Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Primary Source Education Modules > Gutenberg Bible > Books Before and After > The World Beyond
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The World Beyond

In the years immediately following the printing of the Gutenberg Bible, communities all over the world adopted European printing techniques. Books, however, continued to be produced in traditional forms to suit the needs, resources, and cultural tastes of each society.

Thai book referred to as a strip-style book
HRC Eastern Manuscripts #7

Thai book referred to as a strip-style book
HRC Eastern Manuscripts #7

Thai accordion-style book
HRC Eastern Manuscripts Collection

Thai accordion-style book
HRC Eastern Manuscripts Collection

The social and environmental conditions of communities influenced the different forms of books all over the world.

In eastern Asia, books were made from a variety of local materials, including bamboo, tree bark, and palm leaves. Unfortunately, humidity and hungry insects have taken their toll on ancient manuscripts, and very few survive. Paper is especially attractive to insects. In the 19th century, Christian missionaries in India tried adding arsenic to their paper pulp in an effort to preserve their religious texts from these destructive pests.

A common type of book used throughout Asia was the strip book. Thin sheets of palm leaves or birch bark were cut into slats or strips. Then, a leather, silk, or rope cord was threaded through holes drilled into the slats. The palm leaf pages were then pressed between two pieces of wood or bark for storage, which kept the slats in place and to protected them from the humidity.

Another form of book was the accordion book, so called because it folds into pleats and resembles the bellows of an accordion. Constructed from birch bark or paper, both sides of the pages were used for writing and illustration. In the Ransom Center's example, thick paper rectangles are joined by thin paper hinges glued to both sides of the pages. If the hinge wears out, it is a small matter to re-glue another without damaging either the text or illustrations. The finished book was pressed between covers made of wood or, sometimes leather.

As we have seen, the Chinese invented paper sometime during the 2nd century CE. Before paper became widely used, the Chinese also wrote on silk scrolls and thin bamboo or wooden slat books. Paper scrolls and accordion books, however, were used almost exclusively after the 5th century CE.

These examples come from Thailand, formerly called Siam. Present day Thailand is located in southeastern Asia, southeast of India and south of China.

Ethiopian Bible in a leather strap case. 18th century.
HRC Eastern Manuscripts #2

Ethiopian Bible in a leather strap case. 18th century.
HRC Eastern Manuscripts #2

Armenian Lectionary leaf written on early paper. 1121 CE.
HRC Eastern Manuscripts Collection

Books were produced in different languages and different styles according to the needs of the people who used them.

Before Gutenberg's printing methods became widespread, all books were handwritten. Some hand-produced books, however, continued to be made even after printed books were available.

The 18th century Bible on this page comes from Ethiopia. The Bible is handwritten in Ge'ez, the language of the Ethiopian church; it has a wooden cover, and is stored in a leather case with a strap. These small, portable Bibles were meant for personal use, not to be displayed in a church or used in services. Christianity came to the Ethiopian region around the 4th century, and Bibles were soon produced in the local language.

The Christian Bible was one of the first texts to be translated and printed in other languages. Even today, it is the world's most frequently printed book.

In 1054, the Christian Church separated into the Western and the Eastern Church. The official language of the Western Church was Latin, while the official language of the Eastern Church was Greek. Farther east, Bibles were translated into Arabic, Armenian, and Georgian languages, to name a few. The Bible on this page came from Armenia.

Korean type; 18th century
HRC Eastern Manuscripts #47

Korean type; 18th century
HRC Eastern Manuscripts #47

Scholars still debate whether Johann Gutenberg was influenced by technologies developed in Asia around the same period.

Scholars have noted that there are striking similarities between Gutenberg's invention and printing innovations made in Asia around the same period. In 1403, 47 years before the first printing from movable type in Europe, the Korean King set up a book factory and employed 14 woodcutters, 8 typecasters, 40 compositors, and 20 printers. They produced hundreds of thousands of pieces of copper type.

A single wooden punch was impressed in a rectangular block of clay. The clay hardened, and then became a mold. Molten metal was poured into the mold to make a piece of type.

Gutenberg used a press to imprint the paper; the Korean technique did not use a press. The printers laid a sheet of paper over the inked type, and then rubbed the top of the paper with a spatula until the ink left an impression. This printing process was very slow.

Further complicating Korean printing efforts was the need to cast thousands of ideograms into movable pieces of type. An ideogram is a character or symbol that represents an idea or a thing without expressing the pronunciation of a particular word or words for it. In contrast, Gutenberg needed to cast a much simpler alphabet and punctuation marks. After some years, Koreans went back to using wood block printing, presumably because of the difficulty of casting such vast amounts of type.

Silk, gunpowder, paper, and porcelain were among the technological innovations that found their way from Asia into Europe. Some scholars believe that movable type could have come to Europe by the Silk Road, the ancient trade route between China and the Mediterranean Sea. Others believe that it was a parallel innovation, with no clear connection.

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