When you watch this film you will notice that the presentation of the different work categories is a bit different from today, too.)

More old books? 

If you want to read about even more ancient books and their secrets, check out:

10 Things You Should Know About The Devil’s Bible

10 Things You Need To Know About The St. Albans Psalter

10 Things You Should Know About the Lindisfarne Gospels