Own a copy of the book which ushered in the modern world

Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press ushered in the modern age of mass communication. Now Taschen's facsimile of his defining publication, the Gutenberg Bible, is making this seminal object available to the wider world

10 May 2018

For most of human history, it has been extraordinarily difficult to buy a book. Until the invention of the printing press, every text that needed to exist in multiple versions had to be written out by hand by an expert copyist. From the great epic poems and philosophical texts of Classical antiquity, to the liturgical books used by priests across Europe, all were copied by scribes and monks over hundreds of hours of painstaking work.


When Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith and blacksmith in 15th century Mainz, set up the first Western printing press using moveable type, it revolutionised the course of history. Since books could now be produced with (relative) ease and speed, they would rapidly become cheaper and more available to the population at large. Although moveable type had been invented in China around 400 years earlier, Gutenberg’s invention of it in Germany spread like wildfire. Venice, for example, had about 417 printers by 1500, only 50 or so years after the first text was printed in Mainz. Suddenly, mass communication became a reality, and ideas acquired the ability to move – fast.

Although Gutenberg printed other texts before his famous Bible, his edition of the Vulgate (the Bible translated from its original Hebrew and Greek into Latin) was to be his most famous achievement, and one that would ultimately make the text of the Bible accessible to ordinary people for the first time. It is thought that somewhere between 150 and 180 Bibles were printed by Gutenberg, most on paper, but around a quarter on vellum. Each book left room for illuminations to be done by hand, with the level of decoration probably dependent on how much each buyer could pay.


The Gutenberg Bibles themselves were not affordable by any means – some are known to have sold for the equivalent of three years’ wages for a normal clerk. Their value now is astronomical. Only 49 copies remain, and of those only 21 are complete. Most are held by university libraries and so are unlikely to be sold, but the price of a complete edition is estimated to be around $35 million, and individual leaves from dismembered copies reach up to $150,000.


In the spirit of Gutenberg, however, a facsimile of one of the loveliest of the Bibles is shortly to be published by Taschen. This edition is based on the richly illuminated copy held in the Göttingen Library, one of the few surviving vellum copies in the world. It also comes with a companion book written by Stephan Füssel, Gutenberg-Chair at Mainz University, which places the book in its historical context and provides an introduction to Gutenberg himself. The facsimile is a thing of beauty, something to pore over both as a lovely object and one of the defining inventions of the modern age.


The Gutenberg Bible of 1454 will be published by in July, and will retail for £100.

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