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Primary Source Education Modules > Gutenberg Bible > Books Before and After > Gutenberg's Legacy
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Gutenberg's Legacy

The Book Fool, who collects books, yet gathers no wisdom from them. From Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools (Das Narrenschiff), 1497.

An illustration of the Mandrake, or Mandragora plant. Mandrake was used as anesthetic during the Middle Ages. It was believed that the root, which was thought to resemble a man, shrieked when pulled from the ground, and would drive anyone who heard it insane. This is from an herbal called the Hortus Sanitatis, printed by Peter Schoeffer, Gutenberg's former assistant, in 1485. Herbals were manuals used to identify plants for medicinal purposes.

An illustration of an elephant from an herbal called the Hortus Sanitatis, printed by Peter Schoeffer in 1485. Some herbals included beasts, like this one.

The Infancy of Printing

Books printed on presses before the year 1501 are called incunabula, which comes from a word meaning "cradle" or "birthplace" in Latin. Although printing was certainly in its infancy prior to 1501, the actual printing process of using movable type on a wooden press did not change a great deal over the next 350 years. There were, however, changes made to the format of books, such as the addition of title pages where medieval scribes simply added their own name, the date of completion, and perhaps a small prayer to the end of their manuscripts. Also, by the beginning of the 16th century, page numbers had made their appearance.

Because medieval readers expected books to contain a combination of text and images, printers quickly began to incorporate woodcut images between blocks of text. This innovation eliminated the need for hand painting and saved both time and money while sustaining the text and illustration format that continued to be important during the Renaissance. It is estimated that a third of all incunabula were illustrated, and images continued to be hand-colored into the 18th century.

The Divine Institutes (Divinarum institutionum) by Lactantius, a 4th century Christian writer. This is the second book to be printed in Italy (1465). Notice the change in printing type, or font, from the Gutenberg Bible.

Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye by Raoul Lefevre. Lefevre's popular telling of the Trojan War was the first book printed in the English language. It was printed and translated by William Caxton, who was living in Bruges, located in Flanders (modern day Belgium), in either 1473 or 1474. Pforzheimer Library, HRC.
Notice the sewn repair. Tears in parchment (scraped goat or calf skin) were commonly repaired by sewing, so it is unusual to see a paper book repaired in this way. This was probably an early repair made by someone who was more familiar with parchment books.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, or The Strife of Love in a Dream by Francesco Colonna. Printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius in 1499. Despite its unpronounceable title, Colonna's book, with its theme of unrequited love set in dream sequences, was a popular favorite. The highly readable printing type cascading across the page suitably harmonizes with the delicate woodblock prints, shown here, the triumphal procession of elephants and nymphs. Compare the quality of these images to those of the Hortus Sanitatis. Aldine Collection, HRC.

Aristotole's Works, edited and printed by Aldus Manutius, Venice, 1495. These smaller, more affordable books were the first to use italic type, which allowed the printer to pack more text on each page. The Aldine Press was one of the first to print regular runs of 1000 copies of their books. The usual output of a printer at this time was probably around 200. Aldine Collection, HRC.

The Spread of Printing

Gutenberg's printing technology quickly spread from Mainz to Subiaco in Italy (1465), Paris (1470), and London (1476). By the beginning of the 16th century, there were approximately 240 printing shops in Europe. The first press in the Americas was set up in Mexico City less than 50 years after Columbus's first voyage. The first press in what is now the United States was set up in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1638 and began printing in 1639, only 19 years after the arrival of the Mayflower. The first items printed were a Freeman's Oath, an almanac for 1639, and in 1640 the Bay Psalm Book.

It has been estimated that there were perhaps 30,000 books in all of Europe before Gutenberg printed his Bible; less than 50 years later, there were as many as 10 to 12 million books.

Although many of the first books printed were the popular religious texts of the medieval period, many classical Greek and Roman texts were also published, fueling the rediscovery of the ancient world so crucial for Renaissance humanists. After all, Renaissance means "rebirth," and while interest in the classical writers existed during the middle ages, the sheer number of copies rolling off the printing presses broadened access of these books to more people than ever before.

The printers during this time were also scholars who were not happy with merely copying texts word for word, as did medieval scribes; they corrected the errors they found in the manuscripts. One of the greatest scholar printers was Aldus Manutius in Venice, who published cheaper, portable, easy-to-read versions of classical literature for scholars and students.

Dante's The Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia), printed by Johann Neumeister in 1472. The Inferno, Book I, beginning of Canto 3, Dante passes through the gateway to hell with its ominous warning to "abandon all hope" ("Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate"). This book, published in Italian, was so popular that two other editions came out this same year by different printers; this is the first.

The end of the Cook's Tale and the beginning of the Man of Law's Prologue from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. This is a page from the first published edition of The Canterbury Tales printed in Westminster by William Caxton around 1478. Caxton moved his press from Flanders to England in 1476. Caxton was unusual for his time, because he printed most of his books in English rather than Latin. Consequently, he was able to eliminate competition from printers in other countries.

The Vernacular

More and more books began to be published in local languages, rather than Latin. Before the year 1500, three quarters of all books were written in Latin. This figure would quickly be reversed. English editions of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Italian editions of Dante's Divine Comedy were some of the early successes. Printing in the local language made reading available to people who did not know Latin, including many women. Moreover, spelling started to become standardized. Local languages were strengthened, and translations became common, leading to a decline in the use of Latin, apart from in the Church and universities.

A map of the world with fantastical creatures from Hartmann Schedel's The Nuremberg Chronicle (Liber chronicarum), 1493. The Chronicle is a history of the world from its creation to the 15th century.
This map was based upon that of Ptolemy, an Egyptian geographer, in the 2nd century C.E. and therefore does not reflect the discovery of the Americas by Columbus. The world is surrounded by the 12 winds and the three sons of Noah, who represent the three known continents of the time — Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The Tower of Babel from Hartmann Schedel's The Nuremberg Chronicle (Liber chronicarum), 1493. Printed in Nuremberg by Anton Koberger, and illustrated by Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleyenwurff. There are 1809 illustrations made from 645 woodblocks, meaning that some images were repeated several times. For example, several cities were represented by the same woodblock print. Albrecht Dürer, perhaps the greatest German artist of the Renaissance period, was an apprentice in Wolgemut's studio, and may have had a hand in creating some of the illustrations.


The Catholic Church quickly realized the potential of the printing press as a challenge to its influence. Censorship was introduced into the print shop in 1487, when Pope Innocent VIII required that Church authorities approve all books before publication. The Church had censored books for centuries, though it became much more difficult to do so after the invention of printing. Controlling a dozen painfully copied manuscripts of a forbidden text may have been a manageable task, but controlling the thousands of copies churning off the presses every year was quite another matter. One of these forbidden texts was the Bible printed in any other language than Latin.

Illustration of burning books from Hartmann Schedel's The Nuremberg Chronicle (Liber chronicarum), 1493. The illustrations were colored by hand. Koberger published both a Latin and a German edition of the Chronicle in the same year.

The Reformation

The Protestant Reformation movement began in 1517 with Martin Luther and his insistence that all Christians be able to read the Bible in their own language. The printing press helped to spread his message and eventually end the hold of the Catholic Church over much of northern Europe. The press as a tool of political and cultural change ensured the world would never be the same again. News of scientific and geographic discoveries now quickly circulated. Medical texts were published with detailed anatomical illustrations. Mass communication became possible on a scale that was unparalleled. Gutenberg the man may still be a mystery, but his invention helped to enlighten the world in a way that was impossible with manuscripts.

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