Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Primary Source Education Modules > Gutenberg Bible > The Invention > A Familiar Format
The Invention  -  Books Before and After  -  Johann Gutenberg  -  Facts about the Book  -  Activities  -  Glossary  -  Teacher Resources


A Familiar Format

What are the similarities and differences between Gutenberg's Bible and manuscript Bibles from the same time period?

Genesis, Volume 1, Page 005r.
13th-Century Bible from England, HRC MS. NO. 26, Page 4v
Which would be easier to read from a podium? The Gutenberg Bible measures 16 1/4 x 11 3/4 inches. The 13th-century manuscript Bible measures 7 1/4 x 5 1/8 inches.

Psalms, Volume 1, Page 293r
13th-Century Bible from England, HRC MS. NO. 26, Page 236r
Although the style of illumination varies between the manuscript and printed Bible, notice how Gutenberg followed the manuscript format for Psalms by allowing space for rubricated initials at the beginning of all verses, making them easily followed for singing. The large decorated "B" in both Bibles marks the beginning of the Book of Psalms.

Beauty or Economy?

Some scholars believe that in printing the Bible, Gutenberg intended to demonstrate that his new invention could produce a book as beautiful as any manuscript. Others believe that keeping the Bible affordable to churches and monasteries was his primary concern.

Choosing a large Bible as his first important printing project required researching potential buyers of the books. Gutenberg was aware that the greatest users of books included monasteries, universities, nobility, and princes of the church.

Large, easy-to-read Bibles became fashionable in the 15th century. They were used by priests reading mass to the congregation, by monks for reading during meals in monasteries, and by students in universities or nobles for private study. Gutenberg would have selected a manuscript Bible he considered accurate and beautifully handwritten to serve as the printer's model. This manuscript would have been divided into sections to be used by each compositor working in Gutenberg's shop.

40 lines in Epistle of St. Jerome, Volume 1, Page 001r
41 lines in Genesis, Volume 1, Page 005v
42 lines in Genesis, Volume 1, Page 010v
The earliest sections to be printed had 40 lines per column. Gutenberg increased the number of lines per column briefly to 41 and then to a standard of 42 lines per column.
Increasing the number of lines per column on a page meant less paper was needed to print the edition of Bibles.

Saving Paper

Several differences distinguish Gutenberg's printed Bible from many manuscript Bibles. These differences center on the economical use of paper and include both increasing the number of lines on a page and letting text run without a page break from one book of the Bible to another.

Why would Gutenberg be concerned with using less paper?

Unlike a scribe who takes an order for a book before he begins the work, Gutenberg started to print an edition of 150 to 180 before he had buyers. This meant he and his partners invested large amounts of money in equipment and paper before receiving money from sales. Decreasing the amount of paper needed for the edition would decrease the amount of money they needed to invest in the project.

Volume 2, Page 310r
13th-Century Bible from England, HRC MS. NO. 26, Page 384v
One way to distinguish between Gutenberg's printed Bible and a manuscript Bible is that in the printed book, all lines of text are brought to equal length in the column, forming justified lines. The strictly justified lines of Gutenberg's Bible were considered by some to be superior to the slightly uneven lines of a manuscript Bible.

Controversy and Swiftly Spreading Technology

Debate arose over the quality of a printed Bible compared to a manuscript Bible. Some considered printing superior for the consistency of layout, accuracy of text, and the large easily read letters. Others believed handwritten Bibles were more beautiful.

Demand for books was great in university and large trading cities, and printing spread rapidly across Europe. In Germany alone an estimated 300 print shops were operating by 1500. Gutenberg's Bible was so influential that the text of all Bibles printed in Europe during the next fifty years, with one possible exception, were based on his model.

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