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Epistle of St Jerome, vol .1, fol. 001r © Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Used with permission.

  • c. 1453-55; Mainz. Printed in 2 volumes
  • Gutenberg Bibles, in common with many early printed books, were decorated by hand making each copy unique. Only the two columns of text in black are printed; the illuminated initial and the red lettering were added later
  • 48 copies of the Gutenberg Bible remain extant, only 21 of them complete
  • 12 copies are printed on vellum (animal skins), the traditional writing material used in the Middle Ages; the remainder are printed on paper
  • The Ransom copy (pictured above) is printed on paper and is 1 of 5 complete copies in the United States. The remainder are in Europe. There is one incomplete copy in Japan but none in Australasia

Printed Bibles

The Bible was the first text to be produced using a system known as 'printing with moveable type'. Canterbury possesses a facsimile of this work, known today as the Gutenberg Bible.

The Gutenberg Bible was produced in the German city of Mainz in the early 1450s. Containing a version of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, there is little that is novel about the text itself. Yet the Gutenberg Bible represents a technological leap forward comparable to the development of the World Wide Web.

Johann Gutenberg's key innovation was the process of printing with moveable type. By 1450, printing was a centuries old technology in Asia, and European presses had been publishing images, and sometimes text, for over half a century. Prior to Gutenberg, however, an entirely new woodcut or engraving was required to print each individual page. The distinctiveness of Gutenberg’s system lay in the creation of a frame and individual letters which could be re-arranged in it. This technique made printing large quantities of text economical as it allowed one set of letters to be used to print multiple pages.

Each copy of Gutenberg’s Bible, in common with many early printed books, was laboriously finished by hand. The tendency to embellish the two columns of printed text reflects the fact that printing by no means brought an instant end to the work of illuminators. Nevertheless, moveable type enabled the learning of the Renaissance to be disseminated in ways that were previously unimaginable.

Amidst new scientific knowledge and texts not seen since the fall of Rome, European scholars found tools that enabled them to reconsider the Bible itself. In the first half of the 16th century, reformers such as Martin Luther built on this. They used Gutenberg’s technology to popularise not only new ideas but new versions of the Bible.

Resources Online

The Gutenberg Bible at the British Library

The Gutenberg Bible at the Ransom Center (English version; includes a list of all extant copies)

Further Reading

Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe, 2 vols (Cambridge: CUP, 1979).

Stephan Füssel, Gutenberg and the Impact of Printing, trans. by Douglas Martin (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).

Christopher de Hamel, The Book: A history of the Bible (London: Phaidon, 2001), chapter 8.

Andrew Pettegree, ‘Print and Print Culture’, in The European Reformations, ed. by Alec Ryrie (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), pp. 169-89.

Facsimile @ Canterbury

Biblia sacra Mazarina, ed. by Johann Gutenberg, commentary, transcription and trans. by Jean-Marie Dodu, 4 vols (Paris: Editions les incunables, 1985).