This year saw the 550th anniversary of the death of Johannes Gutenberg and to mark the occasion, the National Library of Scotland used Book Week as an opportunity to display its copy of the famous Gutenberg Bible. Printed around 1455 in Mainz, Germany, Gutenberg’s bible was the first book in Europe to be printed with movable type. One of only 20 complete copies to survive out of the original 180 printed by Gutenberg and his business partner Johannes Fust, the bible was produced in two volumes and also known as The Mazarine Bible or The 42-line Bible because of the 42 lines of type in each column of printing.
Gutenberg’s intention was that his bible should look like a traditional manuscript so he left space for illuminated initial letters, red and blue rubrics and other decoration in the margins to be added by hand later. He also created a typeface for the text to mirror the handwritten books of medieval copyists as closely as he could. For the same reason, many of the books were printed on vellum though others were on parchment.
It’s easy to see why Gutenberg was at pains to give his printed books the appearance of handwritten manuscripts because in many cases these were works of art. Originally, ‘illumination’ referred only to books decorated with gold and silver but later it came to mean any book with colourful decoration and painted images. The art of illumination was influential in the development of art more generally and there were often parallels between the illumination of manuscripts and decorative painting in architecture and sculpture.
But even while he was emulating the traditional illuminator’s art, Gutenberg was furthering a disruptive technology. His bible was not the first book to be printed but he is credited with two innovations which were essential for the development of printing. One was the printing press itself and the other was movable type. For this new approach, Gutenberg created large numbers of identical metal letters which could be rearranged and reused time after time. Early printing relied on wood carvings which could be reused for the same print but were not easily altered. A later development was the use of metal dies of individual letters but this process still involved creating a fixed ‘plate’ for printing which could not be altered.
For me, the display of the Gutenberg Bible highlights the influence of printing and how something so commonplace now was initially a disruptive technology just as much as the internet, artificial intelligence or space travel. It was movable type and Gutenberg’s printing press that led to ‘mass-market’ printing in western cultures and enabled the rapid spread of knowledge and new ideas, both positive and negative. It’s tempting to think about books and printed material as sources of innocuous entertainment and useful information, but there is no doubt that they were powerful tools for the spread of radical, subversive or seditious, ideas. Would the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the rise of science have happened as they did, if not for the printed word? Would the systematic witch hunts of early modern Europe have happened as they did without the pamphlets describing witch trials and executions which reinforced popular perceptions and fears about witches and witchcraft? How would governments and powerful elites in the modern period distribute propaganda without printing? How different would today’s culture be if we hadn’t had centuries of exposure to printed material? And how does the rise of social media change things? Is printing (whether electronic or hard copy) any less powerful an influence today?