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The Book before Gutenberg
Johann Gutenberg
The Printing of the Bible
The Spread of Printing
The Appearance of the Bible
Anatomy of a Page
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Selected Passages
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Engraving of three printmakers working with a printing press. Follow link for enlarged image.
  Print shop. [ENLARGE]
Several letters of Gutenberg's type, cast in metal. Follow link for enlarged image.
  A modern recreation of Gutenberg's type. The typecasting process he used was probably substantially different from the one used to form these letters. B-42 Blackletter type, 2000 Dale Guild Type Foundry. [ENLARGE]
Printed chart showing various letters of the alphabet dispayed in Gutenberg's type. Follow link for enlarged image.
  Gutenberg's font of type. [ENLARGE]

The Printing of the Bible

Gutenberg experimented with printing single sheets of paper and even small books, such as a simple textbook of Latin grammar, before beginning his work on the Bible around 1450. In order to carry out these projects, he would have had to invent a printing press and develop a method of casting individual pieces of metal type. Gutenberg's press was made out of wood and could have been modeled on the winepresses used in the Rhineland vineyards or on the papermaker's press. His type was made of a metal alloy which would melt at a fairly low temperature but which could also stand up to being squeezed in a press. It was long thought that Gutenberg had originated the punch-matrix-mold system of typecasting used by typemakers for hundreds of years, but very recent research has cast doubt on this theory. Quite possibly Gutenberg used a cruder system, casting his metal types not in re-usable molds, but in sand or some other unstable medium. In any event, the process must have been a long and laborious one, since nearly 300 different pieces of type are used in the Bible.

The handmade paper used by Gutenberg was of fine quality and was imported from Italy. Each sheet contains a watermark, which may be seen when the paper is held up to the light, left by the papermold. The two watermark designs in the Texas copy are the grape cluster and the bull's head (in Texas, we prefer to regard it as a longhorn steer's!). Some copies of the Bible were printed on vellum (scraped calfskin). Gutenberg's oil-based ink, made sufficiently thick enough to cling to the type, is exceptionally black because of its high metal composition.

The number of presses in Gutenberg's shop is unknown, but the number of pages he needed to print suggests that more than one press must have been in use. A skilled typesetter selected the individual pieces of type for each line of the text and set them in a frame (the forme), which was placed on the bed of the press and then inked with horsehair-stuffed balls. A sheet of paper was slightly moistened before being placed over the forme, and then a stout pull by the pressman completed the printing process.

No one knows exactly how many copies of the Bible were printed, but the best guess is that around 180 -- 145 on paper and the rest on the more luxurious and expensive vellum -- were produced. A contemporary account by a visitor to Mainz indicates that the book was nearly ready in October 1454 and available for sale by March 1455. Although the cost of the book is not known, it would have been far too expensive even for wealthy individuals, and so most copies were likely purchased by churches and monasteries.

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