Even with a print run of fewer than 200 copies, the Gutenberg Bible was a major undertaking. A complete copy, like the Ransom Center’s, includes 1,277 large pages that have text printed on them. Each full page required that approximately 2,500 individual pieces of metal type be set by hand, one at a time. And some pages had to be set twice, because Gutenberg decided to increase the Bible’s print run. With some rough multiplication, we end up with well over 3,000,000 times that someone had to pick up a piece of type and put it into a page forme and, then, after all copies of that page had been printed, take that piece of type out of the page forme and put it back so it could be used again. I think we’d all agree that that’s a lot of work.
When Johann Gutenberg and his team published their Bible in the mid-1450s, what they were selling to buyers were sets of sheets, sheets of either paper or parchment that had text printed on them. What they were not selling were books—not, at least, if we take “book,” as we usually do, to imply a codex that is ready to read by turning a series of leaves held together at one edge. As I have written before, when a monastery, church, or private individual bought a Bible from Gutenberg, they had to find a scribe to add red text to spaces that the printers had left blank. Gutenberg’s customers had to find bookbinders, too.
In order to understand the Gutenberg Bible, it is critical to remember that it is a medieval book that was designed to satisfy the needs of medieval readers. Today, we expect pages in most books to be black and white. To navigate what we read, we rely on variations in typography, centered text, indents, and other creative uses of white space. [Read more…] about Printing manuscripts