You often hear experts on book production claiming that Gutenberg’s Bible is the best-printed book ever. We started with a bang, and have been suffering a long decline ever since. That claim just has to be nonsense though. How would we know, anyway? What criteria would go into a book’s being “the best-printed”? No doubt it is a very good print job: the man was competing with scribes and had to show he could do just as well as them. And we can agree he did; and his price edge no doubt helped him to ultimate success.

Here’s one of the three copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the Morgan Library in New York City. This is one of their paper copies: they have two on paper, one on vellum, which corresponds to the proportions actually printed originally.

You can discover more than you ever thought you could know about the Gutenberg Bible at the Gutenberg & After exhibition held last year at Princeton and now available in its online version. The Bible was printed from 1454 to 1455. It wasn’t Gutenberg’s first job: he is known to have printed grammar textbooks in 1453. Gutenberg’s invention wasn’t the printing press: people had been printing on wooden presses from wood blocks for years: what Gutenberg invented was reusable, individual character metal types which could be used to print a page, then reused in different configuration to print more pages. The Bible was printed in imitation of its competition which was manuscript versions, and he left spaces for illuminated initials and other embellishments. So when you look at pages from Gutenberg’s Bible remember that it is the black text only that Gutenberg printed. The decoration would be applied after purchase by artists employed by the book’s purchaser, and will therefore differ in every instance, as of course will the binding.


Gutenberg & After describes the print job “Printed with a square gothic type that corresponded to the most formal liturgical script, the Bible consists of 643 Royal folio leaves, intended to be bound in two volumes. The printers began setting the text in 40-line columns but soon adopted a reduced type-height and 42-line columns. Four compositors worked concurrently on four near-equal sections of the Bible: Octateuch, Kings through Psalms, Proverbs through Prophets, and Maccabees plus New Testament. Eleven quires into production, the printers increased the edition size, reprinting those quires to arrive at a final total of at least 120 paper and perhaps 40 vellum copies. Sold widely across Europe, the Gutenberg Bible and its descendants remained the standard version of the Latin scriptures into the 16th century and beyond.”

“It’s important to remember the book is more important to us than it was to contemporaries: ‘The Gutenberg Bible held no particular significance for 16th and 17th century churchmen and scholars. Falling into disuse, these old Bibles were lost, stored away, or recycled as binding waste. . . Not until the 1700s did historians reconnect the 42-line Bible with Gutenberg and the origins of European printing.'”

Gutenberg Bible of 1455, Scheide Library, Princeton

This illustration from Eric White’s piece on illumination at Princeton University Library blog shows an elaborate page. “As printing developed rapidly during the 1470s, less expensive alternatives for the finishing of books became the norm. Woodcut initials began to replace the blank spaces left completion by hand, and typographic headings gradually reduced the necessity for rubrication. Nevertheless, those who had illuminated manuscripts before the mid-1450s continued to find work for patrons with a taste for brilliantly colored luxury books, whether handwritten or printed.”

See also Gutenberg & After. Gutenberg Fry-up comes with a nice video showing how it’s done.